Wednesday, April 13, 2016

1928 Shonen Club Babe Ruth: A Definitive Guide to what we Don't Know/ Get Wrong about it

(Edited to note: some of the info in this post has been updated, to get the gist of everything scroll down to "Update 3" at the end of the post)

I just picked up my new most-expensive-Japanese-baseball-card-in-my-collection.  Move over 1974 Calbee Frank Howard, the 1928 (maybe) Shonen Club Babe Ruth is now here!

This was kind of an impulse purchase, I had never heard of it until I saw one up for auction on Yahoo Japan last week.  I did a bit of research into what it was, liked what I saw, and decided to splurge (a lot, admittedly).

This is a really amazing card for a number of reasons.  Babe Ruth, despite being the most famous baseball player in history, had his career fall into a relatively inconvenient period of American baseball card history.  He came up with the Red Sox just a bit too late to have gotten cards in the classic tobacco issues, then hit his peak in the 1920s when there were hardly any particularly big name sets out.  The only really major sets he appears in are the Goudey ones in the 1930s which just caught the tail end of his career (and nonetheless managed to miss out on him in the 1934 issue for some reason).

So its kind of interesting that one of the most attractive cards of him from his peak years in the 1920s is actually a postcard issued in Japan.  Having looked around the English language internet though it is surprising how little seems to be known about this card, and how much what everyone thinks they know about it seems to be either wrong or at the very least not clearly established as fact, so I thought I would use this post  to clear up a few things.

What is the card called?
This is a really basic problem and, to put it mildly, almost every "official" catalogue has screwed that up.  According to the PSA classification this is the "1928 Shonen Kulubu Babe Ruth Postcard." SCG uses the same name and  I think the use of it probably goes back a while.  It is really obvious that whoever came up with that name is not familiar with the Japanese language, since the word "Kulubu" is not an accurate romanization of the original Japanese "倶楽部".  The sound of the letter "l" doesn't exist in the Japanese language so no known method of romanizing Japanese words uses  it.  The only two accurate romanizations would be either "Kurabu" (based on the Hepburn method of romanizing Japanese) or "Club", the English loan word on which the Japanese is based.

Therefore "Shonen Club" or "Shonen Kurabu" would be accurate names for this card.  "Shonen Kulubu" is just plain wrong.  I prefer to use Shonen Club and refer to it as such.

What does the Text Say?
A Second thing that the English language internet is a bit sketchy on is what the text of the card actually says.  In comments here and there people say the photo depicts Babe hitting his first home run of the 1926 season.  I assume these comments are based on knowledge of the photograph from another source and they might be accurate, but the card itself doesn't say anything to that effect.  The text is a bit interesting since it uses a lot of archaic characters that are not in use today.  The written Japanese language was radically revised after the war, so pre-war text looks quite a bit different than contemporary written Japanese. My rough translation of what is says is as follows:
"The moment that Babe Ruth, hailed as the world home run king, swings his bat with all his might.   It looks like the ball quickly flew over the fence for a home run, as the catcher and umpire look up and the Babe's face beams with pleasure.  The fans packed in the stands watch awestruck."

Kind of a nice little blurb, but it doesn't give us any detail about what the card actually pictures (besides the obvious).

When was it released?
 Every English source says it was released in 1928 and that might be accurate, but just by looking through Japanese language internet sources I am having trouble understanding where that specific year comes from.  In every Japanese auction or other source I could find they do not say it was issued in 1928 (or Showa 3, the Japanese equivalent), but rather refer to it simply as a "pre-war" card.  It seems to be well accepted that the card was inserted in Shonen Club magazine, which was a monthly magazine aimed at children which was published monthly between 1914 and 1962 (with the exception of the war years). As I note above the text on the card clearly identifies it as having been issued pre-war, and the phrasing also clearly suggests that it was issued during Babe's playing days, but whether or not it was specifically isssued in 1928 (as opposed to say 1927 or 1930 for example) I really can't say.  I don't have copies of the magazines so I haven't been able to phsyically examine them, but I haven't found any Japanese sources which identify which issue of the magazine the card came in.  The above photo is the March, 1928 issue.

