Babe Ruth was a revered figure in Japan, and an extremely rare postcard of the Bambino more than a century old is featured in Memory Lane’s current Summer Rarities Auction.
The 1921 Asahina Sporting Goods postcard featuring Ruth, graded 1.5 by PSA, is one of two known to exist. The other one is part of a private collection that was bought more than a decade ago. The graded version belongs to longtime Japanese baseball card collector Bob Lapides, who bought the postcard in February and consigned it to the California auction house.
“This is to me — and I sometimes wonder why I am selling it — the greatest Babe Ruth Japanese baseball card that I have ever seen,” Lapides, 67, of New York, who has been collecting Japanese baseball cards since 1989 and owns 30 different cards of Ruth from the Far East.
“I have a really eclectic collection,” he said. “My real passion is Japanese baseball cards.”
Ruth was already into his second season with the New York Yankees when the postcard was issued. He had smashed MLB’s home run record with 54 in 1920 and would better that mark in 1921 with 59 round-trippers.
But the photograph used on the postcard was a 1916 shot of Ruth swinging a bat, taken by venerable baseball photographer Charles Conlon at the Polo Grounds. Ruth was still a star pitcher for the Boston Red Sox in 1916, but already he was making noise with his bat.
He only hit three home runs in 67 games and drove in 13 runs in 1916, but Ruth excelled on the mound posting a 23-12 record with an American League-best 1.75 ERA and a league-leading nine shutouts.
Lapides said he learned about the card from “a source in Japan” and was bowled over when he saw it. It was something he had never heard about in more than three decades of collecting Japanese cards. A Japanese family had owned the postcard for decades.
“The amazing thing about it is that I had been collecting for over 30 years and had never seen it,” Lapides said. “I almost fainted.”
In addition to the Conlon photograph of Ruth, the bottom of the card had a description written in Japanese characters. Lapides, who does not speak, read or write Japanese, had a friend translate the description.
The paragraph about Ruth states that “In 1919, he hit 29 home runs for the Red Sox. Last year he hit 54 home runs for the New York Yankees. He, along with Mount Vesuvius and Niagara Falls, are the three great wonders of the world.”
“The description at the bottom is amazing,” Lapides said.
Exactly how the postcard was distributed isn’t known.
The photograph of Ruth is one of two iconic shots taken by Conlon. Another photo, taken during the 1927 season, was used in Ruth’s 1933 Goudey card.
Asahina is a Japanese surname that roughly translates to “sunny place.” According to BehindtheName.com, it is a combination of two names—“asa,” which means morning, and “hina,” which means sunlight.
The postcard has the logo of Asahina Sporting Goods near the lower left-hand side of the image. There are light wrinkles at every corner and a “diminutive surface abrasion” near the upper border of the front side of the postcard, Memory Lane wrote in its auction listing.
Lapides relates a humorous story about the 1921 postcard, which he showed to fellow collector Robert Klevens, of Lauderhill, Florida. Klevens specializes in vintage Japanese baseball cards and collectibles.
“When I showed it to Robert, he said he’d never seen it before,” Lapides said. “Then he did some research and he finds a thread on the Net54 (sports card forum) and he owned it.
“He sold it in 2009,” Lapides said.
Klevens had commented in a December 2009 thread titled, “Show us your seldom seen Babe Ruth items,” and he posted a photograph of the 1921 Asahira Sporting Goods postcard of Ruth. It was ungraded.
The card is one of more than 80 Ruth cards being offered in the auction, but unquestionably the rarest.
Lapides also found a card of Washington Senators Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson from the same Asahina set. That card will be sold at a future Memory Lane auction, Lapides said. The card of the Big Train came back graded at 2.5 by PSA.
“It doesn’t have the robust description like the Ruth card,” he said.
But Lapides did have the description translated. It reads, “The legendary pitcher of the Washington team, Walter Johnson, was known for his style.”
And his fastball, too.
The photograph of Johnson was taken in 1914, also by Conlon. That was the year Johnson went 28-18 to lead the A.L., led the junior circuit with 225 strikeouts, 40 complete games and nine shutouts, and had a 1.72 ERA.
Lapides said Ruth and Johnson are the only two subjects he knows that were featured on the Asahina Sporting Goods postcards, but he does not rule out the possibility of other stars from that era. Christy Mathewson or Ty Cobb come to mind. If Japan was touting great athletes in all sports, Jim Thorpe is a possibility, too.
Lapides is a longtime collector who said he still owns his childhood stash of baseball cards.
“Every time I see the 1963 (Topps) cards, I melt,” he said. He began collecting and investing in earnest in 1986 and began to specialize in Japanese cards three years later.
Lapides was born in Rochester, New York, but his family moved to the New York City suburb of New Rochelle when he was 3. He has lived in Manhattan since 1980 and worked in advertising before his recent retirement.
There is a rich history of books written about Japanese baseball and trading cards. Rob Fitts, a Japanese card collector and prolific author about the sport overseas, published An Illustrated Introduction to Japanese Baseball Cards in 2020. But this postcard is a real treasure.
“I have other Japanese baseball cards that are rare, but because this one is the oldest, it is something special,” Lapides said. “And as a fellow treasure hunter, that’s what makes (this find) so exciting.”
Lapides is hoping the Ruth card will do well in Memory Lane’s auction. With less than a week to go, it has doubled its opening bid but is expected to go much higher than its current $54,571.
“I’ve learned that when I consign things not to get too excited,” Lapides said. “So I’ve toned it down.”
But he admits that there is a twinge of seller’s remorse.
“I am going to go bid on it,” Lapides said, half-jokingly. “I’m talking myself into buying it back.”
The auction is scheduled to end on Saturday, Sept. 9.