Baseball Is The National Game in Japan

This article was written by Robert Obojski

This article was published in 1976 Baseball Research Journal

Baseball was introduced into Japan in 1873 by an American teacher in Tokyo, Horace Wilson, and the game caught on very quickly through much of the island nation. Most Americans are, in fact, surprised to learn that the history of baseball in the land of Nippon goes back for more than a century.

At first, the Japanese had difficulty in understanding the rules of the game-and in that regard Baron Hiroshi Hiraoka in 1877 traveled to the United States and brought back to Japan a translation of the standard baseball rules. Hiraoka, who worked with Wilson in teaching the game to the Japanese, is considered by many sports historians to have played a more important role than Wilson in setting the game in motion in Japan. Hiraoka, incidentally, was one of the first individuals to be inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame at Tokyo’s Korakuen Stadium.

Masaru Ikei, a SABR member who lives in Yokohama, maintains that governmental leaders and many former “Daimyo” (feudal lords) favored supporting baseball and viewed the game as an American version of a martial sport like judo or kendo (a form of sword play). Since it was originally viewed as a martial sport, baseball was at first played every day, regardless of weather conditions.

During the past century, the Japanese have generally been very receptive to suggestions from Americans in working on the game’s finer points, but on occasion they’ll revert to their old practices. In conducting research for The Rise of Japanese Baseball Power, I interviewed Jim Hicks, a veteran of 14 years in U. S. Organized Baseball and two years in Japan’s Central League. Hicks said in part: “In Japan on any number of days we’ve played regular season games right through a steady rain, and once in spring training down on the island of Kyushu we played an exhibition game in the snow! It took me a couple of days to thaw out after that one.”

Hicks, who was with the Hiroshima Carp at the time, would undoubtedly concur that some field managers in Japan still view baseball as a martial sport!

While the first games in Japan were rather informal sandlot-type affairs, it wasn’t long before baseball became a regular part of athletic programs at major universities, including Keio, Waseda, Rikkyo and Meiji in Tokyo. It wasn’t long either before American college teams started to come over to challenge the Japanese collegians.

In 1878, the University of Wisconsin became the country’s first academic institution to send over a varsity nine to play a series of games against Japanese university teams. Against Keio University, the Badgers won three straight hard-fought games before being swamped 8-0. During the next twenty-odd years many American collegiate teams, including Chicago, Stanford, Harvard, California, Washington, Indiana and Illinois universities traveled across the Pacific to take on Japanese students in baseball.

Thus, the history of baseball in the land of the rising sun becomes inextricably linked with the continued and regular visits of American teams to all parts of the country. Although college teams kept coming steadily for exhibition tours in Nippon, it was the visits of the U. S. professional teams that eventually had the deepest impact.

The Reach All-American Team Tour

The first bonafide visit of American professional players to Japan took place in the fall and winter of 1908-09 when A. J. Reach & Co., one of the largest sporting goods manufacturers in the U. S., sent over a squad called the Reach All-American Team. The Reach Co., based in Philadelphia, promoted the trip not only to increase baseball interest in Japan but also to develop an Oriental market for sporting goods.

The Reach All-Americans, which included such stars of the day as Jack Graney, Jim Delahanty, Bill Burns, Pat Flaherty, Jack Bliss, Bill Heitmiller, Babe Danzig and Nick Williams, played 19 games in Japan and won every one of them. Most of the matches were against college teams, including Tokyo Imperial and Keio.

The most important of all U. S. baseball tours to Japan occurred in the fall of 1934 when the American League Stars, featuring Babe Ruth, “invaded” the country. Connie Mack, venerable manager of the Philadelphia Athletics who led the delegation, fielded a squad that also listed Lou Gehrig, Earl Averill, Charlie Gehringer, Jimmie Foxx, Bing Miller, Lefty Gomez, Earl Whitehill, Frank Hayes, and Eric McNair.

