The early to mid 1990's would end up being probably the most diverse period in Calbee history. They experimented with card fronts that were radically different from anything they had done before or since. They had a couple regional issues that were completely separate sets rather than just a series in a set. And they even gave the cards away with products other than potato chips.
Calbee's 1990 set started off much the same way the previous nine sets had started. The first series contained 55 cards that were the same size (2" x 2 5/8") that Calbee's cards had been since midway through 1980. The fronts, though, were a major departure from what they had done before. They had a color banner across the bottom where the player's name and team were printed. The player's uniform number appeared in a circle on the left side of the banner. The backs had a block of text about the player printed in blue ink. Once again, the player's name in English appeared on the back of the card:
But just like they did back in 1980, Calbee changed the size of the cards after the first series (OK, it's not exactly like 1980 where they changed the size of the cards DURING the second series), All the cards after the first series are phone card sized (2 1/8" x 3 3/8") and have rounded corners. The fronts of of the cards are just borderless photos with the player's name in English superimposed over the photo. These are the first Calbee cards to have the English names on the front - I can't help but wonder if again these cards were influenced by the 1989 and 1990 Lotte sets as the design looks very similar to the 1989 csrds (including the rounded corners) and the 1990 Lotte cards were the first Japanese cards to have the player's name in English on the front.
Like the 1980 set, Engel splits the 1990 Calbee cards into two distinct sets - cards 1-55 as the "Calbee Small" set and cards 56-217 as the "Calbee Telephone Size". The larger cards were issued in three series - each one had fewer cards than the series before. Series Two had 72 cards, Series Three had 54 cards and Series Four had 36. There were 217 total cards (including both sizes) which was the smallest number of cards Calbee had ever issued in one year.
The backs of the larger cards were printed with black ink. Most of the cards numbered between 56 and 141 show the player's statistics between 1987 and 1989. The other cards (the ones between 56 and 141 that don't show stats and all the cards from 142 to 217) have a block of text about the player. Here's one of the Series Two cards that shows the statistics:
I don't have any Series Three cards to include here.
The Series Four cards all had a gold border around them and featured players who had won titles and awards for the 1990 season. There were similar series in several of Calbee's sets in the 1980's but I believe this is the last time they did something like this. I think both Series Three and Four are rare.
Calbee's 1991 cards looked very much like their larger 1990 cards. Once again the cards were phone card sized with rounded corners and featured full bleed photos with the player's name in English on the front. The backs didn't look as much like the 1990 cards although they also had black ink and for the most part showed the player's recent statistics.
At 212 cards, this set was five cards smaller than the 1990 set so Calbee's set shrinkage continued. As far as I can tell, the set was issued in six series - Series One was cards 1-36, Series Two was cards 37-71, Series Three was cards 72-107, Series Four was cards 108-140, Series Five was cards 141-176 and Series Six was cards 177-212. As far as I can tell there weren't any differences in the cards from each series other than the text at the bottom right of the backs that identified the card number range of the series the card was from. Here's some example cards from each of the first four series - I don't have any cards from Series Five or Six:
Engel mentions that the 1991 Calbee set had been collated into sets by a US importer. I don't know any details about that but it may explain why cards from this set seems to be relatively common in the US.
1992 was pretty much more of the same for Calbee. The cards again were phone card sized and featured a full bleed photo on the front. The player's name (in English) and team name (in Japanese) appeared in a box on the lower part of the front. The backs had blue ink and featured the player's lifetime stats (up to 1991 obviously).
The set contained 213 cards that again were issued in six series - 1-36, 37-72, 83-106, 107-142, 143-177 and 178-213. And again, as far as I know there weren't any real differences in the cards in each series although I only have examples from the first two series:
In addition to the regular set, Calbee also issued a 72 card set that featured only players from the Hanshin Tigers. I assume that this was a regional issue that was probably only available in Kansai but I don't really know that for sure. The cards were identical in design to the regular cards with the only major difference being that the card numbers had a "T" prefix. I don't have any cards from this set to show off.
1993 saw Calbee issue their smallest set in 20 years - a 144 card set released in four 36 card series. The cards continued to be phone sized with rounded corners. The fronts still had full bleed photos with the player's name and team listed in English on two diagonal banners in opposite corners. Cards 1-72 actually have two variations - one in which the team name is just the nickname and is in all caps and another where the full name of the team in listed. The rest of the cards just had the nickname in all caps. The card backs are black ink and again feature the player's complete career statistics up to the previous year. Here's example cards from each series - again I don't believe there's any difference in the cards in each series:
Calbee also issued a 179 card set containing just Central League players over the 1993-94 offseason. The cards were smaller than normal - 1 7/8" by 1 15/16" - and were of very thin stock. The cards were put out in two series - 1-82 and 83-179. Instead of being sold with bags of potato chips, these cards (Engel refers to them as "seals") were sold with bags of popcorn under the name "Tokyo Snack". I don't have any of these cards.
