History of Baseball: The Man From Hawaii
Wakabayashi was born in Wahiawa on Oahu, Hawaii, in March of 1908. Hawaii had just become a U. S. territory (1898), and the sugar industry was burgeoning. Wakabayashi’s parents had emigrated from Hiroshima around the turn of the century in search of a new opportunity. The boy grew up playing baseball and attended high school in Honolulu. He became a star pitcher with a blazing fast ball at McKinley High School. After high school, he played both amateur and semi-pro ball in the Islands.
Then in 1928, he was selected for a team to travel to Japan to play in a baseball tournament. He performed well, and was heavily recruited to play baseball by Hosei University, one of the fabled Big Six Conference colleges (this conference included Waseda and Keio Universities, baseball juggernauts). He was obviously a cut above the other players, and the “left out” universities objected, causing Wakabayashi to serve a kind of Japanese language “internship” for a year.
Once that was resolved, he enrolled at Hosei, and led them to conference championships in 1930, 1932 and 1934. He won 87 career Big Six Conference games–still a record! In 1931, Wakabayashi had hurt his pitching arm. He simply retooled his delivery to more of a sidearm approach (see video below)–and continued to win. His influence in the Japanese professional game is still felt today–there are always a few top hurlers who use the sidearm delivery.
He continued to pitch semi-pro ball in Japan, and then in 1936, Nippon (Japan) Professional Baseball was formed. Wakabayashi was promptly signed by the Osaka Tigers, later known as the Osaka Hanshin Tigers. He pitched for a total of 13 years (no baseball was played in 1945 due to the war, and Wakabayashi did not resume his career til 1947, at age 39).
He won 237 games and was one of three early superstar pitchers in Japan’s Major League. One was Eiji Sawamura (killed while serving on a Japanese Navy vessel in 1944), the pitcher whose name is on Japan’s version of the Cy Young Award. The second was Victor Starffin, the Russian-born “Walter Johnson Of Japan”, who together with Wakabayashi were the only pitchers who were 2-time winners of the MVP Award (prior to 1950, when the 2-league system was instituted.
Wakabayashi was somewhat of a free spirit and had a great sense of humor, which contributed to him being nicknamed “Bozo”. He was a fierce competitor on the mound, and had a refuse-to-lose attitude. His pitching propelled the Tigers to Japan’s professional championship in 1940 and 1944. His Tigers’ career ERA of 1.99 is as good as it gets.
When Nippon Professional Baseball expanded and formed 2 leagues in 1950, Wakabayashi was named player-manager of the Mainichi Orions. At the end of that season, he had guided them to the Pacific League Championship. They played the Central League Champions, the Shochiku Robins, and Wakabayashi pitched in the opening game, at age 42, and the Orions won the first Japan Series!
Tadashi “Bozo” Wakabayashi was enshrined in Japan’s Baseball Hall Of Fame in 1964. He died of cancer in 1965–he was only 57. He will always be remembered as the Hawaiian kid who helped put Japanese professional baseball on the map!
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