Monday, May 2, 2022

History Of Calbee Part 1 - 1973 to 1977

2022 is the 50th year that Calbee has been doing baseball cards so I thought it might be interesting to do a series of posts covering their history.  My goal is to do one of these a month between now and October - I was hoping to get this one done in April but I didn't quite make it so there'll probably be another one later this month.

I had originally planned on doing a post for each decade but the 1970's Calbee sets are a bit complicated (especially the 1977-79 issues) so I'm going to tackle them in two posts.  This post will talk about the first four Calbee sets issued between 1973 and early 1977.

In 1949 Takashi Matsuo founded a confectionary company in Hiroshima called the Matsuo Food Industry Co.  One of their first products was something called a "Calbee Carmel" - Matsuo coined the word "Calbee" by combining "calcium" and "vitamin B".  He changed the company name to Calbee in 1955 and the company started making potato chips in 1964.  It's probably completely coincidental but Calbee started issuing baseball cards with bags of potato chips the same year that the company moved their corporate headquarters to Tokyo.

I want to give a little context about the state of the Japanese baseball card scene prior to Calbee's arrival - there essentially wasn't one.  The rich variety of menko, bromide and candy/gum cards that had flourished in the first ten years or so after the war had kind of narrowed into mostly just "tobacco" menko by the early 60's.  There were very few baseball cards issued in the years between the last menko sets in 1964 and Calbee's first set in 1973 - the most significant of course being the 1967 Kabaya-Leaf set.  Calbee's success would lead to Yamakatsu, NST and Nippon-Ham all issuing cards in the mid-70's.

One note - I am not going to get into the myriad of variations and checklist oddities (some card numbers were never issued, other card numbers were reused) that plague these sets.  The post would take forever to finish if I did.

1973 Set

The first Calbee set contained 91 cards and was issued in two series in 1973.  Several of the players who appear in the sets have multiple cards - Shigeo Nagashima and Sadaharu Oh have six cards apiece and many of the Giants players in the set have between two and four cards - so there's significantly fewer than 91 players represented by the set.  This would be a standard feature of Calbee sets for years and continues to some extent to this very day - there's usually a couple players each year who have multiple "regular" player cards in "modern" Calbee sets.

Most Japanese baseball card sets today feature an equal number of players per team.  That was not the case with this set - 50 of the cards feature Giants players.  Only six other teams are represented in the set - the Tigers, Dragons, Carp, Whales, Hawks and Braves.

The card design was minimalistic - full bleed photos with a small amount of text across the bottom - and in some cases not even that.  With only a few exceptions this would essentially be Calbee's card design for the next 17 years.  At 2-3/8" by 3-1/8" the cards were just a little smaller than the American standard card size but larger than most of the previously issued Japanese cards.  The backs featured a distinctive "crossed bat" design.

Here's the front and back of the most iconic card from the set - Shigeo Nagashima's card #1:

Here's some other cards from the set, showcasing the great photography that Calbee would become know for:

#7 (Sadaharu Oh)

#37 (Isao Shibata/Shigeru Takada/Toshimitsu Suetsugu)

#38 (Yukinobu Kuroe/Shozo Doi)

#51 (Koichi Tabuchi/Yutaka Enatsu)

#56 (Masaji Hiramatsu)

#67 (Kenichi Yazawa)

1973/74 Set

In some ways you could say that the first 91 card set was almost like a test issue as those cards were repeated as the first 91 cards of the next set - for the most part the cards in the new set had the same photo on the front as the original set but a differently designed back (with team flags so this set is often referred to as the "flag back" set as opposed to the "crossed bat" set).  The entire set had 368 cards split into ten series.  The assumption has always been that the some of those were issued in 1974 (which is why this set is referred to as the "1973/74" set) but I don't know if that's actually the case.

Like the previous set, many players have multiple cards in the set.  However while the Giants still dominate the set, it includes players from all the other teams except Lotte.  As a rival snack company, Lotte would pretty much refuse to allow Calbee to include Orions players in their sets until 1985.

One intereresting part of this set is that about 44 cards in the tenth series feature events from six specific games late in the 1973 season and post-season.  The cards were labeled "exciting game" or "hot battle" cards.  There are two regular season Giants games, two games from the Pacific League playoffs when the Hawks defeated the Braves and two games from the Nippon Series when the Giants defeated the Hawks (the last of the V9 Series wins for Yomiuri).   The backs of the cards show the team flags for both teams.

Here's the front and back of a card for Akira Ejiri:

Here's some other cards from the set - I wanted to pick cards that did not also appear in the "1973" set and inadvertently picked all cards from the tenth series.  The Nomura card shows him being lifted in the air after the Hawks beat the Braves in the PL playoffs.

