Eiji Sawamura: The First Great Japanese Pitcher
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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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