Rob Fitts knows how to stay busy, even during the coronavirus pandemic.
Fitts, who has written five books about Japanese baseball, was in the middle of promoting his latest effort, Issei Baseball: The Story of the First Japanese American Baseball Ballplayers, when the pandemic hit. That forced Fitts to cancel his book tour.
Fitts only recently ventured out of his Bronx home after three months. In the interim, he put together an online book, An Illustrated Introduction to Japanese Baseball Cards. The 80-page book, available as a PDF for $4.99 at Fitts’ website, is graphics intensive, illustrated with many types of Japanese baseball cards that have been produced since the 1890s.
Fitts, who has an extensive collection of Japanese baseball cards, thought the time was right to update a pamphlet he put together nearly two decades ago, called An Introduction to Japanese Baseball Cards.
“I thought it might be fun to do an update since the book tour was on hold,” said Fitts, who is now interested in starting a home publishing business.
The original effort was a primitive operation, Fitts conceded.
“It was a pamphlet. I printed it off on my HP printer on both sides of the paper and stapled it,” Fitts laughed.
Fitts sold his 20-page pamphlet for $5, advertising it on his website.
“I did that for a while and it was insane,” Fitts said. “The idea was to get people interested in Japanese baseball cards.”
Fitts’ current project took six weeks to complete.
In addition to photos of various Japanese baseball cards, Fitts provides a written history of Japanese baseball and the growth of cards in the Far East.
Baseball cards from Japan can be categorized into six distinct eras: cards before World War II, the occupation period (1945-52), the Tobacco-size menko era (1956-64), the Void (1965-72), the Calbee period (1973-90) and the modern era (1991 to the present).
“There are so many different cards, a type set is not possible,” Fitts said. “So many (cards) are uncategorized.”
In his book, Fitts covers the major issues of interest to Japanese baseball card collectors.
There are several appendices, including lists of the Japanese pro baseball career hitting and pitching leaders, along with a list of all members of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. That is crucial for collectors, since in Japan, adult men are usually referred to solely by their last names. Most vintage Japanese baseball cards, therefore, only display a player’s surname.
Fitts said the nicest cards to collect would be the ones issued between 1948 and 1952.
“They are the best-looking cards, and 1948 and ’49 are the best looking cards of the era,” Fitts said. “When you’re dealing with the history of cards, this is the best era.
“The 1970s have some gorgeous sets.”
While American baseball cards can trace its lineage to advertisements and tobacco issues, Japan’s card history originated from a game called menko. As Fitts describes it in his book, menko was a popular boys’ game in Japan in the late 19th century. It was a flipping game, similar to the one used in the United States for cards.
The menko, however, were thin, flat disks made from clay, lead, tin, wood and eventually cardboard. Tobacco-sized menko cards would emerge from 1956 to 1964, and during the 1970s “thick menko” — produced on heavy stock — would become popular.
Other sets of note that Fitts describes (and illustrates) include gum and caramel cards from the Occupation era, the cards produced by the Doyusha company from 1958 — which include menko, bromides, game sets and playing cards — and the coveted Kabaya-Leaf set issued in 1967.
Kabaya-Leaf is an interesting product, as it resembles the 1959 Topps baseball set. The 106-card Kabaya-Leaf set was imported to the United States and sold through baseball card newsletters. Stars like Sadaharu Oh — who turned 80 last month — would have cards during this era.
Fitts believes he might have the best Japanese type card collection, “or maybe top five.” His knowledge of Japanese baseball and card history serves him well in his latest work.
Fitts is hoping sales will pick up, and the addition of the book to the Amazon database next month is certain to give An Illustrated Introduction to Japanese Baseball Cards more exposure.
One thing Fitts has learned in the self-publishing business is to remain realistic.
“Be happy with very few sales,” he said. “And once in a while, you get lucky.”
Did luck play a part in the creation of Fitts’ latest book? He believes so.
“This would not have happened without the virus,” Fitts said. “I’ve been quite happy with the results.”
You can check out Japanese cards from various eras inside his eBay store.