Menkos!

I’ve been intrigued by Japanese baseball cards for a long time. Some, like the Kabaya Leafs, are mirror-universe amazing takes on designs I’m familiar with. But what I really like are the ones that are doing things completely differently than American cards. I jumped on a batch of mid-1970s Calbees because I love the photography and I’ve long sort of coveted some of the older menko cards.

Menkos were intended to be played with but they also depict all kinds of subjects. Sports, military, movie and TV characters are all fair game. The artwork is frequently something I’d call comic book style with bold colors and big text and the end result looks like nothing else I’ve seen.

Unfortunately (or fortunately) I’ve not dipped any toes in that water due to not having an obvious entry point. I have a hard time buying cards without attaching them to a project and, unlike my pre-war randomness, menkos tend to be sold individually instead of as sets. As a result I’m better able to resist their call.

However it turns out that there are menkos of the San Francisco Seals. In 1949 Lefty O’Doul took the San Francisco Seals on a Goodwill tour of Japan. O’Doul is in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame for his multiple trips to Japan which helped grow the game and in many ways led to the development of a professional league. The 1949 trip was a different sort of trip as it was intended to promote healing after World War 2.

The trip was clearly successful both in terms of drawing crowds but also as a bit of cultural diplomacy with a lot of ephemera still surviving today. The multiple different menko designs definitely caught my eye. Sometimes they’re super expensive. Other times they’re super reasonable. So it pays to wait. A couple weeks ago I finally found some that were going at a price I was ok with.

This menko features Cliff Melton, one of the few pitchers who made the trip.* It’s part of what’s categorized as the 1949 JCM-51 Seals Tour set. Not my favorite of the designs I’ve seen (I really like the Blue Back set) but it’s a great example of why I find menkos so appealing. Bright colors. Big bold text.** Cartoon images.

*He’s also a former Giant who shows up on Play Ball and Double Play cards in the early 1940s.

**メルトン is pronounced “meruton” which is the katakanization of “Melton.” Also, in the interests of translating text, 投手 is how you write “pitcher” in Japanese.

Many of the cards depict the seals in red and white striped uniforms that don’t at all match their home jerseys that year. Given that other cards show the pinstripes in blue and the Seals in red my guess is that the artists were just coloring things brightly. I wish the cap logo were a bit more clear but that’s really my only quibble.

The other Seals card I got is actually not a menko. It’s categorized as a bromide though by the 1940s these were no longer bromide photographic prints but just halftones which kept the bromide toning. This one is cut from the November 1949 issue of Yakyu Shonen magazine and not only features Cliff Melton as well but uses the photo that was used to create the menko artwork.

His menko isn’t a particularly good likeness but it’s clearly from the same image plus the text* confirms that it’s the same player.

*メルトン 投手 (シールス) or “Melton Pitcher (Seals)” underneath the image.

Looking at the Melton menko again mades me start thinking about why I like them so much more than American strip cards. It’s clearly not the accuracy of the drawings so all I can conclude is that the vibrancy of the color and text is the difference.

I took a quick peek through the other stuff that this seller had available and was unable to not impulse-add this card. I’ll leave it a little bit of a surprise and just link to a Google search for his name: 三船敏郎.

Yeah.

The price was right and how could I say no. Plus the artwork, while not exactly looking like him, has a certain charm to it with that rakishly misplaced hair that does capture a certain essence. I don’t know exactly when this is from but the seller says 1950s which feels right. It’s made by the Kagome Toy Company* and has a lot more going on on the back than most menkos I’ve seen as they aren’t known for having backs full of text.

*The 6-pointed star is their mark.

While I can struggle through figuring out what the front text says through context/guessing I have no idea about the backs. There are online tools to deciphering stokes but doing that figure by figure is more than I want to deal with—especially when even the single word on the back of the Melton menko looks like it says スペルコミ which doesn’t translate to anything but sounds like superukomi or super komi. I can’t image trying to do the full text backs on the other cards.

As it is I’m happy to just have a few menkos as well as be able to update my oldest Japanese cards to be 1949 now. Plus it’s nice to add a bit more color to my Seals page.

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 njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

7 thoughts on “Menkos!”

  1. The Toshiro Mifune card is absolutely fantastic ! I would’ve never thought to check and see if he had any menkos. I like these cards quite a bit too, and always enjoy seeing them on the couple of blogs that regularly feature them, but trying to collect them seems like it would be such a steep learning curve, and even more so for someone like myself.

  2. I can translate the back for you. The top says “Who am I?” and the text below gives clues for kids to guess who is on the card front. The main text says:

    “When I returned from Manchuria I did not have work and was in a very difficult situation. I was recommended by a friend to Toho and was hired as a “new face”. I am recognized from gang movies and now I am a star. “

      1. No problem. Its most likely from 1949. There is a baseball menko set by Kagome which is catalogued as JCM 153 which has a very similar design and dates to that year, it seems likely they released a set of actors cards at the same time which the Mifune card is part of. Its a really cool card!

  3. Er just further to my previous comment, which was about the Mifune card, the “suberikomi” on the back of the Melton card means to slide (as the image on the back depicts).

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