Masaichi Kaneda: The Emperor
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 was… the Kokutetsu Swallows.
Kaneda was a left-handed pitcher who set records that will never be broken. He pitched on a perennial cellar-dwelling team, the Kokutetsu Swallows (now, the Yakult Swallows). At times during their long existence, the Swallows set new standards for mediocrity. Even Walter Johnson’s Washington Senators were no match for the Swallows’ lowly status. In the midst of the Swallows’ doldrums, there was Kaneda, the brightest star in the sky. The most incredible statistic surrounding Kaneda is that he won 45% of the Swallows’ wins during his tenure (1950s and 1960s). Steve Carlton did it for one year (1972) with the Philadelphia Phillies, and that was noteworthy. Kaneda did it for an entire career. Unbelievable!
Kaneda was born in the Nagoya area on August 1st, 1933, to Korean parents. He was named Hyung-Hong Kim. Eventually, he took the name by which we all know him, Masaichi Kaneda. He grew up playing baseball and grew to 6 feet and 180 pounds. His main asset in baseball was a blazing fastball with movement. For most of his pro career, he threw his 4-seamer in the range of 94-96 mph. He also developed a pitch described as a “drop-curve”. Today, we would refer to it as a sharp-breaking “slurve”.
At the age of 17, he left Kakuei Shogyo High School to sign with Kokutetsu. The Swallows, through the years, have mostly played at Meiji Jingu Stadium in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. The baseball venue, owned by the Meiji Shrine (a religious institution) is one of the few ballparks left that hosted games during the 1934 tour by an American All-Star team which included Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and other luminaries. This ballpark has also long-hosted games sanctioned by the fabled Big Six collegiate conference.
When Kaneda first signed with Kokutetsu, he had real problems, like most young left-handers, throwing strikes on a consistent basis. He worked incessantly to improve his control and his effort paid off. He is the only pitcher in Japanese history to win 400 games (against 298 losses). In fact, Kaneda recorded 82 shutouts for his career, only 1 behind the great Victor Starffin‘s career-leading 83.
Kaneda also achieved other career-leading marks, such as 365 complete games, 5,526.2 innings pitched and was on the mound in 940 games (this included some relief appearances). He also walked 1,808 batters and struck out an amazing 4,490 batters–both records. His career ERA was a remarkable 2.34. Kaneda won 3 Sawamura Awards in 1956, 1957 and 1958 and was elected to Japan’s Hall of Fame in 1988.
Kaneda, once he harnessed (for the most part) his control, became “effectively wild”. Batters found it difficult to “stand in” against his blazing fast ball. In 1950, the Hanshin Tigers, seeing Kaneda for the first time, stopped the game and had the umpire measure the pitching distance, convinced he was throwing from a closer distance. The result showed it was the right distance.
Of all pitchers in Japanese history, Kaneda suffered from the least run support (the Swallows’ offense was usually anemic), losing 20+ games in 6 different seasons. In 1951 , he pitched a no-hitter against the heavy-hitting Hanshin Tigers and on August 21st, 1957, he pitched a perfect game.
The first time that Sadaharu Oh, a left-handed slugger, faced Kaneda, he struck out 4 straight times. Kaneda, called “The Emperor” due to his pitching supremacy, won 30 games in a season twice, and enjoyed 20 wins in each of 14 consecutive seasons. He captured 10 strikeout crowns, including an astounding 350 Ks in 1955 in a 130 game season. Kaneda also achieved an unbelievable record during the 1958 campaign–he twirled 64.1 consecutive scoreless innings, one of the most incredible of his many Japanese Professional Baseball records.
The American pitcher he is most compared to is Steve Carlton. The major difference is Carlton’s “out” pitch was a slider–Kaneda’s a fastball. It is estimated that Kaneda would have won approximately 360+ games in America, Whatever the estimate, he would have been a Hall of Famer here, too.
Masaichi Kaneda, the greatest left-handed pitcher in Japanese Baseball History!