#302 (Kinji Shimatani)

#306 (Tsutomu Wakamatsu)

#316 (Isao Harimoto)

#319 (Osamu Higashio)

#356 (Katsuya Nomura)

1974/75 Set

At 936 cards, the next Calbee set was about two and a half times as large as the previous one.  It was issued in 21 series - the first eleven (the first 504 cards) were issued in 1974 while the remaining ten (with 432 cards) came out in 1975.
Continuing the trend from the earlier sets, the set contains way more cards of Giants players than any other team although all the other teams (except Lotte) appear in the set.  And once again, there are multiple cards for a lot of players.

For the first time I think some of the series had a theme - for some of the cards that theme was explicitly listed as a name on the cards.  Some of the themes appear to be specific teams - for example the eighteen cards in Series 2 are all Dragons and presumably were a regional issue in Chubu.  Series 3 includes only players from teams in Kansai - the Tigers, Braves, Hawks and Buffaloes and again was probably a regional issue only available in that region.  What I'd be curious about is if those series were issued concurrently or if kids in Osaka had to wait for the kids in Nagoya to buy all the potato chips first.

The card backs had black ink on them instead of the blue that the previous sets had had.  The top of the backs of cards 1-432 have "1974" on them while the later ones have the name of the card series.  Here's the front and back of a somewhat well loved copy of one of Koichi Tabuchi's cards (#103):

I'm not going to go through all the series here but I want to hit some of the more interesting ones.  The 8th series (cards 325 to 396) was entitled something like "shootout" or "hot battle" and features more cards for specific games in 1974 along the lines of the similarly named cards in the 1973/74 set.  I don't know how many games were included in the series but it looks like there are cards for games between the Giants and Tigers, the Giants and Dragons, the Giants and Whales, the Lions and Hawks, the Hawks and Braves and the Fighters and Braves.  Here's the front and back of a couple cards from this series.  First is a scene from a game between the Dragons and Giants on August 28th at Korakuen Stadium:

This one is for a game between the Lions and Hawks on September 15th at Osaka Stadium:

Series 9 (cards 397 to 432) is the "ON Series" and all the cards feature Shigeo Nagashima or Sadaharu Oh.  This series includes cards commemorating Nagashima's retirement game on October 14th, 1974.  Here's a couple cards from this series - the last two are from the retirement game.  One of them shows Nagashima heading home after hitting his 444th and final career home run.




Series 13 (cards 577 to 648) are the "spring camp" series and feature photos of players in spring training in 1975.  Here's a couple examples:

#599 (Atsushi Nagaike)

#634 (Hiromitsu Kadota)

The next series is labeled "Opening Series" and runs from card 648 to 719 (and, yeah, #648 appears twice in the set).  These ostensibly feature photos from the first games of the 1975 season like this one of Toshimitsu Suetsugu of the Giants in their game on April 5th:


There's a much more interesting subset in this series though.  The Giants did spring training in 1975 in Vero Beach, Florida as guests of the Dodgers and about 23 cards or so of this series (from card 693 to 715 or 716) use photos taken there.  Here's a couple examples, including Sadaharu Oh taking batting practice while being surrounded by Atlanta Braves:

#695 (Sadaharu Oh)

#701 (Toshimitsu Suetsugu)

1975/76 Set

The next Calbee set started in the middle of 1975.  Well, kind of.  See, I'm not sure Calbee really thought of this as "the next set".  What they did, though, is reset the card numbers so that the next series of cards after the last series in what we call the "1974/75" set were numbered from 1 to 36.  The new set is somewhat misleadingly labeled the "1975/76" set - it's misleading because in reality there were series for the "set" that were released in 1977.  The set contains a whopping 1472 cards that was issued in 40(!) different series.  I'm pretty sure it's the largest Japanese baseball card set and is one of the largest sets in the world.

The first nine series were issued in 1975 and were numbered from 1 to 324 but there were actually 360 cards in this set issued that year.  How?  There are two different versions of Series 9 - one is called something like "Star History" and the other is for the Carp's appearance in the 1975 Nippon Series - so there are two different versions of cards 289 to 324.  There were 28(!) series issued in 1976 containing the 1004 cards between 325 and 1328 and then the final three series containing the last 108 cards (numbered 1329 to 1436) came out in 1977.  Once again it looks like there's a theme for each of the series - and some of those themes span series.  Also again the Giants have more cards than anyone else and many players have multiple cards.

