Japan Leagues

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セントラル・リーグ パシフィック・リーグ

Even before the establishment of their first professional league in 1936, baseball had been played in Japan for over a half-century. 

Introduced by 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. 

Despite occasional 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 Fujimoto. 

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. 

The Mainichi 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.

Throughout the 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.

The Giants' 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 household fixture. 

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 baseball.

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