Menko Meditations: The Art & Order of the JCM 21 Japanese Baseball Card Set

By Bill Staples, Jr. 

Back in 2012, I purchased a framed uncut sheet of baseball cards from early 1950s Japan known as the "JCM 21 set" and have had it hanging on the wall of my home office since. Shortly after I celebrated my 52nd birthday (in late 2021), someone cracked a joke about me “no longer being a card short of a deck.” With 52 cards top of mind, I saw the framed artwork in a new light and realized that after all these years I only knew the identity of two players – Babe Ruth (the Joker) and Tetsuharu Kawakami (the Three of Hearts). 

Perhaps doubly inspired by my 52nd birthday and the quote, “Chaos is merely order waiting to be deciphered,” I made the decision to closely examine the JCM 21 set to learn more about the cards and gain some understanding as to who the players were and why they were selected.

To the untrained eye, the set appears to be a random selection of Japanese ballplayers presented in the form of a deck of cards. After taking a deep dive into the design elements within this fantastic work of art and the history that surrounds it, I now see that any suggestion of randomness is the furthest thing from the truth. 

Closer inspection reveals that the people represented on this sheet – including Babe Ruth – were selected for a reason. The teams and players reflected on this canvas were selected with careful consideration, and deliberate intention and they depict a milestone moment in the history of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB).

Background The word “menko” in Japanese means “small object with a face,” as early menkos featured the face of a person or animal. Menko dates back to the Edo Period (the early 1700’s) and the earliest versions were made of dried mud or clay. Over time, the material used for making menkos expanded to include tile, wood, metal, and eventually the paper used in baseball cards. Learn more about the fascinating history of menko here. 

Table

Description automatically generated with low confidenceGary Engel, Japanese baseball card expert and author of The Japanese Baseball Card Checklist & Price Guide (The Guide), classified this menko set as the “JCM 21”. 

I reached out to Engel and inquired about the rationale behind the set name. In an email exchange he explained, “JRM is an acronym for Japanese Round Menko. JCM is an acronym for Japanese Rectangular Menko. At the time, I chose the ‘C’ (in JCM) because it is a letter that does not appear in the word, ‘round’.” (Note: Technically, menko that are not round also have “corners,” so my “beginner’s mind” keeps converting JCM to “Japanese Cornered Menko.” I humbly share this as an alternative meaning for the menko collecting community.) 

When the first edition of The Guide was developed in the early 1990s, Engel assigned numbers to all JRM and JCM sets in chronological order. As the years passed and more sets were added with the publication of each new edition, the numbering system picked up where the previous edition left off. Thus, the 21st Japanese Rectangular Menko set that appeared in The Guide earned the name “JCM 21”.

Engel confessed, “At this point, there are probably at least five times as many sets as were included in the first edition (of The Guide). Therefore, the numbers are no longer chronologically organized.” 

The set itself is comprised of 53 cards, each one measuring approximately 1 1/8” x 2 1/16”. The design gives the impression that the set is intended to be used as a deck of cards, but Engel says that might not be the case. “I have personally seen or purchased several hundred JCM 21 uncut sheets over the years,” he said. “I believe that the cards were issued only as uncut sheets.  All single cards that I have ever seen appear to have been cut from the sheets.”

All of the suites and numbers reflect a traditional deck of playing cards and include a Japanese baseball player or manager. The “Joker” card is designated for the great Babe Ruth. According to Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA), “the Menko Ruth card is one of only a few instances that the New York Yankees legend was pictured on a Japanese-issued card.”

The 2012 edition of The Guide lists the value of the set at roughly $400 as an uncut sheet, with individual cards falling into one of four categories: 1) Common players: $5.00, 2) Hall of Famer players: $15.00 to $20.00; 3) Hall of Fame managers: $25.00 to $50.00; and 4) Babe Ruth: $275.00.

Blogger Andrew Chrisman @sportscardinfo celebrated the JCM 21 set on his site back in 2013 and stated what everyone thinks after viewing the set, “Vintage Menko cards are really fun to look at even if you don’t know who some of the players are.”