What's kind of odd about the set is that the first series (cards 1 to 36) have backs that look like the ones from the "1974/75" set while the rest of the cards have backs with a border of alternating white and black stars.  Here's are the backs of two Sachio Kinugasa cards to illustrate this:

These backs may raise additional questions.  The series the first card is from commemorates the All Star games in 1975 - the flags represent the Central League and Pacific League.  I'll talk more about these cards in a minute.  You'll notice that the bottom card has two number - "972" which is the card's number in the overall set and "40" which is the card's number in the "Lead Battle" subset (series 27 & 28).  It looks like the cards in the series from 27 to 40 have their own numbering system in addition to the overall set's numbering.

Again I want to highlight some (but not all) of the series from the set.  As I just mentioned, Series 1 is dedicated to the three All Star games in 1975.  Here's some examples:




#18 (Senichi Hoshino/Shigeo Nagashima)

Series 8 (cards 253 to 288) all feature scenes from the 1975 Nippon Series when the Braves beat the Carp in six games.

#255 (Mitsuhiro Adachi)

#274 (Koji Yamamoto)

#279 (Tsuyoshi Ohshita on the right with Yutaka Fukumoto)


As I mentioned earlier, there are two different versions of series 9.  One of these was called "Star History" (or something like that) and featured photos of players along with a black and white photo of the player from his amateur days or early in his professional career.  Here's some examples:

#295 (Shigeo Nagashima)

#297 (Tsutomu Wakamatsu)

#321 (Isao Harimoto)

While the photo shows Harimoto with the Fighters, the back of the card indicates he's with the Giants when the card was published.  That means the card was published after November 25th, 1975.  Calbee must have been pumping these cards out year round!

The other series 9 featured Carp players in the 1975 Nippon Series.  This is kind of odd as it appears to be redundant after Series 8 but I suspect this was a regional issue that only came out in Hiroshima to celebrate the team's first ever Nippon Series appearance.  Here's a couple cards:

#299 (Jitsuo Mizutani)

#302 (Koji Yamamoto)

#320 (Gail Hopkins)

Series 10, the first series issued in 1976, represented a major change for Calbee.  For the first time the cards didn't have the full bleed photos on the front.  Instead the cards featured a magenta border with a baseball in the lower right that was somewhat evocative of the 1975 Topps card fronts (without the two-tone borders and the 3-D team name).  The series theme was something like "Pennant Race Stars" and featured photos from the 1975 season:

#326 (Sadaharu Oh)

#333 (Toshiyuki Mimura)

#352 (Katsuhiro Nakamura)

The following series which featured photos from spring training in 1976 also had the magenta borders:

#374 (Clete Boyer/Daisuke Yamashita)

#390 (Tatsuhiko Kimata)

#391 (Shigeru Takada/Takashi Yoshida)

The card design reverted back to the full bleed photos for Series 12.  Series 12 and 13 have a bunch of oddball cards in them.  First of all, there are three cards dedicated to the installation of artificial turf at Korakuen Stadium, the first ballpark with fake grass in Japan.  I only have two of the cards but you can see the one I'm missing here.



By the way, you might think that the card I'm missing is #407 as it would make sense that the three artificial turf cards would be sequential but you'd be wrong - the other card is #422.

These two series also contain cards featuring the 1975 league leaders in various statistical categories in both leagues.  By that I mean there's TWO cards - one for each league.  Each card has small photos of the league leaders - ten on the PL card and eight on the CL card.  I think the PL card is the first Calbee card to feature a Lotte Orions player (Choji Murata twice!) but I could be wrong:



These two series also include cards that show the manager and eleven players for each team (except Lotte).  I have the cards for the Braves and Buffaloes:



There's a couple series that are labeled "hot battle" like the cards in the two earlier sets.  Series 16 & 17 (cards 537 to 608) were for games in April while series 19 & 20 (cards 645 to 716) were for games in May & June.  I think there are some more series for games later in the season but I'm not positive.  Unlike the "hot battle" cards in the earlier sets though, I don't think many of these cards have the team flags for both teams in the game on the back.  I only have one card that has both flags - it depicts a game between the Lions and Braves at Nishinomiya Stadium on April 28th with Matty Alou batting against Mitsuhiro Adachi with Masahiro Doi leading off second:

Sadaharu Oh hit the 700th home run of his career on July 23rd, 1976 and Calbee dedicated all of series 23 (cards 789 to 824) to him - he's on all 36 cards in the series although some of the cards also include other players.  I don't have any cards from this series but Sean did a post about it.  

