Thursday, December 9, 2010

You're In America. Speak Japanese.

Trading cards are unlike most other collectibles in that part of the enjoyment of having them comes in reading them.

Guitars are not like that, unless you’re into the number 10. Neither are most records, especially the ones with poetry, though I make exceptions for the ones with liner notes by Leonard Feather, Robert Simon, Rich Kienzle, or Cub Koda.

End tables, sewing machines, vases, Currier & Ives prints, cigars, wine, and Nudie suits are likewise light on the metonymies and compound modifiers.

Comic books are the No. 1 exception except when they’re slabbed and the only way you can read them is by cracking the slab and destroying their collectibility for all time, or at least until you fork over another hundred to have them regraded.

Seriously. That’s like buying Frosted Spooners and not eating them because you don’t want to mess with the big, bold “Malt-O-Meal” splashed across the front. 

Baseball cards are closer to comic books than anything previously mentioned, and they have the added advantage of being one page front and back, meaning their deathless prose can be savored and their card-head preserved even in tamper-resistant Lexan. 

After all, where would the Sam Bowens ’64 Topps card be without the immortal words, “Sam hit .324 for Bluefield of the Appalachian League in 1960,” splashed across the back?

Though “the older the better” is an adage that normally applies to baseball cards, it doesn’t always apply to the writing on baseball cards. Even as cardmakers tossed back a few on the party bus to Chapter 7 they continued to fling a few sous in the direction of quality writing on card backs. From NFL Books’ contributions to Pro Set to Keith Olbermann’s work on the “En Fuego” chase set to the anonymous souls (who can remain anonymous no longer: they included myself and Jim McLauchlin) who delivered the vintage goods on Fleer’s Goudey remakes, top-notch writing was one of the hallmarks of sports cards from the early edge of the Handful O’Landfill era, before it was all about the foil.

There are four main requirements for good writing on card backs: Eschew surplusage, avoid clichés, accentuate the positive, and work in at least one pertinent fact per back. So while “Opposing hitters teed off on Alfredo’s 70-mph fastball, helping account for last season’s 3-17 mark” would not be good card-back writing, “Alfredo is counting on an improved changeup to help him build on last year’s three-win total” would be good card-back writing. 

Oh, and one more requirement: Backs should be in English, please. 

Let’s be clear about this. Nobody’s getting all bumper-stickery here. This is not about what is or is not the official language of the United States. This is about what needs to be written on baseball-card backs so people can read them. 

Canadian hockey cards get a pass because they’re Canadian, they’re bilingual by law, and because “la rousse est la taille d'une rondelle qualifiée de gestionnaire” (“the big redhead is a skilled puck-handler”) lets you make neat herking noises in your throat.

Donruss and Fleer baseball sets from the early ‘80s do not get a pass, because while they clearly utilize English words, they use them in a random fashion, much like Sarah Palin. 

Also not getting a pass is the Baseball Magazine set from 1991, because it’s in Japanese. I mean, all in Japanese, except for the player name, team, position, and the words “Baseball Magazine.”

This gives Baseball Magazine a license to ill, because while it’s quite clear that Mickey Abarbanel’s raison d’être for being in a baseball-card set is that he went 13-4 with Fox Cities of the Midwest League in 1966 (“Mickey a 13-4 avec les villes Fox de la Ligue du Midwest en 1966”) there is nothing similar for Kozo Shohda other than “Baseball Magazine” – unless you read Japanese. 

Even then it’s not a sure thing. Who knows what’s an appropriate reason for being for a Nippon Ham Fighter? Kozo “I Shohda been a contender” could be in the set because his hands look like turtle doves when they are holding a bat (“宮城の手がバットを持って鳩亀のように見える”).

Oh, the cards have one more phrase in English: A box filled with Japanese characters is headlined with the words “Did you know?” Actually, I did not know that 浩三は、芸者ので、彼ドレスのような彼のチームメイトに人気がある (“Kozo is popular with his teammates because he dresses like a geisha”), but then again, I don’t feel like I’ve missed much. 

Here, I think, is where the importers of the Baseball Magazine set (which may have been Upper Deck, though memory escapes me) made a misstep. Instead of seeing that 99.63 percent of the American card-buying public does not read Japanese, they saw it as 99.63 percent of the American card-buying public does not not read Japanese, and they forged ahead.

The notion that American collectors might want Japanese baseball cards rose with Hideo Nomo and fell before Ichiro Suzuki hit these shores. It’s a shame. We might want to know that 服がなければイチローは、東京と大阪を結ぶ新幹線に似ている (“Without clothes Ichiro resembles the bullet train linking Tokyo and Osaka”). 

On second thought, they probably said the same thing about Mickey Abarbanel.