Four Card Suites, Four Teams

I don’t read or speak Japanese, but through the power of the Google Translate app I was able to determine that each suite in the deck of cards represents an individual NPB team. The card suites and corresponding teams are: 

  • Diamonds = Chunichi Dragons
  • Hearts = Yomiuri Giants
  • Clubs = Shochiku Robins
  • Spades = Osaka Tigers

Why were these teams selected? What do they have in common? For starters, they are all members of the newly formed Japan Central League. After the 1949 season, the Japanese Baseball League (JBL) reorganized as NPB, a two-league system comprised of the Pacific League and the Central League (modeled after the National and American Leagues in Major League Baseball). Thus, 1950 marked the inaugural season of NPB.

These four teams in the JCM 21 set represent the legacy clubs from the JBL in 1949 that entered the Central League (joined by four expansion clubs). They also represent the top clubs in the final standings of the Central League for the 1950 season. 

1950 Japan Central League Regular Season Standings

Team W L Pct. R RA

Shochiku Robins 98 35 .737 908 524

Chunichi Dragons 89 44 .669 745 597

Yomiuri Giants 82 54 .603 724 522

Osaka Tigers 70 67 .511 766 696

Taiyo Whales 69 68 .504 759 761 

Nishi Nippon Pirates 50 83 .376 633 759

Kokutetsu Swallows 42 94 .309 480 790

Hiroshima Carp 41 96 .299 511 877


The Players & Positions The Guide lists the individual names on each card, but not the team or position of the player. So again I used Google Translate to confirm the names on the list, cross-referenced them to the 1950 team rosters on StatsCrew.com, and learned what position(s) they played.  

And this is where order emerged. I observed that all the King cards were designated for the team manager, and the Ace cards were assigned to pitchers – sometimes the actual pitching ace of the team, other times not. Suspecting a scorebook pattern was unfolding, I confirmed the following card number and position correlations:

  • Ace card – Pitcher 

  • Two card – Catcher 

  • Three card – First base 

  • Four card – Second base 

  • Five card – Third base

  • Six card – Shortstop 

  • Seven card – Outfielder 

  • Eight card – Outfielder

  • Nine card – Outfielder

  • Jack card – Pitcher 

  • Queen card – Utility: back-up catcher or outfielder

  • King card – Manager  


Why Babe Ruth and Why this Season? I now knew the names of the four NPB teams, the identities of the 52 individuals and their roles (player, manager, or both – yes, one was a player/manager). I also identified which 16 individuals have been enshrined in the Japan Baseball Hall of Fame (see profiles below), but I still did not have a clear answer as to why only Central League teams were selected, and why Babe Ruth was included. 

I suspected that the answer was in the main image on the bottom right of the poster that featured a trophy cup, two baseball bats and victory garland. But the kanji and katakana on the image were two ornate for Google Translate to decipher, so, I “phoned a friend.” A few, actually. 

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According to Shimako Shimizu, Japanese speaker and translator from Yamaguchi, Japan, whom I’ve worked with on past Japanese baseball translation projects, the graphic on the bottom right of the uncut sheet reads: Champions (on cup); All-Star Game (red background); Central League (green background). 

When it comes to translations, it’s always good to get a second opinion. So, I reached out to Kenichi Koshio, friend and native Japanese speaker from Nagoya, Japan, who concluded his translation with the observation, “It could be in an All-Star game and the Central All-Star team won!” Ken shared the rationale that led to his conclusion:

The first line (on cup) 勝優 usually read from left to right, but it goes the other way … right to left. 優勝 > Yuu sho > Victory of the season

The next line (on red) is left to right. 野球スター合セ > Yakyuu sutaa gou se

Breakdown:
野球 yakyuu = baseball
スター sutaa  = star
合 gou = gathering
セ se = central league

The last line (on green) セントラルリーグ > Sentoraru riigu > Central League

So, the sign reads:

The Victory
Baseball All Star Central League
Central League

With two separate translations by native Japanese speakers that point to a Central League victory in an All-Star game, it was time to learn more about NBP All-Star game history.

Early NPB All-Star Game History One might assume that the inaugural NBP season in 1950 included an All-Star game. It did not. Instead, the first official NPB All-Star game was played in 1951. In fact, NPB officials decided to make it an All-Star series comprised of three exhibition games. This was not a best-of-three games series either, otherwise the third game would not have been played, as the Central League won the first two contests. Below are the results:

1951 NPB All-Star Games
Managers – Shunichi Amachi (Central League) – Yoshio Yuasa (Pacific League)

G#

Date

Location

Score

Won

Pitchers (C.L., P.L.)

