First Calbees (巨人)

One of the things that’s happened after I wrote about how baseball cards formed a certain amount of my visual literacy has been that I’ve become increasingly aware of non-American cards and how different they can look. In particular I’ve been increasingly exposed to Japanese cards from the 1970s and have been stuck by how different they feel compared to my experience with Topps.

The main product here of course is Calbee whose full-bleed photo-centric cards with minimal text and design is as much a polar opposite you can get from anything Topps was doing in the 1970s.* And that’s before even getting into the photography itself.

*The Yamakatsu cards and their own wonderful photo-centric look which, when coupled with the player signatures, creates fabulous looking cards deserve to be mentioned too.

I found myself seeing samples of Calbee cards using telephotography that put the 1970s action cards to shame. It’s not just that it feels like the camera technology was better* but the light itself is better. Most of the Topps photos are shot in the day with full sun—resulting in harsh shadows and high contrast images. The Calbee ones have flatter light which often feels like they were taken indoors or in the night.**

*Given Japan’s position in the camera industry—especially in the 1970s—this is entirely possible.

**Which makes me wonder what kind of film they used and if this is an early Kodak vs Fuji difference. And yeah these results would put me on team Fuji. 

There are also ones which use wide angle lenses to give us beautiful cards that we can only describe as the kind of thing that Stadium Club aspires to today—over four decades after Calbee printed cards like this in Japan.

All of these factors combined have made me periodically search on ebay for Calbee cards. Usually the results—if any—are way too expensive (especially once shipping from Japan comes into play) but low and behold I found some at a decent price which would ship in the international version of a plain white envelope (in this case a manila policy envelope). So I took the plunge and got a half-dozen 1975–1976 Calbee cards that caught my eye.

Amusingly they were all Yomiuri Giants. This is completely coincidental to my collecting interests but not that surprising. As the Yankees of Japan, the Giants had the biggest budget and biggest name players at the time and it was only fitting that the first Calbee cards I’d purchase would feature those players.

From an American point of view, Sadaharu Oh is the obvious must-have card. I was pleased to find two of them at an affordable price as his cards often command the “only Japanese star Americans can name” markup. I really like both of these and am glad to add them to the only Oh card in my collection.

The head shot is close to the standard Topps look with that raking shadow. But it’s super tightly cropped and has wonderful detail on the helmet logo. If it’s posed it doesn’t look it. The batting shot meanwhile shows off his distinct leg kick while also being an unusual angle of not just right behind the plate but also almost below field level.

Shigeo Nagashima meanwhile was the most popular player in Japan and had taken over as the Giants’ manager. So it’s nice and fitting to have his cards as well. The portrait is a nice casual shot but I really like the celebration photo. There are so many great things going on with it with all the other photographers in the frame and the park details such as how the foul pole has lettering on it. I also appreciate that the date stamp for the celebration is not just October 16 but specifies 3:40PM too.

I grabbed the Davey Johnson card because I liked the way it shows how differently the caps were constructed. But it’s also an interesting artifact which fills in a two-year hole in his Topps card record. Because he went to Japan to play from 1975–76 he has no 1976 or 1977 Topps cards and the only mention of what happened in that two-season gap is his 1978 card mentioning that he was a teammate of both Hank Aaron and Sadaharu Oh.

And I just liked the card of Hisao Niura tying his shoes. It’s a photo I’ve never seen on a card before and reminds me how the current all-action approach to baseball card photography misrepresents the sport. It’s nice to have cards capturing the down time when “nothing” is happening but which make baseball baseball.

Niura is also an interesting character in that, like Oh, he wasn’t considered Japanese despite being from Japan. Where Oh was Chinese, Niura was Korean and I like having these in-between cases in my collection too.

I’ve titled this post “First Calbees” since I can see getting more of these in the future—especially if the photograph catches my eye. However these are also plenty sufficient to satisfy my curiosity. I wasn’t ready for how thick they are compared to what I’ve come to expect from food-insert baseball cards.  The printing is also pretty good—especially for its time.

It’s also nice to see cards in a size that doesn’t follow the Topps standard. These are slightly smaller but don’t feel like minis. With the slightly smaller size and the slightly thicker paper they feel really good in hand.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

13 thoughts on “First Calbees (巨人)”

    1. That was exactly what happened to me. I’d seen too many fun Calbees so when my random Ebay search turned up a bunch of affordable samples I couldn’t hit the purchase button fast enough.

      And nice call on the Robin Roberts. Though that one’s posed—or at least camera-aware—where the Niura card is a wonderful in-game shot.

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