Even before the
establishment of their first professional league in 1936, baseball had been
played in Japan for over a half-century.
American teachers and professors in the 1870s, Japanese baseball evolved apart
from the game played in the United States. Primarily used as a
"teaching" tool, baseball during those early years was played rigidly,
as if it were a martial art through which players strengthened themselves
physically and mentally.
Smaller than their
foreign counterparts, many Japanese felt they could eventually catch up with
enough training and determination. Managers frequently claimed if their
players didn't bleed, they weren't practicing hard enough.
tours of Major League ball clubs and all-star teams, baseball in Japan was
largely limited to high school and college games. Probably an even bigger
event than today's Japan Series, the annual National High School Baseball
Tournament started in 1915. So established had amateur baseball become that some
thought the idea of playing the sport for money profane.
But in December
1934, Yomiuri Shimbun owner Matsutaro Shoriki founded the Great Japan Tokyo
Baseball Club, which he renamed the Tokyo Kyojin (Giants) the following year.
Organized in 1936,
the Japan Professional League was formed, including the Giants and six new
teams: Osaka Tigers, Hankyu, Dai Tokyo, Nagoya Kinko, Nagoya and the Tokyo
Senators. Most of these ball clubs were sponsored by either newspapers (Yomiuri)
hoping to boost their circulation or train lines (the Tigers and Hankyu) seeking
to increase travel on their lines to their team's home ballpark.
The war years had
a chaotic effect on baseball as with every other part of Japanese life. Since
English words were banned, the Tigers changed their name to Hanshin while the
Senators were known as Tsubasa. Several other teams either came into being,
merged with other ball clubs or quietly folded.
By 1944, the
league had been pared down to six teams. Although professional baseball was
suspended in 1945 because of the war, the league resumed play in 1946 with two
new teams, the Senators (no relation to the earlier franchise) and Goldstar.
Out of all the
chaos, one constant remained: the Kyojin were the team to beat. From 1936 to
1944, the Giants earned six league titles (and two half-season titles in 1937
and 1938) with the help of pitchers Eiji Sawamura, Victor Starfin and Hideo
But weakened by
the departure of Starfin, the death of Sawamura, and the one-year absence of
Fujimoto, the Kyojin fell to fifth place in 1947, the same year they were
permanently renamed the Yomiuri Giants. Immediately after the war, every other
team began using an English nickname. With the addition of seven new teams in
1950, the two league system was born.
In the Central
League, the Giants, Tigers and Dragons were joined by the Kokutetsu Swallows,
Hiroshima Carp, Taiyo Whales, Nishi-Nippon Pirates (who would merge with the
Pacific League Nishitetsu Lions in 1951) and the Shochiku Robins. After winning
the 1950 pennant, the Robins quickly fell out of contention and merged with the
Whales in 1953.
Orions earned the 1950 Pacific League pennant and defeated the Robins 4-2 to
take the first Japan Series. The six other founding members of the PL included
the Lions, Hankyu Braves, Tokyu Flyers, Nankai Hawks, Kintetsu Pearls and the
Daiei Stars. In 1954, the Takahashi Unions joined the PL, but merged with the
Stars after the 1956 season. After one year, the Daiei Unions merged with Orions.
By 1958, both leagues were permanently fixed at six teams.
1950s, the Dragons, Giants and Tigers usually led the CL, with Yomiuri earning
eight pennants in the decade. The PL offered more interesting pennant races.
Though the Lions dominated the league for most of the decade, the Orions, Hawks
and Braves kept things close.
By 1964 it was
clear the Giants had more than their share of talent. The highest-status team in
Japan, Yomiuri had the money to buy whatever players they wished. To address
this imbalance and help make both leagues more competitive, the player draft was
introduced in 1965. Though the Giants won nine-straight championships from
1965-73, the draft eventually paid off.
In 1975 the Carp
rose from a last place and went straight to the Japan Series. Other teams
benefited from the draft as well. Since 1974, no Central League team has won
more than two pennants in a row. No matter how beneficial, there were limits to
how much equality the draft could impose.
popularity had as much to do with their clever use of the media as their
all-star roster and their dominance of other teams. Owned by the Yomiuri media
conglomerate, the Giants were televised nationally just as TVs became a
The most read
newspaper in Japan, the Yomiuri Shimbun virtually advertised the team on their
sports page. Yomiuri also owned Sports Hochi, a tabloid which usually found some
reason to put the Giants on their cover. With the team's rise in popularity,
most other newspapers and television stations followed Yomiuri's lead.
Because the Giants
were so powerful, they found ways to bend the rules to their favor. In 1978,
Yomiuri signed pitcher Suguru Egawa to a contract, even though the college star
had been the Hanshin Tigers' draft pick. After the baseball commissioner ruled
the Giants' move illegal, the Kyojin threatened to withdraw from the Central
League and form their own baseball circuit. The threat worked.
No other Japanese
baseball team has ever had the power that the Giants still enjoy today. Partly
because of Yomiuri's domination of the Central League and beyond, many fans
looked to the Pacific League for a more dynamic and less-tainted version of
Lacking much media
attention, the Pacific League set out in the 1970s to boost attendance with
various gimmicks. Using a split season from 1973-82, the PL introduced a playoff
in which the first half leader would face the second half champion. While
introducing the designated hitter, Pacific League clubs also used flamboyant
mascots and neon uniforms.
By the early
1980s, the PL began to revolve around one team. Purchased in 1979 by the Seibu
corporation, the Lions won eleven pennants and eight Japan Series titles from
1982-94. Owned by Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, at one time considered the richest man in
the world, Seibu spared no expense to build the finest ballpark in Japan and
stock the team with the best players available.
But the Lions
still lacked enough media coverage to earn a wide following. Many people
respected the Lions but few became fans. After the defections of several
all-star players in the early and mid-1990s, the Lions no longer roll over
opponents as they had in the past.
Today, the two
leagues are as competitive as they have ever been. The low-budget Tokyo Yakult Swallows
earned four pennants and three Japan Series championships in the 1990s.
Though the Giants get the most attention on TV and the press, sports coverage
has been more balanced in recent years, especially in the English-language
press. And with the introduction of satellite and cable television, other teams
are gaining more exposure.
With a level
playing field, more competitive leagues will likely lead to more exciting
baseball in the coming years.
Acknowledgment: Dan Latham