MVP

1

7/4

Koshien (Osaka)

2-1

C.L.

T. Bessho (W),
T. Eto (L)

T. Kawakami

2

7/7

Korakuen (Tokyo)

4-2

C.L.

S. Sugishita (W),
Y. Yonekawa (L)

A. Noguchi

3

7/8

Korakuen (Tokyo)

4-3

P.L.

H. Fujimoto (L),
G. Hayashi (W)

S. Sugishita

Source: Japanese Baseball: A Statistical handbook, Daniel E. Johnson (McFarland, 1999).


Knowing that the Central League won the first All-Star Game (series) in NPB history, I now suspect that most likely this explains why the top four teams of the Central League were featured in the JCM 21 card set.  It might also explain why Central League winning manager Shunichi Amachi was placed on the King of Diamonds.


Who made the cards and when were they distributed? 
I asked Engel if he knew who produced the JCM 21 set. “Unfortunately, as is the case with the majority of vintage Japanese sets, the manufacturer is unknown,” he replied.  

When were they distributed? “I know that based on the players included in the set, the only year in which all players appearing in the set (other than Babe Ruth) were active was 1950.  Thus, I have listed the set as a 1950 issue,” Engel replied. 


He was correct in that the cards do indeed reflect individuals active in 1950, but the peripheral clues now suggest that the set might have been released the following season, sometime after the NPB All-Star Game series. 

Also occurring in Japan around the time of the first NPB All-Star game series (July 4-8, 1951) was the build-up to “Babe Ruth Day,” slated for August 16. The date marked the three-year anniversary of the Babe’s death, and the nation of Japan went all-in to honor the Babe. 

Both Central League and Pacific League officials reported that they would make “Babe Ruth Day” an annual event, a decision that was congratulated publicly by Japanese Emperor Hirohito. 

On the anniversary date itself, memorial ceremonies were held at the three ball parks in Tokyo (homes of the Yomiuri Giants, Daiei Stars and Tokyu Flyers), and a portion of the gate receipts were donated to the Babe Ruth Foundation to help fight cancer.

Image right: “Japan Reverses View on Babe,” The Spokesman-Review, (Spokane, WA), August 17, 1951, 42.

Conclusion  The evidence strongly suggests that the outcome of the first-ever NPB All-Star Games in 1951 determined which league and teams would be reflected on the JCM 21 set. Furthermore, the national celebration of Babe Ruth Day in 1951 also appears to have been a possible inspiration to include the Babe in the set as well. 

Together, these two facts suggest that the JCM 21 Japanese Baseball Set was most likely released sometime around late July/early August 1951. Of course, this is just speculation based on the evidence presented above. I could be wrong.

But one thing is for certain, Engel was correct in that the information on the cards – the NPB players and managers – reflects rosters from the 1950 season. 

The tell-tale signs are the inclusion of two individuals with the Shochiku Robins – reserve catcher Kazuo Satake on the Queen of Clubs, and manager Tokuro Konishi on the King of Clubs – who both moved on from that club after the 1950 season. 

The Robins won the Central League pennant and earned an appearance in the first-ever Japan Series in 1950.  Unfortunately, they lost to the Mainichi Orions, 4 games to 2, and afterwards both Satake and Konishi moved on to other clubs. 

“Chaos is merely order waiting to be deciphered.” The JCM 21 Japanese Baseball Set was once a random collection of Japanese ballplayers to my untrained eye. Now, with the clues decoded, the order appears, and it fosters an even greater appreciation for the factors that went into to making this remarkable work of baseball art.

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JCM 21 Japanese Baseball Set – Quick Reference Guide

 

CARD SUITE & CORRESPONDING
1950 CENTRAL LEAGUE TEAMS

DIAMONDS

HEARTS

CLUBS

SPADES

CARD

POS.

