As the World Baseball Classic comes to a close, I think it has become clear that Japan is indeed a force to be reckoned with in terms of the world of baseball. Sure, they didn’t win it this year, but another trip to the championship round after winning it all the previous two Classics isn’t all that shabby. On top of this you can take a look at Japanese baseball stars who have made it to America, like Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, Hideo Nomo, Yu Darvish, and Kazuhiro Sasaki, and know that there’s quite a bit of talent out there.
But it wasn’t always like this. Japanese baseball had to start somewhere, and it turns out that somewhere was quite a long time ago, sometime in the 1870s, to be exact (or as exact as possible). But how did baseball come to Japan? It certainly wasn’t anything like Samurai Champloo’s rendition, though one can dream.
Instead, Japanese baseball got off to a slightly less dramatic start. Of course, as it is an American sport, we have to start this story with an American.
Japanese Baseball Is Born (1870s)
Most people credit American Horace Wilson (1834-1927), an English professor at Kaisei Gakko the predecessor to Tokyo Imperial University. He had spent some time in Japan before this, though. He also helped as a foreign adviser for the Japanese government to assist in the modernization of the Japanese education system. To say the least, he had some experience in Japanese education.
The thing is, before Horace Wilson, there weren’t really any team sports in Japan. You had Sumo, kendo, kyudo, and other one-on-one physical activities, but something that involved teams? Not really. I do find this a bit strange considering how group-based Japanese culture is and was, but nonetheless it really explains why Japan has embraced baseball the way it has. It also explains a lot of the differences in how it’s played.
Professor Wilson can’t be credited for baseball’s popularity in Japan, however. Albert Bates, an American teaching at Kaitaku University, also cannot be credited with the “birth” of Japanese baseball, though he did organize the very first game in Japan. No, that credit goes to Hiroshi Hiraoka, a Japanese railway engineer who was a student in America (not to mention a huge Boston Red Sox fan). He was the one to organize the very first Japanese baseball team, known as the Shinbashi Athletic Club Athletics. So, in 1878, Japanese baseball was officially born.
Hiroshi Hiraoka and the first baseball team: The Shinbashi Athletic Club “Super Blurry” Athletics
Due to being the very first Japanese team ever, the Shinbashi Athletic Club Athletics had the best Japanese baseball team in Japan and (in my opinion) the worst name ever. We get it, you’re athletic. Other teams started popping up in Japan following their founding, but nobody could really keep up in skill for nearly ten years.
Team Ichikou (1886)
Team Ichikou, the “First Higher School of Tokyo” (aka super prestigious prep school), was founded in 1886. Apparently they were pretty good. So good, in fact, that they thought they could challenge the whites-only Yokohama Athletic club (yep, there were non-Japanese baseball teams in Japan at the time, they just didn’t want to play with the Japanese). Of course, being a whites-only baseball team, they went ahead and refused the challenge. Upon hearing about this, the Christian Missionary school Meiji Gakuin offered to play Ichikou. Turns out, all that Ichikou prep school life didn’t “prep” them for such a decisive defeat. The Meiji Gakuin team destroyed them, but it opened their eyes as to how much training they needed to do.
Ichikou players began a practice regimen that would bring them to the point of complete physical exhaustion. Why? So the team can get better as a whole. This isn’t too much different from the practice philosophies of sumo or kendo. Now we can see some crossover between Japanese sporting culture and this American sport. This style of practice would (and still does) continue to stick around throughout Japanese baseball history.
They practiced like this for ten years, and in 1896 the Yokohama Athletic Club finally accepted their challenge. Guess what? All the vomiting and blood-urine paid off, apparently. Team Ichikou crushed the whites-only Yokohama Athletic club by a score of 28 to 4. It was also the first ever recorded international baseball game in all of Asia.
Due to the win and fervor behind this, many universities began to play baseball and the sport gained popularity in Japan.
Universities Era (1900-)
As baseball in Japan gained popularity, the most obvious place for teams to sprout was in the universities. As teams became more competitive, schools would send students to America to learn and get better. In 1905, Waseda University was the first team to do this, and many other schools followed suit to keep up. American teams also began to reciprocate, sending teams over to Japan to play in exhibition games as well as to teach Japan a thing or two about American baseball.
It was also in this time that the rivalries begin to pop up. One such rivalry, between Waseda and Keio University, still goes on today. It even has a name (the Sokeisen/早慶戦) and people go nuts over it, classes are canceled, and it is even broadcast on national television. It has gotten so rowdy that games get canceled, which seems ridiculous considering that people get rowdy because they’re super excited about the games. In fact, there was a two decade period where the games were banned because people got too crazy about it. That should give you an idea how big of a deal this is, anyways.
Growth in Universities continued to happen, and American amateurs would play baseball with Japanese amateurs. But, Japan was starting to get serious about baseball. America took some notice to this.
- 1908: A mix of minor and major league players known as the “Reach All-Americans” visit Japan and other countries to play baseball.
- 1913: The Chicago White Sox and New York Giants play in Japan with Japanese teams.
- 1920s: Major League Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis helps to send a team of major and minor league players to Japan to both play games and run coaching clinics.
Over twenty or so years, we see quite an increase in Japanese baseball skills. More and more people are coming from America to help out, and Japan keeps getting better. Universities establish themselves as the Japanese baseball force of this era, so much so that they eventually form their own league.
