The History of Japanese Baseball
In Japan, the top two teams of each league play a best-of-seven series for the championship. This series is a big deal, creating as much excitement in the country as the World Series does in America.
Until 1935 corporations sponsored amateur baseball teams which played on an exhibition basis. This was how the game became professional in Japan.
The Origins of Baseball in Japan
Most Americans are unaware of the fact that baseball first entered Japan in 1873, and the game has been a major sport there ever since. Despite this, it took several major events and a great deal of luck for Japanese baseball to really take off.
Until about the time of World War II, most teams were university-based. It was not uncommon for universities such as Waseda, Keio or Rikkyo to send their best players to America to learn the ropes from the professionals.
In addition, high school baseball (known as Koshien in Japanese) is very popular throughout Japan. These ten-day tournaments, in which the top high school teams from all 47 prefectures compete against each other, are broadcast nationally and attract over a million spectators.
The Origins of the Ichikou
The biggest leap forward for Japanese baseball came in 1934, when Yomiuri Shimbun president Matsutaro Shoriki organized a dream team of MLB All-Stars to visit Japan. The legendary trio of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx helped stoke interest in the game in a big way.
Before Horace Wilson, there weren’t many team sports in Japan besides sumo, kendo, and other one-on-one martial arts. But the popularity of baseball grew quickly and led to a lot of high school and university tournaments, such as the intense rivalry between Keio and Waseda universities that continues to this day.
In these tournaments, players would practice to the point of exhaustion — not that much different from the training regimen of some Japanese martial arts disciplines. This kind of practice would continue throughout the history of Japanese baseball.
The Origins of the Big 6
Although Japanese players played informal games with American university students in the early 1900s, it wasn’t until 1934 that Matsutarou Shouriki formed the first professional team. The team’s name was the Giants, and it’s believed that Shouriki took the name from Lefty O’Doul’s New York Giants.
Japanese teams are highly regimented and expect their players to show the utmost loyalty and respect for their managers. A lack of wa can result in a player being benched or even removed from the team.
After WWII, Japanese baseball flourished thanks to the encouragement of Allied troops and large corporations that sponsored corporate teams for a national championship. However, it wasn’t until 1964 that the first Japanese-American player made it to MLB, Wallace “Wally” Yonamine. He was the catalyst that opened the door for other players.
The Origins of Lefty O’Doul
After a short career as a Major Leaguer Lefty O’Doul returned to Japan. He brought baseball to a whole new level in Japan. He ran out bunts, played football style rolling blocks, wore those famous glasses and was just generally a great player.
O’Doul would return to Japan each year for three months. He’d train ballplayers at the Big Six colleges: Hose, Imperial, Keio, Meji, Rikkio and Waseda. He and Ted Lyons would conduct 40 lessons at each school. They’d also play exhibition games with the Japanese.
This helped to spread baseball’s popularity in Japan and paved the way for players like Nomo to play in the American Major Leagues. It’s a remarkable story that’s told in detail in a book called Lefty O’Doul: Baseball’s Forgotten Ambassador.
Sadaharu Oh (Wang Zhen Zhi O, born on May 20, 1940) is one of Japan’s most revered sports heroes. He is a retired professional baseball player and manager who holds the world career home run record. Oh currently promotes healthy living in his homeland of Japan.
Born and raised in urban Tokyo, Oh was a shy young man until his older brother Tetsushiro introduced him to the game. His father Shifuku envisioned his sons pursuing more respectable careers such as medicine or engineering, but the younger Oh adored baseball and often accompanied his brother to local sandlot games.
During the occupation, Allied forces encouraged the Japanese to play baseball as it would boost morale and divert attention from the horrors of daily life in war-ravaged Tokyo. In 1945, Japanese baseball began to thrive with eight teams playing 104 games per season.