In part two of a three part series on Japanese baseball, we take an in-depth look at the ever-popular sport.
Traditionally, the Yomiuri Giants are "Japan's Team" just like the Dallas Cowboys are "America's Team." Win or lose, the Giants seemingly have more fans than all the other teams combined. From 1937 through the mid-1970's, the Giants were Japanese champions more than half of the time. In 1950, the Japan Series began pitting the Central League champion against the Pacific League champion. In fifteen of the first 24 years, the Giants were the winners!
The Giants' star of stars during the period 1938-1958 was Tetsuharu Kawakami. He was known as the "God of Batting." Kawakami batted .314 lifetime, one of the highest marks in Japanese history. Then, he turned to managing. From 1965 to 1973, he managed the Giants to nine consecutive Japan Series titles!
The next great Giants star was Shigeo Nagashima. He remains the most revered player in Japanese baseball history, and has become a popular cultural icon. Nagashima played with the Giants from 1958 to 1974 and is currently in his second term as manager. Nagashima was a contemporary of the best known Giants star in America, Sadaharu Oh. In Japan, however, Nagashima has always been far more popular than Oh. He played third base and batted behind Oh in the lineup. Nagashima hit 444 homers in his career and batted .305.
Sadaharu Oh compiled a set of power statistics unmatched anywhere in the world. He blasted 868 lifetime homers, winning the Central League home run title for 13 consecutive seasons! He also won the RBI crown thirteen years in a row! He is known for his famous one-legged "flamingo" batting stance. While popular in Japan, he has always taken a back seat to Nagashima. One reason is said to be his Chinese ancestry. His .301 lifetime batting average is a testament to his effectiveness as a complete hitter. Isao Harimoto (1959-1981) played for several clubs besides the Giants (1976-1979). He is the only Japanese player with over 3,000 hits-an extremely difficult feat due to the traditional Japanese 130 game season. He also swatted 504 home runs and batted .319 lifetime.
Other great non-Giant stars of the era were catcher Katsuya Nomura of the Nankai Hawks (1958-1980, 657 homers), and pitchers Masaichi Kaneda (1950-1969, 400 wins), Kazuhisa Inao (1956-1969, 276 wins including seasons with 42, 35 and 33 wins) and Braves pitcher Tetsuya Yoneda (350 career victories).
The Red Helmets
A popular team during the 1970's was the Hiroshima Carp, featuring Koji Yamamoto (1969-1986) and Japan's Lou Gehrig or Cal Ripken Jr., Sachio Kinugasa (1965-1987). This team had a less conservative demeanor than previous great teams and had a large following among younger fans. If the earlier Giants teams were the equivalent of the traditional New York Yankees, the Carp were the equivalent of the Cincinnati Reds' "Big Red Machine" teams of the 1970's. They wore similar red and white uniforms to the Reds and were known as the "Red Helmets."
Kinugasa, the son of an African American GI and a Japanese mother, broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played record in 1987. Cal Ripken surpassed Kinugasa's "World Record" in 1996. Yamamoto blasted 536 career home runs and had a career average of .290. The Carp, while still occasionally successful, have never again enjoyed the success of the "Red Helmet" era.
Another important star of the 1970's is Yutaka Fukumoto of the Braves. Fukumoto (1969-1988) set the stolen base standard in Japan of 1065 career thefts. His single season marks include 106, 95 and 94 stolen bases. In 1993, Rickey Henderson became the first U.S. player to surpass Fukumoto's career mark. Fukumoto also batted .291 lifetime.
The Modern Era
The most recent, highly successful team has been the Seibu Lions, owned by the Seibu department stores. In the eleven years from 1982 to 1992, the Lions won the Japan Series eight times! In 1993, 1994, 1997, and 1998, they won the Pacific League title but were beaten in the Series. This team may be the strongest in Japanese history, but it is not particularly popular compared to the Giants, even today. For example, the 1997 4th place Giants' attendance was 3.65 million, while the pennant winning Lions drew only 1.45 million. The Lions are just not Japan's team!
Past Seibu stars included the heavy hitting duo of Koji Akiyama (now a member of the Hawks) and Kazuhiro Kiyohara (now a Giant). The great Taiwanese pitcher (and former Little League World Series star) Taigen Kaku led a dominating pitching staff. For several years, former Florida Marlins slugger Orestes Destrade was an integral part of this team, winning several home run titles. Now, a new crop of stars led by shortstop Kazuo Matsui and pitcher Fumiya Nishiguchi have propelled the Lions to the top.
The most successful, and possibly most notorious of recent Japanese stars, is Hiromitsu Ochiai (1979-1998). Japanese players' spring training and daily practice sessions are extremely grueling by American standards. In fact, most American players are exempt from traditional Japanese workouts. The Japanese philosophy is that more practice results in continued improvement. Americans think Japanese are overworked to the point of a reduction in effectiveness. Ochiai was a Japanese proponent of the American philosophy.
Many Japanese felt that Ochiai's American style training schedule was shameful. However, Ochiai felt that the Japanese training style tires players and limits their effectiveness during the last part of the season. Ochiai has three Japanese triple crowns in support of his argument! And he was still playing effectively at age 44!
While Japanese stars are traditionally paid far less than American stars in Japan, Ochiai insisted on an American sized salary. It's no wonder that when free agency was initiated for the first time in 1994, he was one of the few players to change teams, transferring to "Japan's Team," the Yomiuri Giants. With the advent of free agency and the lure of America, salaries have increased for the top Japanese stars.
While the top players in the U.S. still earn far more than the best players in Japan Pro Baseball do, there are a number of players paid $3 million to $5 million per year by their Japanese teams, with commercial endorsement opportunities raising top player salaries considerably. Two current young superstars in Japan are Ichiro Suzuki of the Blue Wave (known simply as Ichiro) and Hideki Matsui of the Giants. Ichiro is still in his mid-20's but he has already won six consecutive batting titles. He hit nearly .400 for a season. He has hit for power, he's won the league stolen base title, and he's won numerous Gold Gloves. Ichiro is truly a five-tool player.
In 1996, he led the Orix Blue Wave to the Japan Series championship. It is speculated that Ichiro will be the first Japanese position player to play in the U.S. Major Leagues. Matsui may be the most popular player in Japanese baseball today. Also, in his mid 20's, he represents the Giants in a way possibly unseen since the days of Nagashima. He is unquestionably Japanese baseball's top home run hitter. It will be interesting to assess the ultimate roles of these two players in Japanese baseball history and in world baseball history.