(This article originally appeared in December 2015)
Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker – iconic names of baseball’s deadball era whose clutch hitting and aggressive speed made triples more common than home runs. This style of play had been abandoned by the dawn of the 21st century – replaced with power hitting and exciting home runs that had packed ballparks for 75 years. Fans of these players could only read ancient newspaper articles and view grainy, silent film clips and imagine a bygone era and a forgotten approach to the game. That was until the arrival of one man – Ichiro Suzuki – a much-heralded veteran of the Japanese Professional League who in 2001 became a big name in America by playing as if it were 1901. For collectors of Ichiro baseball cards, 2016 looms as an anxiously anticipated season.
Despite his late arrival, Ichiro’s baseball card legacy over the past 15 years is a strong one and he’s popular with collectors in both the U.S. and Asia.
Tony Yi, an Ichiro “super collector” who lives in the Seattle area, has been hoping his favorite player’s career would last long enough for him to become the first Japanese player to reach 3,000 hits.
“I have been excited for this moment for him for a while now,” he told Sports Collectors Daily. “The amount of attention that he will get as he gets closer and closer will be amazing and well deserved. The amount of joy I will have when he hits that milestone will be immeasurable. I haven’t been more excited for a MLB season to start for that reason alone.”
In his first season in the league Ichiro captured both the American League MVP and Rookie of the Year awards, and led the league with 242 hits, 56 stolen bases, and a .350 batting average. For the next nine seasons he would eclipse 200 hits and bat over .300 – including a league leading .372 in 2004 that accompanied 262 hits, which remains the single season record. From the moment his first rookie cards hit the market in 2001, Ichiro has been building a legion of followers.
“I’ve been a huge Mariners fan since I was a kid,” Yi explained. “So when I heard about an Asian position player – him being the first in MLB – I was fascinated and rooting for him. He had lot of detractors saying he couldn’t cut it being a small undersized player. He proved them all wrong. His humble attitude and respect for the game is something I greatly admired as well,” Yi stated, explaining the origins of his passion for all things Ichiro. “I began collecting seriously around 2011. The first Ichiro cards I remember getting were his 2001 Topps Traded rookie card – the base and the chrome version.”
According to Yi, Ichiro’s ‘holy grail’ – or most desired card – is his 2001 UD Ultimate Collection rookie card autograph – his first MLB auto and a card which he recently added to his collection. Another significant early card is his 2001 UD SPX patch autograph rookie card. 2001 Bowman Chrome has a number of expensive cards including a rare and difficult to find Xfractor and the Gold parallel, which is his most valuable non-autographed card – all three of these cards are available with a back in both English and Japanese.
Other noteworthy cards Yi suggests are his Leaf Immortals set – which is dedicated entirely to Ichiro – and some of his booklet autographs that have paired him with the likes of Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. Yi counts his 2001 UD Ultimate Collection relic and autographed relic cards as some of the hardest Ichiro cards to find. Other mass-produced cards he feels are difficult are his 2012 Topps Chrome super short print variation, his 2001 Topps Chrome retrofactor, and his 2001 Topps rookie card gold parallel – despite being numbered to 2001.
After an absence in 2013 and ’14 due to a lack of a licensing deal, Yi and other collectors were excited to see him back on Topps cards with MLB logos in 2015. For collectors on a budget, Yi suggests adding a 2015 Topps Update Chrome or color parallel, which he described as ‘great looking cards’. He further described Ichiro’s 2015 Topps Update with the variation that featured the photo of him in the on deck circle as one of Ichiro’s “coolest” cards.
Yi sees a potential increase for Ichiro’s 2001 Topps Chrome rookie card, and notes that newer autographs tend to decrease as new products become available. Currently he feels there is value in 2015 Topps Five Star Ichiro autographs, as collectors impulsively rush to the newer Dynasty and Strata. His favorite budget card is 2012 Topps Chrome.
The business of Ichiro will surely increase as the 2016 season unfolds. Assuming he finds somewhat regular playing time, Ichiro should get the 65 hits he needs to reach 3,000 by late summer.
“Ichiro has a huge Japanese and Asian market,” Yi stated. “When looking for and making deals for high-end cards I’m always competing against crazed fans in Japan. Sometimes I win and sometimes I lose. He is popular in the states but over there he is an absolute mega star, which is great for the hobby and interest in Ichiro cards and their values.”
You can follow Tony Yi on Twitter @TheIchiroVault.
Check out the current most watched Ichiro cards on eBay below.