This site here gives an incomplete view of the covers of Shonen Club magazines from 1927 to 1930.  We can only see two of twelve from 1928 so its by no means conclusive (and the covers themselves don't give us much written info on what is inside), but the only one with a baseball related cover is the September 1930 issue.  I'll have to do a bit more research into this and try to track down which issue the card actually came from.  Suffice it to say that it isn`t something that can be determined by a simple internet search even if you can read Japanese.  Copies of Shonen Club from the pre-war era are pretty hard to find and expensive when you do so it will take a lot of luck on my part to be able to physically track down the one that contained this card.

1928 may in fact be accurate, but my concern is that if  the hobby's semi-official catalogers haven't even able to get the name of the card correct I don't have much confidence that they got the year right either.  They would have to have physically  tracked down and gone through a pile of very old and rare children`s magazines that can only be located in Japan and are all written in a language they cannot speak to be confident of that date, and it is pretty safe to assume they did nothing of the sort.  I think it is reasonable to say that the card probably dates to the late 1920s or early 1930s, but haven't seen anything to justify stating with certainty that this was from a 1928 issue of Shonen Club.

(edited to note: I did just find this description on an old Ebay auction which states it came from the August, 1929 issue of Shonen Club.  I haven't been able to track down any images of that issue to confirm, and no Japanese language source I have looked at refers to that issue, but at least someone has apparently gone out on a limb to identify a specific issue it came from.  If accurate that would mean that not only the name, but also the year by which this card is catalogued are wrong).

Anyway, these are just a few of the surprisingly simple things which the English language collecting world seems to have either misunderstood or simply not known about this card.  Its a terrific card of the Babe with a beautiful action picture, but beyond that I think a lot more research needs to be done to confirm its origins.  At the very least, if you had one graded by PSA you might want to write them to complain about that name and year.

UPDATE:  This and that....

While doing some more perusing on the internet I discovered an interesting variation that might exist with this card.  This is what the back of my Ruth card looks like.  Basically it is a standard postcard with `Carte Postale` written in French at the top and some Japanese writing elsewhere (just standard stuff identifying it as a postcard, etc).

 Looking around, most of the other examples I`ve seen in auctions have the same back.  But I found this copy of it that was sold in a Sterling auction a few years ago. The front is the same, but it has a completely different back.  The writing is entirely in English and seems to be based on an American postcard back template.

 I`m not sure what to make of that. Looking around the scant information on the Japanese net, it seems that Shonen Club postcards issued across different years did have different backs, but none of the ones I can find have all English backs like that (though admittedly this is just from a few quick Google searches on my part).

I guess there are three possibilities here.  One is that there exists a variation of the Ruth card which may have been issued in a seperate format and came with an English back.  Second is that the Sterling auction site might have accidentally matched the wrong photos in that listing.  Third is that the Ruth card in that one has been altered, though I have no idea how/why someone would do that.

My hunch is that the second option is most likely.  Nowhere else have I seen Shonen Club cards with this type of back and it seems unlikely that they would have used an American postcard back which, among other things, states the price of postage in Cents.

Another interesting thing which I have found out thanks to the above linked blog post is that these cards seem to have been issued in sets that came in specially designed cardboard envelopes that were themselves quite nice to look at.  That post doesn`t include the Babe Ruth one but does have some cards with the same back as mine.

Looking at the envelopes they came in I am a bit unsure if these were actually distributed with a specific issue of the magazine.  I had previously assumed they were distributed like cards are in modern magazines, inserted directly into the pages of the magazine.  These envelopes don`t seem like they would have been distributed like that since putting them into the magazine pages would likely have crushed the envelope.

In my day job I have actually had the chance to do some research on the history of the Japanese retail trade and in the 1920s these magazines would probably have been distributed either through subscriptions or through very small retailers.  One possibility is that the postcards might have been given to retailers (likely small candy/toy/book stores) separately from the magazines and distributed by hand to customers as they bought the magazine (as opposed to coming physically attached with the magazine).  This would explain why the Japanese collecting world has no idea which issue these cards came with - they might not have been distributed with a specific issue but rather as a promotion that might have spanned several months.

