Friday, March 17, 2023

RIP Roberto "Chico" Barbon

Sad news out of Kansai this week - the Buffaloes announced that Roberto "Chico" Barbon passed away last Sunday, one day before his 90th birthday.  The Cuban-born Barbon was the first Latin American star in NPB, joining the Hankyu Braves in 1955 after having spent the 1954 season in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization.  He would spend ten years with Hankyu, mostly as a second baseman.  He made two All Star teams (1958-59) and won a Best 9 award in 1958.  He was the second foreign player to ever lead either league in steals (following Larry Raines in 1953) and is the only foreign player to ever do it more than once.  He actually did it three times - 1958-60 - and no foreign player has led either league since.  He was the first foreign player to reach 1000 hits and his 1353 games were the most by a foreigner until Tuffy Rhodes passed him in 2007.  He was traded to the Kintetsu Buffaloes after the 1964 season and spent the final year of his career in Osaka.

Following the Cuban revolution and Fidel Castro's rise to power in early 1959, Barbon was unable to return home.  He settled in Japan, marrying a Japanese woman in the early 1960's and raising a daughter.  He ran a restaurant in Kobe for a few years after retiring as a player until Hankyu brought him back as a coach in 1974.  After two years of coaching he moved into a off field role with the team which among other things included translating for foreign players like Bobby Marcano and Boomer Wells.  

There's an amusing story about Barbon and pro wrestler Rikidozan but I'll let Sean tell it.

Barbon had a number of cards during his playing days, including various menko, bromide and gum cards.  It's kind of shame but two of his cards don't actually have his picture on them.  The most well known of these is his 1958 Doyusha JCM 30a card which instead shows Jackie Robinson.  His 1962 Marukami JCM 14e card shows teammate Larry Raines (who had returned to Japan in 1962 after eight years in MLB organizations).  

As far as I can tell, Barbon's only had five "modern" cards - 1994 BBM "Nostalgic Stars" subset, 2009 BBM Hankyu Braves Memorial set, 2012 Epoch/JPBA History Of Best Nine, 2013 BBM Legendary Foreigners and 2017 Epoch Hankyu Braves Greats.  

Here's all the cards I have of his:

1959 Doyusha Game Set

1960 Marusan JCM 12e

1960 Marusho JBR 6

1962 Marukami JCM 14e (actually shows Larry Raines)

1994 BBM #538

2009 BBM Hankyu Braves Memorial #21

2013 BBM Legendary Foreigners #01

Actually I have one more card showing him.  I mentioned that he had become Bobby Marcano's interpreter in 1976.  He has a cameo appearance on at least one of Marcano's Calbee cards from the 1975/76/77 "monster" set.  The card shows Marcano being interviewed with Barbon standing beside him:

1975/76/77 Calbee #1280

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