Will Baseball Cards Be Produced in China?
May 19, 2010
by William Szczepanek
I've joked about baseball cards from China and the possibility of baseball leagues in China competing with those in the United States. baseball cards are still one of the few products still produced in the U.S. If baseball cards were made in China would we have some of the same problems that we see in other products from there? Would people need to worry about lead paint poisoning? If you opened your shoebox after a year or two would there just be a pile of dust. Would names be misspelled and would the reverse sides have grammatical errors? Will baseball become the national pastime of mainland China? Will baseball cards go global? Is it a real possibility, or just one of those global ideas to make a few people rich? China is one of those countries that does a good job of copying technology advances of other countries. With our help China has become a highly successful capitalist country. That is probably where the similarities end.
Sports figures from Asian countries like Japan, Korea and China are becoming much more competitive in individual sports, like golf. The LPGA has had a great number of stellar players occupy the top rankings and the PGA men are starting to see more competition from Asian countries. Basketball has become an international game with excellent players from Europe and China coming to the NBA. This sort of competition is good.
Baseball and football are different, though. For some reason, other countries haven't latched on to the popularity of baseball and football the way they have some other sports. Europe and South America have their own version of football called soccer and they are very passionate about it. Soccer just can't seem to succeed in the U.S. I still find soccer boring, but maybe I don't understand the nuances of the game. Much like people everywhere who malign baseball for its lack of action, they really don't understand the game. But, maybe it's more than that. England has cricket and they seem very happy with it. Baseball was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1900 and again in 1992. It was voted out by the IOC for the 2012 Olympics and now is no longer a medal sport. Even if people of other countries did understand all the rules and the intricate strategy and the skill level required to play the game of baseball they still may not like it.
To be successful I think a sport needs to mature culturally within a country. Japan has been pretty successful at assimilating baseball into their lifestyle. Baseball has been played in Japan for just about as long as in the U.S. It was introduced to the Japanese by Horace Wilson, an American professor, around 1870, but baseball was cultivated by their own people. American teams visited Japan to spread the popularity of the game. In 1934 Connie Mack took a team of All Stars, including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, to Japan for a series of games. The 18 games were viewed by more than 500,000 Japanese. The American All Star team won every game and delighted the fans, with the Babe hitting 13 home runs. While there are slight differences in rules, equipment and field specifications, the sports are virtually the same. After many years the Japanese have cultivated skilled players with the requisite power and speed to play in the Majors.
What would it take for baseball cards to grow into a major industry in China? The corporate types would have all kinds of gimmicks and marketing approaches to push the idea, but what it really needs is for baseball to be accepted by the Chinese and inculcated into their society.
In 2008, Major League Baseball debuted in China with a 2-game series between the Padres and Dodgers. The Chinese people added their own twists to make it interesting, like female cheerleaders. I'm not quite sure why this hasn't taken off in the U.S., but I can come up with a number of reasons (sounds like a good future article).
Anyway, the main point is that baseball is an American game that has changed with the culture and has remained an American idea. The game's complexity requires a good deal of study and knowledge for one to truly enjoy the experience. It's enjoyment derives greatly from comparisons to the past both in individual player and team records. Many people viewing baseball for the first time (or even the 100th time) just don't get it. A Chinese fan in Beijing viewing his first game was asked how a game is won. His answer was that it appeared that whichever team hit the ball the furthest was the winner.
Chinese Taipei (also known as Taiwan) has won a number of Little League World Series. Baseball is Taiwan's national sport. The Olympic baseball tournament game between them and China was exceptional. The tournament was eventually won by South Korea.
What's become obvious in world team sports is that countries other than the U.S. are beginning to dominate because they rely on strategy, cunning and smart cooperative play, rather than the natural talent that drives most U.S. team games. This has been very obvious in basketball where European teams excel. Baseball is a team sport. Team play and sound strategy has been sorely lacking in the U.S. teams for many decades. Good bunting, moving runners, going with the pitch, executing the hit and run choking up and getting a hit with two strikes all involve special talent. They are not done well today. If anyone watches Little League games you know that is how games are won.
Baseball cards are popular in Japan and a few other countries. When that will happen in China is largely dependent on the acceptance of the game in their culture and the application of their own brand. If that happens then we may be looking at a real World Series, like the Little League World Series, where teams from around the world compete, and if the American teams don't change their game, they will be dominated by their Asian counterparts.
Look for Asia to market the first electronic baseball cards. Look for them to be better than anything we have done in the recent past. Innovation is the key to long term success. We need a new Golden Age of Baseball cards. Maybe it will be dubbed the Silicon Age of Baseball Cards.
While around 30% of all major leaguers come from a country other than the U.S., what seems to have changed recently is a person's allegiance to their country of heritage versus the country of citizenry. Many years ago Joe DiMaggio was known to be Italian, but he was an American baseball player. Stan Musial was proud of his Polish heritage, but he was an American ball player. Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks were African American and played during a time of transition of baseball from predominantly white to a sport of all colors, but Aaron and Banks were, above all, Americans. That is where, in the long term, the United States may have an advantage in that they can extract the best qualities from the diversity that will exist on its teams. That can only work when we all look at ourselves as American first and something else second.
The monetary value of a baseball card derives from the initial attractiveness, popularity and intellectual value that a baseball card possesses. Whether baseball cards are made in the U.S., China or some emerging area of Africa, what's important is that the image on the card spurs people to collect them for their altruistic and personal value first and the possible monetary value second, otherwise, they will have no real value either way. I saw on the news the other day that China is subsidizing classes in U.S. elementary schools to expose kids to their language and culture. On the surface it doesn't seem like a bad idea. On the other side, I don't see any U.S. influence in the Chinese schools. But, maybe if we export baseball cards to China we can educate their kids about the real history of the U.S.