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Eiji Sawamura: The First Great Japanese Pitcher

On September 25, 1936, Sawamura pitched the first no-hitter in Japanese Professional Baseball History

On September 25, 1936, Sawamura pitched the first no-hitter in Japanese professional baseball history.

I first heard the legend of Eiji Sawamura when I was in elementary school. My Japanese friends in our neighborhood, and their fathers and grandfathers, told me about how he had struck out Ruth, Gehrig, Gehringer and Foxx… in order. My father confirmed the story, and filled in the missing parts of the legend. It seemed hard to believe, but baseball history verifies the amazing journey of Eiji Sawamura.

There is the Sawamura Award, voted on each year by Japan Professional Baseball, that rewards the best pitcher in Japan’s Major Leagues. The Award was initiated in 1947, 9 years before America’s commensurate Cy Young Award was established. The Japanese Award is based on the exploits of Japan’s first great native-born pitcher, who recorded 3 no-hitters by the time he was 23 years of age.Sawamura was born in the Ise area, Mie Ken (Prefecture), in the small village of Ujiyamada, on February 1st, 1917. Ise is home to the Shinto religion’s Grand Shrine, which houses an ancient mirror, one of the faith’s three most sacred treasures. This area is on the Eastern edge of the Kansai, the west-central portion of Honshu, Japan’s largest island.

In 1937, Sawamura (left, pictured with Masaki Yoshihara) won Japan Professional Baseball's Triple Crown of Pitching.

In 1937, Sawamura (left, pictured with Masaki Yoshihara) won Japan Professional Baseball's Triple Crown of Pitching.

His talent in hurling a baseball became apparent early, so it was arranged that he would attend Kyoto’s Shogyo (Commercial) High School (also in the Kansai) when he turned 15. Just before he finished his senior year, he was offered a contract to play professional baseball by the team that would become the Tokyo Kyojin (Giants), a franchise that evolved into the most successful in Japanese baseball history. He, together with the legendary Victor Starffin, formed the greatest pitching duo in Japanese history.
In 1934, the great baseball ambassador, Lefty O’Doul, had formed an American All-Star team, with the iconic Connie Mack as manager, to tour Japan on a goodwill tour. Today, the travel roster reads like a “Who’s Who” of Cooperstown. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx headlined the group. Japanese youngsters, like children everywhere, idolized “The Babe.”

The Sawamura Award, Japan's equivalent of America's Cy Young Award, was established in 1947.

The Sawamura Award, Japan's equivalent of America's Cy Young Award, was established in 1947.

On November 20th, 1934, in the 8th game of the tour, Sawamura took the mound, at age 17, in the 4th inning, and promptly struck out Ruth, Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer and Foxx in a row. He went on to shut out the American All-Stars… with one exception. In the seventh inning, Gehrig straightened out one of Sawamura’s curve balls for a line-drive homerun. Final score: 1-0. The Sawamura legend was born. Earl Whitehill, the fine Detroit Tigers’ hurler, threw a 5-hit shutout, securing the win for the Americans. Sawamura, in 6 innings of work, struck out 9.

Sawamura had an excellent fastball (estimated as “low-to mid-90s”), a Bert Blyleven-like big curve, and a change-up called a “drop ball” which acted like what we now call a “circle change.” He had superb command, and Connie Mack observed that he did not “telegraph” his pitches (unlike most young hurlers). In fact, Mack tried to sign him on the spot, but as a youngster, Sawamura didn’t want to leave home. In 1935, a Japanese All-Star team (the Dai Nippon Baseball Club) toured America, winning most of their games. The Pittsburgh Pirates, and other teams, also tried to sign Sawamura, but he declined.

The Dai Nippon Baseball Club in 1935. Back row (left to right) - Shigeru Mizuhara 3B, Eiji Sawamura RHP, Toshihide Hatafuku RHP, Daiske Miyake COACH, Nobuo Kura C, Tadao Ichioka MGR, Sotaro Suzuki General Manager, Takeo Tabe 2B, Kenichi Aoshiba RHP, Hisanori Karita SS, Fujio Nagasawa 1B, Jimmy Horio CF. Front row (left to right) - Victor Starffin RHP, Yukio Eguchi UT, Usaburo Shintomi OF, Shiro Tsuda 3B, Kumeyasu Yajima OF, Tamotsu Uchibori C, Takeshi Nakayama C, Ellichiro Yamamoto UT.  Not shown - Nobuaki Nidegawa OF. Victor Starffin and Eiji Sawamura would end up with Hall of Fame careers in Japan. [Photo courtesy of the City of Vancouver Archives, CVA 99-4753, photographer Stuart Thomas]