Series 24 & 25 (cards 861 to 932) are dedicated to the three All Star games from 1976:

#882 (Koichi Tabuchi)

#911 (Masahiro Doi)

#931 (Katsuya Nomura)

Series 30 to 34 are kind of confusing.  Remember how I mentioned earlier that the Sachio Kinugasa card I showed the back for had a second card number on it?  Calbee went kind of crazy with this in these series.  The Giants won the Central League pennant in 1976, their first pennant in three seasons.  Calbee did a "Giants V1" subset, all the card in which had a second card number.  But the cards were scattered across several series with cards 1 to 19 appearing in series 30, 20 to 40 appearing in series 31, 41 to 58 in series 33 (that's not a typo, they skipped series 32) and cards 59 to 79 in series 34.  Now where this gets confusing is that not all the cards in each of these series were "Giants V1" cards.  Each series had 36 cards - the other cards in series 30 were cards 1 to 17 of a subset called something like "76 Title Chase".  Series 31 contained more cards from this subset (cards 18 to 32).  Series 32 was all something like "Clash Lead Battle" - all 36 cards in the series were in that subset.  Series 33 had cards from THREE different subsets - besides the "V1 Giants" cards it also had cards from the "76 Title Chase" (cards 33 to 41) and cards 1 to 7 from a subset for the PL Champion Braves.  Series 34 also had cards from three different subsets - the Giants one, the "76 Title Chase" (cards 42 to 49) and a "Giants vs Hanshin" one (cards 1 to 7).  Here's the front and back of Clyde Wright's "Giants V1" card - card #17 in the subset and #1073 in the overall set:

Apparently having the 79 cards of the "V1 Giants" subset wasn't enough for Calbee to celebrate the Giants pennant.  Series 35 (cards 1221 to 1256) was labeled the "Nagashima Giants Glory V1" and again each card had a separate number (1 to 36).  Mercifully this subset was contained in the same series and the series only contained these cards.  Here's some examples:

#1222 (Davey Johnson)

#1242 (Shigeo Nagashima)

#1252 (Sadaharu Oh/Isao Harimoto)

Series 36 features highlights from the 1976 Nippon Series in which the Braves beat the Giants in seven games.  And, yeah, each card again has a separate number for the "1976 Nippon Series" subset.

#1275 (Shigeru Takada)


#1291 (Isao Harimoto)

The final series, series 40, was issued in early 1977, and contained a "Rivals" subset - each card of which featured two players who are somehow linked.  I only have one card from this subset but I don't know how Kenichi Yazawa of the Dragons and Satoru Yoshioka of the Lions were linked:


One Last Note

There are actually two schools of thought about how the Calbee sets from these years should be treated.  The most common view is the way I'm treating them and the way they're labelled in Engel - as four separate sets, three of which were issued in multiple years.  The other way to treat them is simply by year - there's a 1973 set containing 459 cards (numbered 1-91 and 1-368), a 1974 set containing just 504 cards, a 1975 set containing 685 cards (325 cards numbered 505-936 and 360 cards numbered 1 to 324 with numbers 289 to 324 appearing twice) and a 1976 set containing 1004 cards numbered 325 to 1328.  While this may sound odd, it's exactly how Sports Card Magazine listed the sets.  They didn't list the cards from 1977 because the 1977-79 Calbee sets are even more confusing that these sets were.  I'll be writing about them later this month.

I wanted to credit some sources for the information in this post - Sean's attempting to complete the 1975/76 set (the "monster" as he puts it) so his posts about it were very helpful as were Ryan's (1973, 1973/74, 1974/75, 1975/76).  The Calbee Collector (my name for the website) was also useful.  My copy of the 1973 Calbee book came in handy as well as Sports Card Magazine and Engel.


GTT said...

I love those Calbee cards, and that was a very good post about them.

Nick Vossbrink said...

I love the photography on many of these. Really wish I had an idea what was on the backs though.

Sean said...

This is such a fantastic post, you did a great job of organizing a lot of information into a very useful resource.

I'm looking forward to seeing your future entries into this series of posts. Together they could form an extremely useful guidebook for Calbee collectors that contains a lot of information that isn't captured by the descriptions in Engel (and which at best can currently only be found in disorganized blog posts and random sites scattered throughout the net).

That is also interesting that Choji Murata is on that Pacific Leaders card from the 75/76/77 set, I hadn't noticed that before even though I have it.

I don't envy you the task of putting together the next post on that dreaded 1977 to 1979 chaos, though Once you get through that it should be smoother sailing!

NPB Card Guy said...

Thanks for the compliments on the post. Sean, two things are going to save me on the 1977-79 post. One is the fact that they're broken down by series in the "1973 Calbee" book and the other is the fact that I don't have many cards from any of the sets so I won't be faced with difficult decisions about which cards to show in the post! I think the post on the 80's cards is going to be kind of monotonous as all I really can say for each set is something like "the 1983 set has x number of cards..." since I don't know how they were broken down by series. Plus they all look alike with the exception of that one series in 1984.