Ichiro Suzuki entered an exclusive club when he slashed a triple Sunday for his 3,000th career major-league hit.
Naturally, the demand for Ichiro rookie cards in the United States spiked as a result of his hitting milestone. But the more discriminating collector can have a field day tracking down cards of Ichiro when he played for the Orix BlueWave in Japan’s Pacific League.
Ichiro honed his slashing hitting style in his native Japan, winning seven straight batting titles from 1994 to 2000. He led the BlueWave to three Pacific League pennants and their only Japan Series victory in 1996.
“There were hundreds of different Japanese Ichiro cards before he left (for the majors) in 2000,” said author Rob Fitts, who has written several books about baseball in Japan and also collects and sells Japanese cards.
Ichiro BBM Rookie Card
Ichiro made his Japan League debut in 1992. In 1993, his Japanese rookie cards were produced by three companies. The most common one was marketed by BBM, a company Fitts calls “the equivalent of Topps.”
BBM began selling cards in 1991, and they are very close in size to the standard card put out by Topps. The 1993 set contained 500 cards, and the cards measured 2 3/8 inches by 3 3/8 inches. Ichiro is card No. 239.
Finding a BBM card in high grade isn’t as easy as locating a U.S. Ichiro rookie because of factory miscuts and a color border, but graded mint examples and even some unopened boxes can still be found for around $300–or less.
From 1993 to 2000, BBM featured Ichiro in its sets — “numerous times,” Fitts said.
Takara Ichiro Rookie Card
A second card company, Takara, produced an Orix BlueWave team set. Ichiro’s card number matched his uniform (No. 51), and the cards were smaller (2 1/8 inches by 3 3/8 inches) than the BBM set. They had rounded corners, and Fitts said “they looked like Strat-O-Matic cards.” In fact, the sets came with dice.
“They were easy to get, also,” Fitts said.
Takara team sets featured 30 players and were produced between 1978 and 1998. Each team set was sold in a sealed plastic case.
Not many from Ichiro’s 1993 season are offered for sale here in North America, though.
Tomy ID Ichiro Rookie Card
The third Ichiro rookie card was produced by a newcomer to the Japanese baseball card market in 1993. Tomy ID debuted with a 410-card set, and Ichiro is card No. 102. The cards were closest in size to American-made cards, at 2½ inches by 3½ inches.
The cards were issued in two series, and collectors can tell the difference by the serial numbers on the card backs.
The print run for Tomy ID was small but a few are always for sale and auction on eBay.
As a side note, Ichiro appeared in a team set produced in 1993 for the ill-fated and short-lived Hawaiian Winter Baseball League. Pacific Sports Promotions produced 500 sets, and cards No. 1 and No. 5 of the Hilo Stars set shows a very young Ichiro, who batted .311 in 1993 for the pennant-winning club.
The league folded after the 1996 season.
Calbee Ichiro Cards
A final early Japanese card of Ichiro comes from cards produced in 1994 by Calbee, a Japanese snack food company that marketed items like potato chips. Calbee did not include Ichiro in its 1993 set or in its main 144-card set in 1994. However, Ichiro was included in Calbee’s 1994 Hokkaido, Sanyo and Kyushu regional sets.
Calbee could be called the granddaddy of Japanese baseball cards, with a heritage that dated to 1973. In the 1994 set, the cards were rounded at the corners and measured 2 1/8 inches by 3 3/8 inches.
Ichiro would make it to the regular Calbee set in 1995, appearing on card Nos. 33, 34, 153 and 154. There are only two PSA 10 examples each of card Nos. 33 and 34, four of No. 153 and two of No. 154.
The International Business of Ichiro Rookie Cards
Fitts has written fabulous books about Japanese baseball, including Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan (2012) and Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major Leaguer (2015). He also did well as a card dealer, recognizing that Ichiro rookie cards from Japan would sell well when the outfielder moved to the major leagues with the Seattle Mariners. Fitts would buy BBM rookie cards of Ichiro, for example, at cheap prices in bulk and sell them for a nice profit.
“He funded my entire business,” Fitts said.
Ichiro is a lock to reach the Hall of Fame, and when he joins the other greats in Cooperstown he will become the first player of Japanese heritage to be enshrined. Ichiro’s cards in Japan show him at his youthful best.
A great site to view the many different Ichiro cards — from both Japan and the United States — is a website called Collecting Ichiro.
You can check out dozens of Ichiro’s Japanese cards on eBay–many selling for very little–by clicking here.