Chunichi Dragons

Yomiuri Giants

Shochiku Robins

Osaka Tigers

ACE

P

Hideo Shimizu

Takehiko Bessho*

Juzo Sanada*

Takao Misono

2

C

Akira Noguchi

Tetsunosuke Fujiwara

Shoji Arakawa

Shigeru Tokuami

3

1B

Michio Nishizawa*

Tetsuharu Kawakami*

Torao Ooka

Tamaichi Yasui

4

2B

Toshimichi Kunieda

Shigeru Chiba*

Jiro Kanayama

Choei Shirasaka

5

3B

Kiyoshi Sugiura

Meiji Tezuka

Isao Mimura

Fumio Fujimura*

6

SS

Kazuo Matsumoto

Takenori Yamakawa

Jiro Miyazaki

Ichiro Nishie

7

OF

Tokuzo Harada

Hiroshi Hagiwara

Kazuo Yoshida

Toshio Kawanishi

8

OF

Satoru Sugiyama

Hiroyoshi Komatsubara

Yoshiyuki Iwamoto*

Masayasu Kaneda

9

OF

Michinori Tsubochi*

Noboru Aota*

Makoto Kozuru*

Tsuguo Goto

10

P

Tsuguhiro Hattori

Hideo Fujimoto*

Tsutomu Kimura

Shinpei Ichii

JACK

P

Shigeru Sugishita*

Hiroshi Nakao

Nobuo Oshima

Takao Fujimura

QUEEN

Varies

Susumu Kato (OF)

Tamotsu Uchibori (C)

Kazuo Satake (C)

Hiromi Tanida (C)

KING

Mgr.

Shunichi Amachi*

Shigeru Mizuhara*

Tokuro Konishi*

Kenjiro Matsuki*

*Member of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame - Dragons 4, Giants 6, Robins 4, Tigers 2 - Total 16.


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JCM 21 Japanese Baseball Set Highlights

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Champions (on cup)

All-Star Game (red)

Central League (green)


Nippon Professional Baseball League All-Star Game

Central League Victory over the Pacific League.

Set released in Japan circa July/August 1951.


***

JCM 21 Japanese Baseball Hall of Famer Members (16) + Babe Ruth

NAME

CARD

BRIEF BIO

Three of Diamonds
Michio Nishizawa, 1B

Chunichi Dragons


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Michio Nishizawa (HOF 1976) was a five-time All-Star and three-time Best Nine selection. A two-way threat, he started his career as a hurler before becoming an accomplished slugger in the second decade of his career. He also managed the Chunichi Dragons.


Nine of Diamonds
Tsubochi Michinori, OF

Chunichi Dragons


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Tsubochi Michinori (HOF 1992) began his career in 1936 with Dai Tokyo. He was a speedy outfielder who became the first player in NPB history to 1,000 games played and 1,000 hits. As a player/manager in 1946, he struck out only 6 times in 393 AB, an NPB record for a player with over 300 at-bats.


Jack of Diamonds
Shigeru Sugishita, P

Chunichi Dragons


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Shigeru Sugishita (HOF 1985) was a right-handed pitcher credited with throwing the first forkball in NPB. During his 12-year career (1949-1961) he recorded 215 wins, 123 losses, 1,761 strikeouts and a 2.23 ERA. A three-time winner of the Sawamura Award 3 ('51, '52, '54), he threw a no-hitter on May 10, 1955. As of July 2022 he is still alive (age 96) making him the only Hall of Famer featured in the set still living. 


King of Diamonds

Shunichi Amachi, Mgr.

Chunichi Dragons


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Shunichi Amachi (HOF 1970) is a former catcher with Meiji University who later became an umpire in the Tokyo Big6 Baseball League. After WWII, he managed the Chunichi Dragons, where under his excellent technical guidance and passionate leadership, the Dragons won the Japan Series in 1954.


Ace of Hearts

Takehiko Bessho, P

Yomiuru Giants


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Takehiko Bessho (HOF 1979) is one of the greatest pitchers in NPB history. In high school he had one of the most famous Koshien performances (Spring 1941) throwing 14 innings despite a broken arm (non-pitching). He lost the game 2-1 but won widespread recognition for his courage and guts. "I want to play as much baseball as I can before I die," he later declared. During his 18-year career, he was a two-time Sawamura Award winner, two-time MVP, two-time Japan Series MVP, six-time All-Star, six-time Best Nine pick.