The American League Stars played 16 games against the All-Nippon Stars, a team composed mostly of collegiate and corporation team players, and won every one of them. Though the Japanese lost plenty of games by lopsided scores, they managed to challenge the Americans in several close ones, and were satisfied that they were improving their baseball skills steadily enough so they could eventually begin winning.

Ruth enjoyed some of his finest hours in baseball during this series as he led everybody in individual statistics. He slammed out 31 hits, including 13 homers and 3 doubles, and batted a fat .408. He homered once for every six official times at bat.

The Japanese Turn Professional

The American League Stars tour was a highly significant event because it inspired the Japanese to form their own professional league. Japanese businessmen and sportsmen became convinced that if Japan were ever to challenge America competitively on the baseball diamond, it must have its own coterie of professional players. Moreover, they knew the fans were there and that a well-managed club should certainly be able to turn a neat profit.

Matsutaro Shoriki, president of the Tokyo-based Yomiuri Newspapers, the nation’s most powerful newspaper publishing corporation, led the way from the very beginning in introducing professional baseball to Japan.

Even while the American League Stars were still in Japan, Shoriki began hammering out the details. His company would sponsor a crack team of ballplayers who would compete in an eight-team league for an annual championship trophy. Shoriki declared officially December 26, 1934 that his new team-to be called the Yomiuri Giants-was organized, although it wasn’t until 1936 that the professional league began actual competitive play. (Lefty O’Doul, often called the “American baseball ambassador to Japan,” is given credit for suggesting the name “Giants.”)

In the past, corporations had sponsored plenty of baseball teams, but they were operated strictly on an amateur basis. Players may have received bare travel expenses, but until Shoriki’s venture they were never salaried.

The Yomiuri Giants, who came to be universally known as the Tokyo Giants, were given a “test” run in the summer of 1935, playing exhibition games against various corporation and college teams. They also made a trip to the United States to improve upon their techniques and played a long series of exhibition contests against various American minor league teams.

At the same time, Shoriki interested other businessmen in the new baseball circuit, which came to be called the Japanese Professional Baseball League. Later, when the Pacific League was formed in 1950, the Japanese Professional League changed its name to the Central League.

Shoriki’s pioneering efforts were almost entirely successful, and seven teams, based in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, were ready for competitive play in the 1936 inaugural season. In 1937, an eighth team was added.

Four of the original seven teams of the Japanese Professional Baseball League, including the Tokyo Giants, of course, have remained active to this day: the others are the Hanshin Tigers of Osaka and the Chunichi Dragons of Nagoya, both in the Central League, and the Hankyu Braves of Osaka who joined the new Pacific League in 1950.

The wartime disruption and devastation had little lasting effect on Japanese interest in baseball. In fact, the Pacific League was established primarily because baseball became more popular than ever in Japan after World War II, and the country could easily support two professional circuits. The Central League was comprised of eight clubs from 1950 through 1953, while the Pacific League had an awkward seven during the same period. Since 1954 the Central League has held steady at six clubs, while the Pacific League has had eight teams, then seven, and since 1958, they’ve maintained their composition at six.

Each autumn the pennant winners from each league meet for the Japan Series title, and this event creates as much excitement in Japan as the World Series does in the U. S. The old Mainichi Orions of Tokyo took the first Japan Series crown in 1950, while the always potent Tokyo Giants won 15 of those best-of-seven playoffs from 1951 through 1973. Amazingly, the Giants captured nine straight Japan Series titles from 1965 through 1973, establishing clear dominance over the Pacific League.

Americans in the Japanese Leagues

Beginning in the early 1950s, professional baseball in Japan took on an exciting new dimension when American players were invited to sign with teams in both the Central and Pacific leagues. Each team was permitted to have two “foreigners” on its roster, and most of them, except for the Tokyo Giants, have usually filled their quota. The Giants stayed “native” until the beginning of 1975 when they signed their first American, Dave Johnson, former Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves infielder. (Before that time the Giants, however, did have a few Nisei-Americans of Japanese extraction-from Hawaii.)