Some other pre-war postcards issued by Shonen Club, including some with the same backs as the Babe Ruth, can be found here

Update 2

Actually it seems like these postcards probably were issued with a specific issue rather than having been distributed separately over several months like I speculated they might have been above.  I haven`t been able to find the sports related card set that the Ruth came in, but in 1936 Shonen Club issued a 40 card postcard set titled Our Great Navy (rough translation). This came in its own specially designed envelope seen at the top of this picture here:

Importantly if you look at the lower right side of that cover it clearly says (in the green colored print) that it came with the August, 1936 issue of Shonen Club.  So it seems they were in the practice of issuing these with individual magazines after all!  Given that these pre-date the use of plastic wrap and other modern ways of attaching things to magazines, I think my speculation that these would have been distrubted by hand to people buying the magazine rather than coming attached to the magazine itself may still be correct though.

This navy issue seems to be quite a bit more common than the one the Ruth postcard came in as there are quite a few cards from it available from different sellers on Yahoo Auctions at the moment.  It seems the key to tracking down which year and month the Ruth card was issued in lies with tracking down the envelope that the set came with (or possibly tracking down the magazine itself, but since we don`t know which one it came with that poses a challenge).  This is a bit complicated though since I don`t even know the proper name of that set in Japanese.

Another interesting thing I`ve gathered is that Shonen Club issued a pretty wide range of give-aways for their magazines, not just postcards.  Booklets, paper models of ships, posters and other odds and ends were also given away.  Its kind of neat when you consider that Japan was a pretty poor society in the 1920s and 30s, yet their children`s magazines were way cooler than the ones I read as a kid in the 1980s (Boy`s Life, etc) which never came with anything that cool.


Mystery solved.  Not by me, but by the good folks over at Old Cardboard with input from Michiko Webb and Robert Klevens who seem to have already more or less answered every question about this card which I raised in this post a few years back.  To be honest it is a bit embarrassing that I didn`t find that earlier, I was concentrating so much on Japanese sources that I only did a cursory search for English language ones and missed the most important one!

They were able to definitively trace it to the August, 1929 issue of Shonen Club, which has Napoleon on the cover.  It came as part of a 40 card set, which  depicted a variety of landscapes, animals and other subjects.

So basically if you want accurate information about this card, Old Cardboard`s listing lists the correct name (Shonen Club), the correct year (1929), the correct background information about the card and a correct translation of the text on the front (which is similar to the translation I provided above).

If you want inaccurate information about this card then PSA is your source.  Their description of this set contains the following errors:

Year: PSA says 1928, actual year is 1929;
Name: PSA says Shonen Kulubu, actual is either Shonen Club or Shonen Kurabu;
Set: PSA says it was a "multi-sport premium", actual set was not sport specific and contained a variety of other subjects.
Photo: PSA says without qualification that it is Babe Ruth hitting his first home run of the 1926 season, Old Cardboard notes that while this is what it is commonly described as it has not been confirmed.  Not sure which is correct but given how error-riddled the PSA entry is and how accurate everything else in the Old Cardboard one is I give greater weight to the latter until evidence confirming it surfaces.
Organization: PSA seems to imply that this was the magazine of an organization called "Youth Club".  "Youth Club" is an accurate English translation of "Shonen Kurabu", but as far as I can tell that is just the title of a magazine and not necessarily the name of an actual club.

Sadly the internet seems to almost entirely base its knowledge of the Ruth card on how PSA mis-describes it while the vastly superior Old Cardboard entry with its excellent research (they even have scans of the original magazine) is largely overlooked.

At the end of this all I can say is my biggest mistake in doing research on this card was starting with what PSA said and working from there.  It gave me a vastly misleading picture of the history of this card which could have been easily remedied had I consulted Old Cardboard first.  Next time I have a question about an old card like this I know where I'll look first.