Baseball came to Japan in the 1870s when Horace Wilson, a teacher at Kaisei Gakko in Tokyo, introduced the game to his students in 1872 and Hiroshi Hiraoka, an engineer for the national railways, returned from studying in American and organized the Shimbashi Athletic Club in 1878. The game quickly spread and soon kimono and geta clan young men could be seen batting balls throughout Tokyo. By the end of the nineteenth century, high school and college teams existed across Japan.
There is just one known nineteenth-century Japanese baseball card. It is a round menko dating to 1897. Casting or flipping menko is a game that dates from the Edo period when the pieces were made from clay, wood or metal. There are a variety of different menko games but in the most basic, players attempt to flip over their opponent’s menko by tossing their own menko at one lying on the playing field. During the Meiji period (1868-1912) cardboard menko gradually became the dominant type. These early menko often depicted historical figures, military heroes, government officials, and generic objects such as trains, flags, and animals. Sports figures were rare although several nineteenth century sumo menko sets survive. The only identified baseball menko from this period depicts a generic player in a quitted uniform catching a ball barehanded.
By the turn of the century baseball had become the most popular high school and collegiate sport with thousands of fans watching games between rival Waseda and Keio Universities. Within a couple of decades, leagues were created to crown national champions. In 1915 the Asahi newspaper created the National Secondary School Baseball Championship, know known as summer Koshien. Nine years later, the Mainichi newspaper created a spring tournament known as the National Secondary School Baseball Invitational Tournament. In 1925, the top university teams in Tokyo formed the Tokyo Big Six Baseball League which remained the pinnacle of Japanese baseball until the creation of a stable professional league in 1935.
Shortly after the turn of the century, college and high school teams began issuing black and white or sepia tone postcards. Postcards remained the most prevalent form of Japanese baseball card until the mid-1920s. These cards were often sold as sets in paper envelopes and depicted team pictures, star players, and action shots from important games. Postcard sets were also produced for the 16 American collegiate and 5 professional teams that toured the Land of the Rising Sun between 1905 and 1929.
By the 1920s, baseball menko became more common. Menko from the twenties and thirties took four forms. The first were the traditional round menko, usually measuring one or two inches in diameter with a color drawing of a player on front and a blank cardboard back. The second were rectangular menko. These were usually about an inch wide and 1 ½ to 2 inches tall with a color drawing on the front and a two-tone image on the reverse. The reverse image could be nearly anything—scoreboards, animals, trophies, baseball equipment were all common. Baseball statistics or biographical details of the depicted player were rarely, if ever, placed on the reverse. Some companies elongated their rectangular menko until they became 3 or 4 inches long while maintaining a width of about an inch. These are now known as oblong or bookmark menko and highly sought after by collectors. The forth type of menko are neither circular nor rectangular but are cut to the shape of their depicted image. These are known as die cut menko.
Bromides, mass-produced collectible photographs printed on photo paper with blank backs, also became common in the late 1920s. These cards usually depict popular college stars or visiting American players. They vary in size from 1 by 1 1/2 inches to postcard-size cards. Pre-War bromides were usually printed in black and white, or sepia tone, rather than color. Bromides rarely have writing on their backs and like most vintage Japanese cards are unnumbered. As bromides were often pasted into scrapbooks, slight glue residue or paper remains are commonly found on the cards' backs.
Closely related to bromides are furoku—magazine inserts often printed on thin glossy paper. These inserts could be game cards, collectible cards, or pinups. During the pre-war period, pinups, measuring up to 9 by 12 inches, seem to be the most common furoku.
In 1934, the Yomiuri newspaper sponsored a Major League tour that would change Japanese baseball. The All Americans formed one of the strongest teams in the history of baseball. Led by Babe Ruth, the roster included Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Charlie Gehringer, Earl Averill, Lefty Gomez, Lefty O’Doul and Moe Berg. To challenge this formidable opponent, Yomiuri owner Matsutaro Shoriki bought together Japan's most talented players. Although the team contained eleven future Japanese Hall of Famers, they lost all 18 contests by a combined score of 189 to 39. Unlike previous Japanese all-star teams, which played just a few games against touring opponents before disbanding, Shoriki decided to keep the team together as professionals. Following in the Giants' footsteps, other Japanese professional teams were formed and a series of professional tournaments were played in 1936. In 1937, eight teams joined the Japan Professional Baseball League and played the first full season of Japanese pro ball. The widely popular league continued until play was suspended in 1944 due to Allied air raids.
But unfortunately for collectors there are only a handful of pre-war cards of professional Japanese players. Shortly after the creation of the Nippon Professional Baseball League, Japan invaded China and initiated a series of events that would lead to World War II. Shortages of materials during these wars seem to have curtailed baseball card production. Thus, there are no known contemporary baseball cards of Japan’s famous pitcher Eiji Sawamura, who played from 1936 until his death in 1944.
The first known Japanese baseball card
Pre-War Japanese Baseball Cards
Meiji-era boys playing menko