History of Japanese Baseball Cards
Japanese Baseball Cards 1953-64
At the end of the occupation the plethora of Japanese baseball cards ended. For an unknown reason, baseball menko’s popularity diminished resulting in few issues from 1953 to 1955. Bromide production continued, although the number of sets also declined. This era did include two bromide sets honoring the 1953 Major League tours of Japan. Among the depicted Major Leaguers are Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Eddie Mathews. From 1953-55, the most common cards are game sets issued as inserts by Yakyu Shonen and Omoshiro magazines.
Candy (mostly gum and caramel) cards also became popular in the mid-1950s. Often distributed regionally, these cards are fairly rare and valuable today as the were printed in color on thin paper and the original purchasers could redeem cards for a prize. As a result, not many caramel cards survive and it difficult to recreate checklists for these sets. Based on surviving examples, Kobai Caramels seems to have been one of the largest producers of candy cards. Asayama Fusan Gum, Seiko Gum, LiLi Gum, and Cisco Carmels also produced baseball sets during the early 1950s.
In 1956 a new type of menko emerged. Often called “Tobacco-sized Menko” by American collectors, these cards are rectangular menko measuring 1 13/16 by 3 inches with player photos on the front. This style dominated the Japanese card industry from 1957 to 1964 when they abruptly stopped. The earliest Tobacco Menko were black and white but soon colorized photos predominated.
Like earlier menko, the cards’ backs contained various games, such as rock/paper/scissors, number or trivia games. The card below asks “Who am I” and give biographical information as clues to identify the player on the front.
1956 B&W Menko
1957 Colorized Menko
Menko Back w/ Games
Who Am I? Menko Back
These cards were usually packaged in envelopes made of newspaper (one card per pack) and these envelopes would be strung together by running a string through a hole punched through the top of the envelope. These bundles are known as taba. Purchasers would pull a pack off the taba. About a half dozen cards in each taba would be stamped with the number 1, 2, or 3 on the back. These are known as prize cards. The drawer of a prize card could choose an item off a poster-sized display sheet. Third prize was usually a pair of cards, second prize an uncut group of four cards, and first prize an uncut sheet of 12 or 16 cards. These prizes were often cut into individual cards by children so hand-cut cards with uneven boarders are common.
Menko Prize Card
Menko Display Sheet
Research is ongoing but so far ten major menko manufacturers have been identified: Doyusha, Yamakatsu, Marukami, Marumatsu, Marusan, Maruten, Marusho, Maruta, Maruo and Maruya (“maru” means round or circle in Japanese -the original shape of menko). To date, over 85 “Tobacco-sized Menko” sets have been cataloged and at least a dozen more sets are known to exist. Many of these sets contain approximately 40 cards, but some, such as the 70-plus card 1957 Yamakatsu set, are much larger. Since most sets contain a small number of cards, stars are emphasized and many bench players have no cards. In the mid to late 1960s, several American servicemen imported a number of these sets in quantity. These cards can still be found at major card shows - often in the oddball boxes.
In the late 1950s, 2 stars emerged who would transform Japanese ball. The first was Shigeo Nagashima, known as Mr. Giants and considered Japan’s most popular and greatest player. The second was his teammate Sadaharu Oh, who would become the world's home run leader. Because of there were many different manufacturers at the time and they each produced multiple sets. There are over 60 Oh rookies. The most sort after depict both Oh and Nagashima, who became known as the ON Cannon.
Tobacco menko also include a number of foreigners (called gaijin) who played in Japan. Among these are three rare cards: 1962 Chunichi Dragons teammates Don Newcombe and Larry Doby, and an error card of Cuban-born Chico Barbon that actually depicts Jackie Robinson.