Three of Hearts

Tetsuharu Kawakami, 1B

Yomiuru Giants


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Tetsuharu Kawakami (HOF 1965) played for the Yomiuri Giants from 1938 to 1958. Nicknamed the “God of Batting,” he was also manager of the club when they won nine consecutive Japan Series from 1965 to 1973. One of the first Japanese players to incorporate Zen into his baseball training, when he became manager of the Giants in 1962, he encouraged a struggling young hitter named Sadaharu Oh to train with batting coach and Zen-devotee Arakawa Hiroshi.  

Three of Hearts

Shigeru Chiba, 2B

Yomiuru Giants


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Shigeru Chiba (HOF 1980) was the star second baseman for the Yomiuri Giants in the early days of the club. He led the league four times in walks and made seven Best Nine selections. He later managed the Kintetsu club, which got its name Kintetsu Buffalo name from him. The name remains in use today as the Orix Buffaloes.

Nine of Hearts

Noboru Aota, OF

Yomiuru Giants


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Noboru Aota (HOF 2009) was a 5-time home run king in the 1940s and 1950s in NPB. In 1951, he made the first CL All-Star team and hit .312/.378/.582 with 32 homers, 105 RBI and a career-high 101 runs. He later managed and coached. Off the field, he was known to drink a lot and mix with a tough crowd, getting into fights at times. His nickname was "JaJa Horse".


Ten of Hearts

Hideo Fujimoto

Yomiuri Giants, P


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Hideo Fujimoto (HOF 1976) was a right-handed pitcher with the Yomiuri Giants who threw the first perfect game in NPB history on June 28, 1950, a 4-0 victory over the Nishi-Nippon Pirates at Aomori Stadium. The Korea-born pitcher finished the 1950 season with a 26-14 record, and 2.45 ERA. He holds the Japanese records for lowest career ERA (1.90) and seasonal ERA (0.73), as well as best all-time winning percentage (.697). He is also known by the names Hideo Nakagami and his Korean name, Lee Pal-ryong. 


King of Hearts

Shigeru Mizuhara, Mgr.

Yomiuru Giants


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Shigeru Mizuhara (HOF 1977) played 3B at Keio University and joined the Dai Tokyo team in 1936. He was a solid fielder with an average bat (.243 lifetime). He began managing in  1950, eventually becoming one of the most respected skippers in NPB history. During his reign, the Giants won the Japan Series four times (1951-53 and 1955). After leaving the Giants in 1960, he led Toei (1961-67), and Chunichi (1969-71).

Ace of Clubs

Juzo Sanada, P

Shochiku Robins


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Juzo Sanada (HOF 1990) was a right-handed pitcher celebrated for winning Koshien in 1945. He is a four-time 20-game winner, including 39 wins in 1950 that earned him the Sawamura Award. He finished his 11-year career with two no-hitters, 178 wins, 128 losses, 1,083 strikeouts, and a 2.83 ERA.


Eight of Clubs

Yoshiyuki Iwamoto, OF

Shochiku Robins


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Yoshiyuki Iwamoto (HOF 1981) was an outfielder for ten years and manager for eight years in NPB. He hit the first Central League HR in 1950, and also stole 34 bases in 42 attempts becoming the first 30-30 player (with Kaoru Betto) in Japan. In 1951, he hit four home runs in a game and added a double setting a record for total bases with 18. He was selected to three all-star teams (‘51, ‘52, ‘53) and he was elected for Best Nine in 1950 and 1951. As player/manager with the Toei Flyers in 1957, he became the oldest player in NPB history to hit a HR (at age 45).


Nine of Clubs

Makoto Kozuru, OF

Shochiku Robins


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Makato Kozuru (HOF 1980) was anointed the “Babe Ruth of Japan” after the 1950 season when he batted .355 (second in the league) and led the league with 51 home runs (a record at the time) and 161 RBIs. After the 1950 season he participated in a home run derby competition against Joe DiMaggio in which he bested the Yankee Clipper 4 HRs to Joe’s 2 HRs in 10 swings.


King of Clubs

Tokuro Konishi, Mgr.