The 1994 Calbee set was almost identical in design and how it was issued to the 1993 set. The card fronts were identical - full bleed photos with diagonal "banners" in opposite corners with the player's name and team in English on them. The back design was almost exactly the same as well - the only real difference being the text at the top of the back being updated from "1993 BASEBALL CARD" to "1994 BASEBALL CARD" (and the player's career stats now include 1993). The set contained 144 cards again although this time it was issued in five series instead of four - cards 73-108 were issued in two 18 card series instead of one 36 card series like it was in 1993. Here's an example card from each series:
Calbee also issued a 39 card regional set later in the year. These cards are a bit of a throwback for Calbee as they were their first cards since 1989 that didn't have the player's name in English on them. The card fronts were borderless with the player's name and team in Japanese across the bottom. The backs were multi-color and featured a head shot of the player - both firsts for Calbee (although BBM had started doing it the previous year). There's some evidence that the set was originally only 36 cards but three cards of Ichiro Suzuki were added to the checklist later. These are Ichiro's first Calbee cards and are quite rare - Engel warns that most of the Ichiro cards that are seen are counterfeit. Engel refers to this set as the "Hokkaido Version" but it was not limited only to Hokkaido - it apparently was also sold in the Kyushu and Sanyo regions. Here's a sample cards:
In 1995 Calbee increased the number of cards in their set for the first time since 1992. The set contained 162 cards and was issued in two series - 1-72 and 73-162. The cards remained the same size that they had been since 1990 and the backs were basically identical to those from the previous two years.
But there were two big changes this year. The first was that the front of the card didn't feature a full bleed photo but instead had a big box on the bottom that had two boxes - one with the player's name and one with his team - superimposed on top of it. The other was that instead of being given away with potato chips, the cards were given away with bags of popcorn - the same "Tokyo Snack" product that the 1993-94 "seals" were given away with. I've heard that a potato shortage in the mid-90's forced Calbee to switch to popcorn but I don't know if that's true. The Japanese wikipedia page for Calbee's baseball cards implies that the switch was due to the year-round popularity of Calbee's J-League cards. Again, I don't know if that's true or not.
Here are example cards from each of the series - I should mention that the second series was short printed and is much more rare that the first series. This Kuwata card is the only second series card I have.
Once again Calbee also issued a 72 card regional series that was only available in Tokyo and parts of Saitama. The cards were given away with some sort of chocolate snack so the set has been dubbed the "Choco" set. The cards were still the phone card size that Calbee's issues had been since 1990 but these cards featured square corners instead of rounded ones. The fronts of the cards featured full bleed photos with a small box in the lower left with the player's name and team (in English). The player's name appears in black ink but there's a parallel version of each card with the name in gold ink (but not gold foil). The backs of the cards were multicolored with a head shot of the player - very similar to the 1994 "Hokkaido" cards.
There's text on the lower right of the card backs that implies that the set was issued in two 36 card series. Here's the only two cards I have from this set - one from each series. Note that the Irabu card is the "gold ink" parallel:
1996 saw Calbee issue a 139 card set - their smallest set since their debut set in 1973. Once again the cards were phone card sized with rounded corners and once again they were issued with bags of "Tokyo Snack" popcorn instead of potato chips. The front featured full bleed photos again with a little "box with a handle" icon somewhere on the front with the player's name and team in English in it. The set was issued in two series 1-48 and 49-139. The backs of the cards were finally different than they had been between 1993 and 1995 - they had some text about the player along with their last three years of statistics. Series One cards used black ink on the back while Series Two cards used red ink. The Series Two cards are much more rare than Series One cards which may help explain why I don't have any of them. Here's a Series One card:
For the first time since 1991 there were no additional sets issued by Calbee this year.
To an evolutionary biologist the 1997 Calbee set is what would be considered a transitional form. It can perhaps be considered the first "modern" Calbee sets and it certainly resembles the Calbee sets that came after it more than the ones that preceded it.
After two years the cards were distributed with potato chips again. The set contained 237 numbered cards plus 10 separately numbered checklist cards. It was issued in three series of 72 cards each (plus three checklist cards) along with a "high number" series of 21 cards (plus one checklist card. The "high number" cards were all Giants players and they and the checklist cards are all rare.
The cards were the same size as all the cards since 1991 but had straight corners rather than rounded ones. The fronts again featured full bleed photos with the player's name, team name and uniform number plus the logo for the team at the bottom. The backs were multicolored with a head shot of the player, not unlike the backs of the 1994 "Hokkaido" cards or the 1995 "Choco" cards. Here's an example card from each of the three series - I don't have any of the "high number" or checklist cards:
My primary sources for information on this post were the Calbee Collector's site as well as the 7th Edition of Gary Engel's "Japanese Baseball Cards Checklist & Price Guide" - the last one that covers post-1990 cards.