Within the last 25 years, well over 100 Americans have either played or coached in Japan and their presence has been significant, not only in the contributions they’ve made on the field, but in the development of Japanese players. Moreover, the Americans have always been great crowd pleasers.

We don’t have space here to describe at length the American presence in the Japanese leagues, but we can mention a few of the players and coaches who’ve made outstanding achievements. Larry Raines, while with the Hankyu Braves in 1954, became the first American to capture a batting title in Japan-his .337 average led the Pacific League.

Jack Bloomfield, who was until recently a coach with the San Diego Padres, is the only other American to have won a batting title in Japan. With the Kintetsu Buffaloes in the Pacific League he did it twice -in 1962, he took the honors by hitting a rousing .374 and repeated in `63 with a .335 average.

George Altman holds the American record for longevity as a player in the Japanese leagues. With the Central League’s Hanshin Tigers (Osaka) in 1975, he completed his eighth season in Nippon. During that period he’s belted 205 homers (an American record) and averaged .3 10. George, now a young 43, plans to play in 1976!

Clarence Jones, who played briefly for the Chicago Cubs in 1967-68, is a power-hitting first baseman for the Kintetsu Buffaloes and his 38 homers in 1974 were enough to take the Pacific League title in that year. (Sadaharu Oh, the Tokyo Giants famed home run hitter, led both leagues that year with 49.) Jones, a big lefthanded swinger, homered 29 times for the Buffaloes in 1975, and now has a total of 199 for his six years in Japan. Now 34, he should wind up his career as America’s most prolific home run hitter in Nippon.

Don Blasingame is actually the senior member of the “U. S. delegation in Japan” and one of the most respected American baseball men to have participated in the game in the Orient. After spending a dozen years in the U. S. majors, Blasingame joined the Nankai Hawks (Osaka) in 1967 as an infielder, retired from active play before the 1970 season and has remained with the Hawks as a coach ever since. He has perhaps done more than any other American to teach the Japanese “inside baseball.”

Joe Lutz, a veteran U. S. baseball man (he bad a long minor league career as a player and manager, saw brief playing service with the St. Louis Browns, and coached for the Cleveland Indians in 1972-73), joined the Central League’s Hiroshima Carp in 1974 as a coach. Lutz, a hardworking innovator, did much to “Americanize” the Carp’s playing and training techniques, and for his efforts was promoted to manager in 1975, the first American to achieve a pilot’s post in Japan.

In mid-season, however, Lutz quit in disgust because an umpire changed his call on a strike three times during an argument. Lutz’s influence on the team must have been positive, however, for in `75 the Carp went on to win their first pennant in their 25-year history.

Some American players adjust smoothly to the Japanese environment and others do not. Mike Andrews, the former Boston Red Sox and Oakland A’s infielder, for example, gave up on Japan after playing for the Kintetsu Buffaloes in 1975. He didn’t like the three and four-hour workouts required before all games and didn’t favor the Japanese “style of play.”

On the other hand, Gene Martin, slugging outfielder for the Chunichi Dragons (Nagoya) who hails from Americus, Georgia, said the toughest problem for him playing in the Far East is keeping supplied with chewing tobacco. “I take a couple of cases with me before the start of each season, and when I run out, I have to look around for an Army PX that keeps the stuff in stock.” Outside of that minor inconvenience, Martin is happy in Japan and plans to spend his fourth year with the Dragons in 1976.

Baseball is played in many parts of the world, of course, but nowhere outside the Western Hemisphere is the game played with as much enthusiasm as it is in Japan. Baseball is the national game in Japan. The 12 teams in both leagues collectively draw about 11 to 12 million fans (paid admissions) per year. Moreover, the games are broadcast widely on both radio and television and are reported in great detail in the newspapers and other periodicals.

The Japanese consider their two circuits as being major leagues, and while many of their players are certainly good enough to compete in the U. S. majors, their level of play as a whole has reached good Triple A caliber at best. The Japanese would like to send their championship team to clash with the U. S. champions in a “real World Series,” but that type of meeting on a genuine competitive basis is still some years away.