“The Tokyo Big6” (1925)
In 1925, the Tokyo Big6 league was established. It basically consisted of the six best and most established collegiate baseball teams in Tokyo. The league still exists today, and of course the rivalries do as well. The teams and their all-time records are:
- Waseda University (1197-703-83)
- Keio University (1110-797-87)
- Meiji University (1139-780-97)
- Hosei University (1113-795-109)
- University of Tokyo (244-1520-55)
- Rikkyo University (851-1058-91)
Can we just take a moment to feel really bad for the University of Tokyo? They’ve come in last place in 118 of the league’s 156 seasons. Their best ever season was when they came in third… but it was also a season in which both Meiji University and Waseda University did not play, so… yeah, ouch.
Besides University of Tokyo, however, the Big6 were powerhouses of Japanese baseball talent. Even University of Tokyo was pretty good when you compared them to most Japanese baseball teams outside of the Big6. But, they had to get better. That’s where good ol’ “Lefty O’Doul” comes in.
The “Father” Of Japanese Baseball: Lefty O’Doul (1932)
Some people call Lefty O’Doul the “Father of Japanese” baseball. There’s a reason for this. Not only was he a great American baseball player (started as a struggling pitcher, switched to being a hitter, had a .349 batting average over seven seasons winning the batting title twice), but he invested a lot of time and effort into the Japanese baseball scene as well.
The first time he went to Japan was in 1931. This was during a trip that involved baseball trips to China and the Philippines as well. But, something must have stuck, because in 1932 he went back for almost three months. Lefty, Ted Lyons, and Moe Berg held 40 lessons at each of the Big6 schools. There were also Americans with them that played in exhibition games with the Japanese that drew crowds of over 60,000 people. Baseball, it seems, was a big hit in Japan. The American baseball players were celebrities, and Japanese baseball grew leaps and bounds over the years thanks to Lefty O’Doul and friends. He came back every year from 1933-1937.
1934, however, was one of Japan’s best pre-war baseball years, though. And of course, it was all thanks to Lefty.
Striking Out The Pros (1934)
In 1934, Lefty O’Doul got together a group of All-Star players from America and brought them over to Japan. Players included Earl Averill, Lou Gehrig, Lefty Gomez, Babe Ruth, Earl Whitehill, and more. It was a pretty good American team. In order to face a team as stacked as this one, Yomiuri Shinbun (newspaper) owner Matsutarou Shouriki brought together Japan’s version of the dream team. Despite this, they lost all 18 games that they played against the Americans. I mean, I guess it makes sense, but that’s a lot of losses. Still, perhaps it gave Japan the shock they needed, just like team Ichikou of 1886.
One particular instance out of these 18 games stood out, however. Pitcher Eiji Sawamura became a national hero when he struck out Charlie Gehringer, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx… in order. I suppose over 18 games it was bound to happen, but it was the sort of thing that Japanese baseball needed to really light a fire under everybody’s pants. Baseball was more popular than ever, so in 1935 Matsutarou Shouriki kept the dream team together and took a tour of the US and Canada to play more baseball. By 1936, they had gone pro.
Japan’s First Professional Baseball Team (1936)
I’m not sure if calling yourself “professional” is enough to be professional, but apparently this time it was. Shouriki’s team was the first and only team to join the “Japanese Baseball League.” Their name? The Tokyo Giants. One may wonder where they “found” the name the Giants, and one may wonder correctly if they thought of the New York Giants. But, it wasn’t just on a whim. It was a sort of “thank you” to Lefty O’Doul, who brought over the American All Star team that got the Japanese team together in the first place. O’Doul was a New York Giant, so they would be Giants too. The name is still around today, though very few know it was thanks to Lefty that they got the name.
Soon after, six other teams would join the party. The Osaka Tigers, Hankyu, Dai Tokyo, Nagoya Kinko, Nagoya Dragons, and the Tokyo Senators. As is often the case today, many were sponsored by newspapers hoping to cash in on baseball’s rising popularity. If you run the newspapers, you run the news. If you run the news, you can promote your baseball team quite a bit, make more money, and then get better players. If you weren’t a newspaper, though, you may have been a train line (Tigers and Hankyu). If people want to see your baseball teams play, they’ll ride on your trains. I think it’s funny how the whole sponsorship thing panned out.
Strangely enough, the Tigers became the team to beat for quite a while (until 1939). Then, the gained dominance until World War II brought an end to Japanese baseball… at least temporarily.
World War II Strikes And You’re Out?
The war brought much strife to everything, including a little bit of said strife to baseball. Lefty O’Doul started to become upset about Japan’s rise in militarism, which of course meant a lot less Japanese-American baseball friendships. The Tokyo Giants changed their name to the Tokyo Kyojin (also means “giants,” but now it’s Japanese), the Osaka Tigers became the Osaka Hanshin, and the Tokyo Senators became the Tokyo Tsubasa.
In 1939, the Japan Baseball League combined their “split season” into one single season of 96 games. In 1940, they expanded to 104 games. During these years there were nine teams in the league. Things were still going well for baseball, despite the war. Then things got bigger. Resources and people began to get thin. In 1941, the number of games were reduced to 84. Despite this, they ramped back up to 104 games in 1942. Then, things got worse for Japan’s war effort. 1943 saw 84 games once again, 1944 saw only 35 games with six teams, and 1945 never happened. You can probably guess why.
Still, baseball was hardly dead in Japan. In fact, things were just getting started. I think it really took the end of the war, American occupation of Japan, and a few big events to allow Japanese baseball to blossom. None of this happened until after the war, though, so you’re going to have to wait to learn more about that in part two of this “History of Japanese Baseball” series. Don’t worry, I’m planning on covering all the bases.