A Short History of Japanese Baseball – Part 1

Gary Engel

1959 Marumatsy Scoreboard Sadaharu Oh PSA NM MT 8

In this, the first of a three-part series on Japanese baseball, we take an in-depth look at the ever-popular sport. Click here to read Part 2, and here to read Part 3.


Most American baseball enthusiasts know that Japanese baseball exists. They know that Sadaharu Oh is a legendary Japanese home run hitter. They know that a number of American Major Leaguers have played in Japan at one time or another during their careers. Finally, they know that Hideo Nomo was the first of several Japanese pitchers to play in the U.S. Major Leagues in recent years.

While this knowledge is important, it is just the tip of the iceberg to an understanding of Japanese baseball history. This history becomes more important to Americans at the beginning of the new millennium, as we see our world changing. Like seemingly everything else in our lives, baseball is becoming more international.

In 1995 Hideo Nomo became a household name in the U.S. following his great success pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Hideki Irabu was the second Japanese player to become well known in this country. Unfortunately, his fame resulted primarily because of his uneven results and poor behavior. This year, Kazuhiro Sasaki became the first Japanese relief pitcher to star as a "closer" in the U.S. Major Leagues.

These players were among the best in Japan before coming to Major League Baseball. Additionally, non-stars during their Japanese pro careers such as Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Masato Yoshii and Takashi Kashiwada have become part of the American Major League Landscape. Moreover, Japanese players who never played professionally in Japan such as Mac Suzuki have reached the highest level of American play. With recent success of Korean and Australian players in the U.S., it is clear that a high level of baseball can be played far beyond the Western Hemisphere.

In the last several years, free agency has been established for native Japanese baseball players who are veterans of at least nine seasons. As a result, it is possible that for the first time, many established Japanese stars may soon be entering the U.S. Major Leagues. Also, U.S. baseball scouting has recently reached worldwide proportions.

Young players from Korea, Brazil, Australia, and Taiwan as well as Japan will become the rule in American baseball rather than the exception. Baseball is now a full-fledged Olympic sport. Professional baseball players are now eligible to play. While the U.S. sent a team of minor league standouts to compete in the 2000 Olympics, look for a U.S. baseball "Dream Team" to participate along with a similar team of Japan's finest possibly as early as the year 2002 in a World Cup of Baseball. Cable TV is on its way to 500 channels.

It is expected that, in a few years, Japanese baseball could become a staple of American cable television. The Internet has provided Japanese baseball news stories and statistics written in English for the entire world. Soon, Japanese baseball games may be broadcast or televised in English via the Internet.

With salary structures changing in U.S. baseball, more Major League players in their primes are venturing to Japan and then returning to play again in the majors. Japan is no longer seen solely as a place for a washed-up American to prolong his career. Established major league players such as Dave Nilsson have recently joined Japanese teams in the middle of successful U.S. baseball careers. Players such as Lee Stevens, Matt Stairs, Rob Ducey and others have returned to the U.S. after spending time playing in Japan.

Approximately every other year for the last several decades, groups of U.S. Major Leaguers have visited Japan during the off-season to play against Japanese All Star teams. From the 1950's until the 1990's, usually one major league team (Dodgers, Reds, etc.) would play a number of games against the Japanese major league all-star team. The U.S. teams would almost invariably win. More recently, the U.S. has needed to send its own all-star teams to be competitive against the Japanese teams. No longer is one single U.S. major league team competitive against an All-Star team from Japan.

So, in summary:

1. Japanese Major League baseball is approaching the caliber of play found in the U.S. Major Leagues.

2. There are more quality U.S. players than ever before playing in Japan for part of their careers.

3. More Japanese stars may soon be playing in the U.S. Major Leagues.

4. Cable TV, the Internet and the Olympics or an International Baseball World Cup may soon make Japanese professional baseball more available to the American public.

How did we arrive at this point?


According to most sources, Dr. Horace Wilson, an American professor teaching in Japan, introduced the Japanese to baseball in the 1870's. As a result, baseball first became popular at Japanese universities. Beginning in the early 1900's, Keio University and Meiji University among others were baseball hotbeds. The Big Six University league was the 'Major League' of the 1920's and early 1930's, much as college football was the dominant form of U.S. football during the same era.

In the period from about 1910 to 1935, several American major league teams and barnstorming teams visited Japan during the off season and played exhibition games with Japanese teams. One of the most famous American tours of Japan took place in 1934. A team consisting of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and other future Hall of Famers played eighteen games in Japan. While the U.S. team was far superior to their opponents, Japanese interest in baseball reached a fever pitch.

Japanese Major League baseball began in 1936 and continued through 1944 with six to eight teams. After a World War II induced hiatus in 1945, baseball resumed. In 1950, two six team leagues were formed, the Central League and the Pacific League. This structure has remained to this day.

Unlike American teams which are privately owned, all Japanese teams are owned by corporations. Therefore, the teams are generally designated by companies rather than cities. Rather than the Detroit Tigers, you have the Hanshin Tigers (Hanshin is a Japanese railway company). Instead of the San Francisco Giants, there is the Yomiuri Giants (a Japanese newspaper).

1959 Marumatsy 2 in 1 Shigeo Nagashima PSA NM MT 8

1964 Menko Bat on Right Sadaharu Oh PSA NM MT 8