Japanese Baseball History:

Articles on Famous Japanese Baseball Players

Japanese baseball history is a good example of how society drives cultural development. The sport was first introduced into Japan during the 1870s by missionary/educators from the United States. Their initial purpose was to include the sport in a physical education format at schools. The timing couldn't have been better. Japan was beginning the "Meiji Restoration", a time of political and social evolution that included at least the investigation of many cultural aspects of "Western (American and European) Society".

The sport became immensely popular among the Japanese. Soon, high schools, colleges and even elementary schools were fielding their own teams. Neighborhood teams, and then town/city teams followed. Companies eventually formed teams with popular names such as "Warriors" and "Dragons". It wasn't long before businesses were competing to attract the most famous Japanese baseball players. "Shamateurism", by the early 20th century, was a fixture in the society.

By the 1930s, the quality of baseball in Japan had risen to a very high level. There was talk of forming a professional league, and in 1936, the Tokyo Giants became a charter team in Japan's first professional league. The team had existed as early as 1934, sponsored by the Yomiuri Shimbun (Yomiuri Newspaper) and called the Kyojin (Giants). This team is still sponsored by Yomiuri--and still called the Kyojin--to this day. They are the most famous of the Japanese pro franchises, and their history reflects the most famous Japanese baseball players (such as Eiji Sawamura, Victor Starffin and Sadaharu Oh).

Baseball in Japan got a huge boost from the 1934 tour to that country by a team of legendary American stars led by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Ruth, in particular, had a larger than life persona that transcended culture and language anywhere. Japanese children followed him around like he was the Pied Piper. That was the beginning of baseball becoming the defacto "national sport" of Japan. Since 1951, there have been dozens of barnstorming tours by American Major League teams, all selling out to record crowds in Japan.

Japanese baseball history clearly reflects that Japanese professional baseball is the dominant national sporting endeavor. Japan has won the first two World Baseball Classics, and are favored to win the 2013 edition. And, we'll continue to read about famous Japanese baseball players in the Major Leagues, such as Hideo Nomo and Ichiro Suzuki, for many years to come!

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The Koshien Stadium Experience

Koshien Stadium

David Maher, a photo-journalist, is based in Japan. He has lived there for many years and is a keen observer of Japanese culture. He contributes to Japan Tourist, an English language website–a good source for what to see and do in Japan–on the beaten track or off. This week, my son Brian (a friend of […]

Masaichi Kaneda: The Emperor

Kaneda 400th Win

In Japan, during the 1950s and 1960s, Masaichi Kaneda, Shigeo Nagashima, Sadaharu Oh and Katsuya Nomura were the faces of professional baseball. Nagashima, a third baseman, and Oh, a first baseman, were power-hitting teammates for the Yankees of Japan, the Yomiuri Giants. Nomura was the home run-slugging catcher for the Nankai Hawks, and Masaichi Kaneda […]

Isao Harimoto: The Greatest Hitter in Japanese Baseball History


On a nice Spring afternoon in 1959, our father took us to see the Toei Flyers (now called the Nippon Ham Fighters… of Yu Darvish fame) play the Nankai Hawks at Namba Yakyujo, home of the Hawks in Osaka, Japan. The Flyers’ left fielder was an emerging rookie named Isao Harimoto, a left-hander who was […]

Kazuhisa Inao: The Greatest “Big Game” pitcher in Japanese Baseball History

Kazuhisa Inao-620

Those of us who grew up during the ’50s in Japan all knew about Kazuhisa “Iron Man” Inao. In fact, he earned that nickname on his way to 276 career victories and a revered place in Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame. Victor Starffin and Tadashi “Bozo” Wakabayashi, great pitchers in their era, were now retired. […]

Eiji Sawamura: The First Great Japanese Pitcher


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 […]

Victor Starffin: The Greatest Pitcher in Japanese Baseball History?


Victor Starffin, except for a fluke of history, might have been a member of the American baseball Hall of Fame. He was the first pitcher to win 300 games in Japanese baseball history, and was elected to the Japan Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in 1960. Much of his family history is speculative and disputed, […]

History of Baseball: First Major League Player Born in China


One of my brother’s friends in New York recently asked him if he knew of any Major League baseball players that were born in China. As it turns out, there is one, and his story is indeed stranger than fiction. Henry Lees “Harry” Kingman played for the New York Yankees in 1914. Only a “cup […]

History of Baseball: The Man From Maui

Wally Yonamine

A previous post about the great pitcher, Tadashi “Bozo” Wakabayashi, prompted an ongoing conversation about who is the greatest Hawaiian athlete of all time. There are many candidates… Buster Crabbe, Gerry Lopez, the legendary Duke Kahanamoku… and several other worthy athletes. For my money, the greatest athlete in the history of Hawaii is… the man […]

History of Baseball: The Man From Hawaii


On Wednesday, October 26th, Game 6 of the World Series 2011 was postponed due to rain. And, the article in this column about Goro Mikami struck a chord with American and Japanese baseball history enthusiasts. In fact, I received comments regarding the great Osaka Hanshin Tigers pitcher, also mentioned in the article, Tadashi “Bozo” Wakabayashi. […]

History of Baseball: Japan’s First Pro Ballplayer in America


The history of baseball is often a reflection of American culture. Sometimes, the history of baseball in Japan merges with the history of baseball in America. A friend of mine was recently involved in a heated debate with a business associate about who was the first professional baseball player from Japan to play in the […]