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A Short History of Japanese Baseball
Written by Rob Fitts   
Friday, 31 December 2010 00:59

 Baseball was introduced to Japan in the early 1870s, by Horace Wilson a teacher at Kaisei Gakko in Tokyo.   In the same decade, Hiroshi Hiraoka, an engineer for the national railways, returned from studying in American.  Upon his return, he introduced the sport to his co-workers and established Japan’s first organized team, the Shimbashi Athletic Club, in 1878.   During the nineteenth century, Ichiban Chugaku (nicknamed Ichiko and now Tokyo University) dominated Japanese baseball and on March 23, 1896, defeated an American team from the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club, 29 to 4, in the first recorded international baseball game in Asia.

The game spread quickly to other schools and universities.  In 1905, Waseda University became the first of many Japanese teams to travel to the United States to sharpen their skills.  The tour was a wonderful learning experience for Waseda and they went on to dominate the Japanese college leagues for decades.  Not to be outdone, Waseda's rival Keio University traveled to America in 1911.  Games between these two rivals soon became the highlight of Japanese sports.
American teams also traveled across the Pacific to play their Japanese counterparts.  Before World War II, Wisconsin, Chicago, Washington, and Harvard University teams and the Philadelphia Royal Giants of the Negro Leagues toured Japan.  To promote professional baseball, Major League teams also toured Japan.  Touring teams included the Reach All-Americans (1908), the New York Giants and Chicago White Sox (1913), the Herb Hunter All-Americans (1920 and 1922), and Major League All-Stars (1931 and 1934).  As Japanese was primarily an amateur endeavor until the mid 1930s, the touring Americans played lopsided games against university and amateur teams.  From 1908 to 1934, American professional teams won 87 of the 88 contests in Japan.  Japan's only victory came on November 23, 1922, when the amateur Mita club, led by star pitcher Michimaro Ono, beat Herb Hunter’s Major League All-Stars 9 to 3.  Hunter’s team included Luke Sewell, Wait Hoyt (who lost the game), and George Kelly.
The 1934 Major League All-Star tour of Japan changed Japanese baseball forever.  The Major Leaguers formed one of the strongest teams in the history of baseball.  Led by Babe Ruth, the roster included Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Charlie Gehringer, Earl Averill, Lefty Gomez, Lefty O’Doul and Moe Berg.  To challenge this formidable opponent, Yomiuri Shinbun owner Matsutaro Shoriki bought together Japan's most talented players.  Although the team contained eleven future Hall of Famers, they lost all 18 contests by a combined score of 189 to 39.  The highlight of the tour came on November 20th, when 17-year-old Eiji Sawamura pitched seven shutout innings before surrendering a homerun to Gehrig.  Sawamura lost the game 1-0, but struck out nine including consecutive strikeouts of Gehringer, Ruth, Gehrig, and Foxx. 
Unlike previous Japanese all-star teams, which played just a few games against touring opponents before disbanding, Shoriki decided to keep the team together as professionals.  The following year (1935), the team traveled to North America to sharpen their skills.  Known as the Dai Nippon Tokyo Yakyu Club, the team played against college, amateur, and minor league teams across the United States and Canada.  At Lefty O'Doul's recommendation, Shiriki changed the team's name later that year to the Yomiuri Tokyo Giants.
Following in the Giants' footsteps, other Japanese professional teams were quickly formed and a series of professional tournaments were played in 1936.  In 1937, eight teams joined the Japan Professional Baseball League and played the first full season of Japanese pro ball.  The widely popular league continued until play was suspended in 1944 due to Allied air raids. 
With the encouragement of the Occupying Forces, Japanese Professional Baseball resumed play in 1946.  From 1946 to 1948, eight teams fought for the championship of a single league.  In 1949, the San Francisco Seals, managed by Lefty O’Doul, toured Japan and played seven games against the Japanese pros.  The Seals were given a heroes’ welcome and baseball’s popularity exploded.  The following year, Japanese Professional Baseball added seven more teams and split into two leagues: the Central and the Pacific.  In the first Japan Series, the Mainichi Orions overcame the Shochiku Robins four games to two.  
