It's the snack food equivalent of hitting a grand slam.
Tokyo-based snacks maker Calbee Inc. this year celebrates the 40th anniversary of its "Professional Baseball Chips" potato chip line that offers trading cards featuring Nippon Professional Baseball players.
The trading cards series has sold more than 1 billion cards since it was launched in 1973.
The long-lasting potato chip series still maintains its competitive position in the snack market, where a product can be regarded a success when it stays on the shelves for three years. The snack has endured the ups and downs in the popularity of Japanese professional baseball.
The baseball card series was launched to succeed the "Kamen Rider Snack" series that featured trading cards from the "Kamen Rider" superhero TV series, which was released two years prior to the baseball card series and captivated children.
Initially, the professional baseball cards came with the "Sapporo Potato" crunchy snack before they were switched to potato chips in 1980.
In 1973, the Yomiuri Giants won the Japan Series for the ninth straight year. Total NPB annual attendance exceeded the 10 million mark for the first time that season, so it was a perfect time to tap into that market from a promotional point of view.
The commemorative first card depicted Shigeo Nagashima, a legendary player for the Giants who also later managed the club. The card shows the third baseman, referred to as "Mr. Baseball" or "Mr. Giants" in Japan, pointing his finger with a big smile on his face, as if to say, "Let's play catch."
A total of 18,000 different cards have been released under the series.
Sadaharu Oh, the most prolific home-run hitter in the history of Japanese baseball, topped the list of players most frequently featured, followed by Nagashima and Koichi Tabuchi.
Initially, Calbee gave priority to players from popular teams. There was also a time when the company did not release cards featuring players from a team owned by its rival, Lotte Co. By the mid-1980s, however, Calbee featured players from all 12 NPB teams on an equal basis. Some people may find it difficult to get cards of their favorite teams, no matter how often they buy the snack, but the chances are probably the same.
Yoshinori Mori, a self-employed 45-year-old from Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture, is an enthusiastic collector of the baseball cards and has even penned a book about his hobby.
"Even though they are just the size of a business card, the cards are loaded with Japanese baseball history and also bring back childhood memories," said Mori, explaining the charms of the baseball cards.
Even Calbee did not have the early cards in stock, so Mori visited antique shops across the country until he eventually collected all the baseball cards released up to 1997.
"It was like a treasure hunt without a map," Mori said with a laugh.
Now, he has tens of thousands of the collector cards. The one he loves most is a card featuring Shigeru Takada, which came in the first package of Professional Baseball Chips he bought.
"I felt very close to the player," Mori said. "(I love the card) because it got me started collecting them."
Despite the popularity of the series with avid collectors like Mori, the baseball cards have had to fight for their survival on more than one occasion.
The J.League, Japan's professional soccer league, kicked off in 1993. Backed by the soccer boom, Calbee's J.League Chips became wildly popular and the company couldn't secure enough potato chips for the Professional Baseball Chips line. The company had to switch to popcorn for the baseball cards for a while.
Sales of Professional Baseball Chips also drastically dropped in 2002, when Japan co-hosted the FIFA World Cup finals with South Korea.
The declining popularity of baseball is hurting sales these days. Professional Baseball Chips sold well when the Giants were going strong. In 1976, when Calbee had the most sales for the snack, the Giants won the Central League championship for the first time under then-manager Nagashima. The product generated the second-highest sales for the company in 1987, when the Oh-led Giants won the CL pennant.
However, sales figures have dropped to about half of their peak level in recent years, with broadcasts of Giants games suffering from low viewer ratings, Calbee said.
Still, Professional Baseball Chips stand out among other snacks with trading cards, many of which usually disappear a few years after they are released.
The Kamen Rider Snack line was terminated after two years, for example, and Calbee suspended sales of its J.League Chips a few times.
Actually, Professional Baseball Chips are among the least profitable products in Calbee's lineup. The snack was priced at 20 yen ($0.25) and contained one baseball card when the product debuted. It now costs 90 yen and contains two cards.
Calbee offers the product at a very cheap price because it is produced under the concept of "the first snack that elementary school students buy with their spending money," according to the company.
Currently, elementary school kids comprise about half of its customer base. Adults in their 30s and 40s are also fans of the snack.
"In many cases, parents and their children buy them together," said Tsuyoshi Mitsui, 42, a Calbee staffer who has been in charge of the snack for four years at the company's potato chip division.
"Actually, my son, who was an elementary school student at the time, looked at me with respect when I took charge of Professional Baseball Chips," he added, proudly.
Some of the baseball cards draw high bids at auctions and elsewhere. The first card featuring Nagashima is priced at 25,000 yen at the Ikebukuro branch of the Mint sports card shop in Tokyo.
Store manager Ryota Nakagawa, 31, says there are about 2,000 card collectors, mainly in their late 20s to 50s, in the Tokyo metropolitan area. At least 95 percent of the collectors are male.
During the 1970s, rare cards, including types that featured more than one player on a single card or showed a player with his family or even a
professional wrestler, were issued.
If the rarer cards are kept in good condition, some of them can be traded for up to 100,000 yen, the manager added.
In the United States, a baseball card depicting Honus Wagner, a legendary player from the early days of Major League Baseball, was sold for $2.8 million at an auction in 2007.
* * *
The Top 10 list of baseball players featured in the Professional Baseball Chips card series by 2004 (compiled by Calbee):
1. Sadaharu Oh (438 cards)
2. Shigeo Nagashima (291)
3. Koichi Tabuchi (204)
4. Masayuki Kakefu (166)
5. Koji Yamamoto (164)
6. Sachio Kinugasa (137)
7. Tatsunori Hara (130)
7. Isao Harimoto (130)
9. Kenichi Yazawa (126)
10. Shigeru Takada (120)
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