The Dai Nippon Baseball Club in 1935. Back row (left to right) – Shigeru Mizuhara 3B, Eiji Sawamura RHP, Toshihide Hatafuku RHP, Daiske Miyake COACH, Nobuo Kura C, Tadao Ichioka MGR, Sotaro Suzuki General Manager, Takeo Tabe 2B, Kenichi Aoshiba RHP, Hisanori Karita SS, Fujio Nagasawa 1B, Jimmy Horio CF. Front row (left to right) – Victor Starffin RHP, Yukio Eguchi UT, Usaburo Shintomi OF, Shiro Tsuda 3B, Kumeyasu Yajima OF, Tamotsu Uchibori C, Takeshi Nakayama C, Ellichiro Yamamoto UT.  Not shown – Nobuaki Nidegawa OF. Victor Starffin and Eiji Sawamura would end up with Hall of Fame careers in Japan. [Photo courtesy of the City of Vancouver Archives, CVA 99-4753, photographer Stuart Thomas]

Sawamura played pro ball in 1934 and 1935 and, as a member of the Kyojin (Giants), was on their charter roster when Japan’s first professional league commenced play in 1936. He pitched Japan’s first no-hitter that year and followed with a second no-hitter in 1937. That year, he had a record of 33-10, with an E.R.A. of only 1.38. He also led the league in strikeouts, thereby, garnering the Triple Crown of pitching.

Sawamura was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 1959.

Sawamura was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 1959.

In 1938, Sawamura was drafted into the Japanese Army, and he began serving the first of what would become 3 military tours of duty. He served in Korea and Manchuria (Remember, the Japanese government had extensive commercial interests and military involvement in those countries, as well as China, including Taiwan, long before American involvement in WWII’s Pacific theater). He served from 1938 through early 1940, and returned to the Kyojin (Giants) for the 1940 season. While in Manchuria, he had severely injured his right (throwing) shoulder, and had lost some of his velocity and sharp break on his curve ball. Yet, he still managed to pitch well enough to record his 3rd no-hitter. He served his 2nd tour of military duty in Manchuria in 1942 and returned to play ball again in 1943. Then, in 1944, drafted yet again, he was promoted to lieutenant. His outfit was on a troop transport ship, sailing near the Ryukyu Islands on December 2nd, 1944, when his ship was sunk during an engagement with the American Navy. Sawamura and his platoon were all lost at sea. He was 27 years of age.

His career, which consisted of 4 full professional seasons, and portions of 3 additional pro seasons (including 5 seasons in league play) is indeed remarkable. His record is 63 wins against only 22 losses, 554 Ks, and a miniscule E.R.A. of only 1.74. His uniform number with the Kyojin (Giants), #14, was retired in 1947, the same year in which the Sawamura Award was established.

Yes, there have been other great pitchers in Japanese baseball history (Starffin, Kaneda, Inao and others), but it is certain that Eiji Sawamura was the first great Japanese pitcher in the history of baseball.

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  • tom67

    Incredible!  Great story!  To think what his career would have looked like had he not been caught in the crossfire of war!

  • Ed Palmer

    Did the japanese use the same numbering system based on batting order as the american leagues? Just curious of what his number was. 

    • http://fromdeeprightfield.com/ Paul Gillespie

      Ed, thank you for your inquiry recently regarding Eiji Sawamura, the first great Japanese pitcher.

      First of all, you and I are the victims of an unintended glitch in our response system–that has now been corrected. My sincere apologies to you for this delay in answering your question.

      Sawamura’s uniform number was “14”, which he was assigned by Yomiuri (Tokyo) Giants management. I am not aware of any special reason for that number choice. His number, “14”, was retired by the Kyojin (Giants) in 1947. Now, in answer to your question about any system utilized when assigning uniform numbers by Japanese teams, we know of no particular strategy or preference. Some teams did assign numbers based on defensive positions, some teams did use offensive placement in the lineup…not unlike in the U.S.

      We do know that the number “4” was generally not worn in Japan–because that number signifies “death” in the Japanese system of writing. We also know that Japanese teams tended to copy the American practice of assigning numbers between “1” and (usually) “50” for uniforms.

      Hope this helps. Thanks again for your comments. Glad you enjoyed the post.