New stars emerged in the Post-War era.   Tetsuharu Kawakami, nicknamed the God of Batting, used a red bat and fought rival Hiroshi Oshita, who used a blue bat, for batting titles with Tigers’ sluggers Fumio Fujimura and Kaoru Betto at their heals.  On the mound, Hideo Fujimoto, and Takehiro Bessho, Masaichi Kaneda, and pre-War star Victor Starffin dominated the league.  In the expansion year of 1950, Makoto Kozuru had one of the best seasons in the history of Japanese ball hitting .355 with 51 homers, 161 RBI, and 143 runs.  In 1951, Wally Yonamine, a Nisei from Hawaii and former San Francisco 49er, joined the Yomiuri Giants and quickly became the first post-War gaijin star.  
During the 1950s, the Giants dominated the Central League by winning eight of the ten championships.  In the Pacific League, the Nankai Hawks and Nishitetsu Lions combined to win every pennant from 1951 to 1959.  The Lions led by ace pitcher Kazuhisa Inao and Hall of Famers Hiroshi Oshita and Futoshi Nakanishi beat the Giants in three straight Japan Series (1956-58).  The highlight for the Lions came in 1958, when after they lost the first three games, Inao won each of the last four games to win the series.
Japanese baseball entered a new era during the late 1950s.  At this time, many of the league's first stars, such as Tetsuharu Kawakami, Kaoru Betto and Fumio Fujimura, retired and new stars emerged.  Among the new superstars were Shigeo Nagashima, Sadaharu Oh, Isao Harimoto, Katsuya Nomura, and Minoru Murayama.  One of the most famous games in the history of Japanese baseball took place in 1959 when Nagashima hit a sayanara homerun in the bottom of the ninth to win first baseball game ever attended by the Emperor.   
In 1965, the Yomiuri Giants, under the direction of former batting star Tetsuharu Kawakami, won the first of nine straight Japan Series championships.  Known as the V-9 Giants, the team was led by Shigeo Nagashima and Sadaharu Oh, the two best players in the history of Japanese baseball.  Batting in the third and fourth spots, the duo, known as the ON Canon, combined for eight MVP Awards, six batting titles, nine homerun crowns, and nine RBI titles during this nine year run.  
In 1974, the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants reign came to an end.  Prior to 1974, the Giants had won 19 of the 24 Central League pennants.  Since 1974, the league has become more competitive and the Giants have only captured 10 pennants in 28 years.  The highlight of the 1970s was Sadaharu Oh hitting his 756 homerun in September 1977.  He retired in 1980.  New stars emerged in the 1970s and 1980s.  The Hiroshima Carp’s Sachio Kinugasa broke Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played, while teammate Koji Yamamoto led the team to five championships.  Yutaka Fukumoto of the Hankyu Braves broke Lou Brock’s world record for most stolen bases.  Japan’s greatest player of the 1980s, Hiromistu Ochiai, picked up three triple crowns but also managed to alienate most of the baseball world through his outspoken predictions.  
With the Giants domination ended, other dynasties emerged.  The Hiroshima Carp, led by Koji Yamamoto and Sachio Kinugasa, won five pennants from 1975 to 1986 and were rarely out of contention.  In the Pacific League, the Hankyu Braves, who had lost to the Giants in the Series during five of the V-9 seasons, emerged to capture three straight Japan Series titles (1975-77).  During the 1980s and 1990s, the Seibu Lions were Japan’s most successful franchise.  From 1982 to 1998, the Lions won 13 Pacific League pennants and 8 championships.  In 1985, Randy Bass captured his first of two consecutive triple crowns as he led the Hanshin Tigers to their first Japan Series championship.  The 1980s saw a host of gaijin stars including Roy White, Reggie Smith, Boomer Wells, Warren Cromartie, and Bob Horner. 
During the 1990s, two young stars dominated Japanese baseball: Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui.  Ichiro won seven straight Pacific League batting titles before signing with the Seattle Mariners in 2001.  Matsui led the Giants to four pennants before moving to the New York Yankees in 2003.  With the loss of the two top stars and a number of star pitchers to the Major Leagues, Japanese baseball is currently in a crisis.  The league’s organizers are afraid that they will lose fans and become just a minor league as they lose their stars to America.  The next few years will be very important to the future of Japanese baseball.


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