Japanese Baseball Cards 1973-90 

In 1974, the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants reign came to an end.  Prior to 1974, the Giants had won 19 of the 24 Central League pennants.  Since 1974, the league has become more competitive and the Giants have only captured 10 pennants in 28 years.  The highlight of the 1970s was Sadaharu Oh hitting his 756 homerun in September 1977.  He retired in 1980.  New stars emerged in the 1970s and 1980s.  The Hiroshima Carp’s Sachio Kinugasa broke Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played, while teammate Koji Yamamoto led the team to five championships.  Yutaka Fukumoto of the Hankyu Braves broke Lou Brock’s world record for most stolen bases.  Japan’s greatest player of the 1980s, Hiromistu Ochiai, picked up three triple crowns but also managed to alienate most of the baseball world through his outspoken predictions.

Baseball cards proliferated during this period.  Numerous companies produced sets ranging from 8 to 1,436 cards.  Menko were still produced in small quantities.  Many menko from the 1970s were produced on heavy stock and are thus known as “thick menko.”  None, however, dominated the market like Calbee Potato Chip cards.  In 1973, Calbee produced its first modern baseball card set of 91 cards.  A single card was included in each package of Calbee snack food - Calbee collectors needed to eat (or throw out) a lot of potato chips!  Since 1973, Calbee has produced at least one baseball set each year.  The number of cards in each set varies greatly from the mammoth 1, 436 card 1975/76 set to the small 1993 set of 144 cards. Calbee cards come in four sizes.  From 1973 to 1980, the cards were slightly smaller than standard American cards.  During the 1980 series, they reduced the card size to roughly the same as the 1950 Bowman cards.  This size was kept until 1990, when the company once again changed the size in mid-series, this time to the size of telephone cards.  In 1998, the cards were increased to the size of modern American cards. 

 Calbee cards are the most widely collected cards in Japan.  Putting together the pre-1989 sets is extremely difficult.  Not only were the cards only available with the chips, they were issued in series.  Much like Topps high numbers, some series were produced in short quantity.  Calbee also produced insert cards and redemption cards during some years.  These cards are highly sought after.  Only a handful of collectors have put together all the Calbee sets.

​Although Calbee was the most important producer of Japanese cards during the 1970s and 1980s, other companies also produced sets during this period.  Between 1976 and 1981, Yamakatsu issued at least eleven sets.  Unlike many other 1970s issues, Yamakatsu cards were sold solely as collectibles and did not accompany another product.  Yamakatsu cards generally have "pure" fronts containing only a color picture and printed backs relating facts about the pictured player. The cards are very high quality, printed on thick stock with crystal clear glossy pictures.  They are among the best looking of all the modern Japanese issues.  Yamakatsu began with large (6 ¾ by 9 13/16 inch) cards in their basic sets with even larger (up to 12 by 18 inches) premium cards.  Over the years, the cards became gradually smaller.  A postcard-size set was issued in 1977, followed by a gorgeous 1978 set that contained cards roughly the same size as modern American cards.  Sets from 1979 and 1980 shrunk to the size of 1950 Bowman cards.

NST also issued several large sets aimed at collectors. NST produced high quality color “stamps” printed on thin glossy paper.  Collectors glued or taped the “stamps” into an accompanying album.  The “stamps” do not list the depicted players’ names or teams.  These are contained in captions below the “stamps” place in the album.  NST “stamps” were sold in colorful packs usually containing eight stamps and an insert card.  The insert cards were printed on cardboard stock but were otherwise identical to the “stamps”.  NST’s first set of 288 “stamps,” honoring Shigeo Nagashima, came out in 1975.  Although the set contains many Nagashima “stamps,” it also contains other stars and many Giants players.  The second set of 324 “stamps,” issued in 1977, contained more stars from around the league and featured a Sadaharu Oh subset that included a “stamp” with both Oh and Hank Aaron.  NST’s sets from 1978 and 1983 focused exclusively on the Yomiuri Giants.  They also issued a set in 1979 focusing on the Hanshin Tigers.


Several other important food-issue sets were released in this period.  In 1975, Nippon Ham Sausage issued their first set of baseball cards.  Each packet of sausage included a card.  The cards are not individually numbered making them difficult to checklist, but so far over 80 different cards have been identified.  Nippon Ham issued a second set in 1977 and a third set honoring Sadaharu Oh in 1978.  In 1978, Pino Ice Cream randomly inserted baseball cards in packages of their frozen Dessert Choco Balls.  So far, 17 regular issue cards and roughly six postcard-size 3-d premiums cards have been located from this set.  Pino cards are very rare.

In 1989 and 1990, the Lotte candy company produced sets of 120 cards.  Cards were roughly telephone card size and contained attractive action photos on the front and statistics on the back.  They were sold in packs containing one card and a piece of gum.  Both sets are heavily collected, but the 1989 Lotte cards are especially desirable.  Also in 1989, Mermaid Data Cards were issued in Gumi Jelly and Ice Candy.  Each candy pack included a glossy card and a sticker.  Individual cards from this set of 50 are common, but completely the entire set is a challenge.

During the 1970s, two American manufacturers issued cards depicting Japanese players.  Beginning in 1974, Ed Broder produced five unlicensed sets including a set honoring the Mets 1974 tour of Japan, a 1974 Hiroshima Carp team set, 1976 Yomiuri Giants team set, and sets focusing on Japanese stars and Americans playing in Japan in 1975 and 1976.  In 1979, TCMA also issued a 90-card set entitled “Japanese Pro Baseball.”  The set includes star Japanese players and most of the Americans to play in Japan during that season.  Although the 1982 Superstars set included a Sadaharu Oh card, no more sets focusing on Japanese baseball were issued in the United States until the 42-card 1987 Play Ball Japan set.  This attractive set includes most of the stars playing in the 1980s and many of the gaijin from the 1987 season.

In 1978, Takara introduced a baseball strategy game with an individual card for each player.  Card fronts included the player's picture and statistics while the backs contained potential outcomes of at bats based on the player's actual statistics.  Participants rolled dice and checked the back of a card for the results of each at bat.  Takara cards were sold in boxed team sets containing 30 cards, the game rules, and paper playing board.  Although from 1978 to 1980 the sets only included Central League teams, Takara produced 30 players for all the Japanese teams between 1981 and 1998.  In 1984, Takara also issued a simpler version of the card on thick stock, called Takara Kids.  Takara sets include many players' true rookie cards and the only cards of many gaijin players.  Many collectors, however, do not count Takara cards as rookies.  For example, the 1991 BBM and 1991 Calbee cards are considered by most to be Hideo Nomo’s rookie card even through he has a 1990 Takara card.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s several companies tried, with limited success, to enter the Japanese card market.  I.S.T. issued small sets of menko, stickers, and other cards in 1988 and 1989.  Many, if not all, of thee sets were unauthorized as the cards do not depict team logos and often misspell players’ names.  These cards had colorful drawings of star players on their fronts and player information on their backs.  Because of the use of caricatures rather than photographs, these oddball cards are not popular with collectors.

Yamakatsu and NST Cards

American Issues

Food Cards

Calbee Cards

Takara & Menko