One of the aspects of collecting Japanese baseball cards that I enjoyed in the early days was the card show get-togethers. From
about 1991 through 1996, Robert Klevens would show up regularly at west coast card shows, usually in San Francisco.
I’d take the train up from San Jose to the Fourth and Townsend Station in San Francisco, and walk to wherever the event was being held. If I was lucky, it would be close-by at the Concourse Exhibition Center on Eighth Street. I remember one year arriving a little late, and getting impatient with the event staff person who was more interested in what was going on behind me than taking my money and letting me in the door. Finally he looks at me and says, “Muhammad Ali is right behind you.” I turned around and he was just a few feet away, looking right at me with a big smile on his face as he walked passed. Okay, well that doesn’t happen every day.
Tim Taira and Robert Klevens at a San Francisco card show in September 2007.
On September 5, 1993 at the Labor Day Card Show in San Francisco, we held what I called “The 1993 JBE Get-together.” This was a sizable group of Japanese baseball enthusiasts that met formally for a discussion of our mutual interest in collecting Japanese baseball cards and memorabilia. Attendees were Jeff Alcorn, David Block, Gary Engel, Dan Johnson, Robert Klevens, Nelson Okino, Robert Shadlow, Tim Taira (aka T. Kichigai), and myself. We each shared how long we’d been collecting,
what motivated us to collect, and what our primary collecting interests were. Robert Shadlow had been collecting the
longest, since the early 1960s, and his good friend Jeff Alcorn had been collecting since 1979. The rest of us were comparatively new to the scene.
David Block stood in for his brother Philip, who was still working in Japan and tracking down cards for collectors in his spare time. Gary Engel was still dealing primarily in American cards at the time, and Dan Johnson had yet to write his very helpful, “Japanese Baseball; a Statistical Handbook.” Nelson Okino’s focus was on Hawaiian players, and Tim Taira explained that his interest was primarily as an investment. Robert Klevens of “Sports Card Heaven” had a table at the show, and is the person most responsible for the Japanese baseball card hobby being where it is today. Robert told us that he’d visited Japan in 1988, and had come across some
menko. He was intrigued with the cards, and soon returned to Japan to see if he could track down more.
Collectors meeting: Japanese baseball card collectors meet at the San Francisco Labor Day Card Show in San Francisco on September 5, 1993. Clockwise from left: Tim Taira, Nelson Okino, Ralph Pearce, Gary Engel, David Block, Dan Johnson, Jeff Alcorn, and Robert Klevens (in white cap). Photo taken by Robert Shadlow.
In 1990, Robert created the first real Japanese baseball card guide that I’m aware of, “The Sports Card Heaven Japanese Baseball Card & Memorabilia Reference Guide.” Well illustrated, it provides a timeline of Japanese baseball history, an overview of cards by Larry Fuhrmann, a listing of Japan Baseball Hall of Fame members and MVPs, numerous checklists, and a one page price guide for cards from the 1940s through 1990. Robert produced an expanded second edition in 1991, though he replaced Larry’s original overview with another of Larry’s articles specific to Calbees. These guides, with their blank note pages in the back, became a tremendous stimulus to collectors. I still refer to mine, which is well-marked and falling apart from years of use. Twenty-five years later, Robert is still a primary source of Japanese cards as the owner of Prestige Collectibles.
Robert Kleven’s second guide to Japanese baseball cards, which came out in 1991. After moving to Japan in 1996, Robert eventually returned to the U.S. and resumed selling Japanese baseball cards and memorabilia under the name Prestige Collectibles.
Finding hats and jerseys to wear has always been popular with collectors, but again, in those pre-Internet days a Japanese baseball cap was a hard-to-acquire item. At one point I decided that it would be fun to try and get a couple of Tokyo Giants baseball caps for my son and me. I’d been picking up Japanese baseball magazines at our local Japanese bookstore in San Jose, and had seen a number of
ads for baseball merchandise, all located in Japan of course. With the help of Japanese language books and dictionaries, I put together some simple phrases, then with a few time zone calculations, made a long-distance call to Japan:
Japanese Store: Moshi moshi [name of store] de gozaimsu..
Me: Konnichi wa. Boku no namae-wa Rarufu desu. Amerika kara
yon de imasu. Eigo wa hanashite kudasai.
Japanese Store: Yes I can speak English. How can I help you?
So I had basically just called, told them who I was, where I was calling from, and asked if they spoke English. I got lucky and
was able to proceed with an order by sending them an International Money Order for the amount, pretty cool.