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CLASS OF ’87

In the Cards

 

Archaeologist Dr. Robert Fitts C’87 began collecting Japanese baseball cards almost a decade ago as a diversion from the drudgery of Ph.D. work. Today he has tens of thousands of cards and a Web site for English-speaking collectors (www.RobsJapaneseCards.com).
    He took up the hobby when his wife, Sarah Watkins Fitts C’87 G’87, an attorney, was transferred to Tokyo for a couple of years in the early 1990s. “I was writing my dissertation, which is a lonely, boring job, and needed something else to do [while in Tokyo],” he says. Until recently, there were no baseball card shops in Japan; cards were sold sporadically in antique shops and used-toy stores. “So the hunt was very exciting.” Fitts’s now sizable personal collection centers on Sadaharu Oh, all-time home-run champion, who bested Hank Aaron’s record in 1977 and is one of the most popular Japanese players among Americans.
    Japanese baseball began in the 1890s in Japan, when an American professor who taught at what would become Tokyo University introduced the game, Fitts says. It remained an amateur sport until 1936, when the first professional league was formed. Japanese baseball cards first came out in the 1920s. None were produced through most of the 1940s because of a paper shortage. Then from 1948 to 1950, card production boomed despite the economic drag of post-war reconstruction and occupation. “They were cheap toys,” Fitts explains. Colorfully illustrated cards, called menkos, were used by Japanese boys for flipping games and featured additional games on the back.
    Fitts’s Web site displays cards from all eras, including a rare, $1,500 card from 1960 of Japan’s most popular player, Shigeo Nagashima, which he’s reluctant to sell. Most items on his site sell at much lower prices.
    Fitts now works in New York for Gotham Archaeology, consulting for developers and construction companies that need to know if there is a chance of finding archaeological remains on a site before they dig. “But I spend most of my time on more academic work.” He’s writing a book on 19th-century New York with a focus on the developing middle class there. Another book in the works will introduce the star players of Japanese baseball to the American public.


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