Shochiku Robins


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Tokuro Konishi (HOF 1971) was an NPB manager who went on to enjoy a successful career as a baseball broadcaster. At Meiji University he was team captain and later entered coaching, serving with teams in Tokyo, Nagoya, and Shochiku. In 1950 he led the Shochiku Robins to the first Central League title and appearance in the Japan Series. After the 1953 season he left the dugout for the broadcast booth, where he became a popular voice of Japanese baseball, enlightening fans nationwide with his unique commentary. Some credit his live broadcasts as a contributing factor to the rise of baseball’s popularity in post-war Japan.


Five of Spades

Fumio Fujimura, 3B

Osaka Tigers


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Fumio Fujimura (HOF 1974) was a third baseman who enjoyed a 12-year career with the Hanshin Tigers. He was a career .300 hitter who notched 1,694 hits and 224 homeruns. His .362 in 1950 earned him the batting grown. He led the league in hits 2x ('49 -'50), homeruns 3x ('36, '49, '53), and hits 5x ('44, '47, '48, '49 and '53). He was named MVP in 1949 and Best Nine 6x. He appeared in 1,014 consecutive games appearance (between 1946 and 1954), hit for the cycle twice, and set the NPB record for back-to-back games with grand slams (April 28 & 29, 1953). He also managed the Hanshin club in 1946 and 1955-57.


King of Spades

Kenjiro Matsuki, Mgr./1B

Osaka Tigers


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Kenjiro Matsuki (HOF 1978) attended Meiji University in the late 1920s-early 1930s. After spending time in the industrial leagues, he played for Japan's first professional team in 1935, and then joined the Osaka Tigers in 1936. As team captain, he won a batting title, led the league in HRs and slugging percentage in the 1937 Spring season. He captured the triple crown in the fall season. He was a player/manager with Hanshin (1940-41, 50-51), and removed himself permanently from the lineup after the 1951 season. He continued to manage in with Hanshin ('52-'54) then with Daiei ('56-'57), and Toei ('69-'70). During WWII he saw action in the Battle of Okinawa where he suffered wounds from mortars in his left leg and hip. In 1974, he published a war memoir entitled Matsuki Ittohei no Okinawa Horyoki (Pfc. Matsuki's Tale as a Prisoner on Okinawa).

Joker

Babe Ruth

Tribute Card


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Babe Ruth died August 16, 1948, at the age of 53. There are 52 cards in a deck. Thus, the Joker is the 53rd card. Was it intentional, or just a coincidence to make Babe the 53rd card in the JCM 21 set? We may never know. What we do know is that the Babe was loved around the world, especially in Japan. In fact, on April 27, 1947, when the Babe delivered his farewell speech in Yankee Stadium, his words were broadcast to fans in Japan who also participated in “Babe Ruth Day.”  Three years after his death, NPB renewed “Babe Ruth Day” and celebrated it across the league – perhaps inspiring the inclusion of his likeness in this set.


##


Sources: 

Translation assistance from Shimako Shimizu and Kenichi Koshio.

Email exchange with Gary Engel, January 2022.

Japanese Baseball: A Statistical Handbook, Daniel E. Johnson (McFarland, 1999).

Japanese Vintage Baseball Card Checklist & Price Guide, Second Edition 2.1, by Gary Engel, http://www.prestigecollectibles.com/vintageguide.aspx

PSA Cards.com, https://www.psacard.com/cardfacts/baseball-cards/1950-menko-jcm21-hand-cut/32361

Heritage Auctions, https://sports.ha.com/itm/baseball/1950-menko-japanese-baseball-uncut-sheet-with-babe-ruth/a/151652-44007.s?ic4=GalleryView-ShortDescription-071515 

SportsCardInfo, https://sportscardinfo.wordpress.com/2013/12/07/flashback-product-of-the-week-1950-menko-jcm21/ 

StatsCrew.com, https://www.statscrew.com/minorbaseball/l-JPCL/y-1950 

Baseball-Reference.com, https://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Japanese_Baseball_Hall_of_Fame 

Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, https://baseball-museum.or.jp/en/

Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum Research Library, Division Librarian, Taku Kayane, (公益財団法人 野球殿堂博物館, 事業部 司書 茅根 拓)

Google Translate, https://www.google.com/search?q=english+to+japanese&oq=English+to+Japanese 

Newspapers.com 

Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball, Robert K. Fitts (Nebraska Press, 2008).