History of Baseball
While the history of baseball was once thought to be very simple, many of the assumptions that lasted for decades about the origins of the game have been proven to be untrue. For many years, it was widely accepted that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. But there had always been doubters, and in recent decades, historians have shown that the game existed well before that date.
From European Origins, an American Pastime is Born
Instead, it is likely that baseball history dates back much further, though the exact date of origin will depend on what you consider to be “real” baseball. Bat-and-ball games like rounders, which is clearly a predecessor of baseball, date back as far as the 14th century. By 1744, at least one British publication had used the term base-ball to refer to one such game. By the late 18th century, some versions of the game had made it to North America, and early forms of what is clearly modern baseball were being played by the 1830s throughout the continent.
The first official recorded baseball game in U.S. history took place on June 19, 1846, in Hoboken, New Jersey. By the 1870s, professional leagues were being born, with the National League being founded in 1876 and still remaining in existence to this day.
America’s Game Comes to Japan
Unlike the origins of the game as a whole, the history of baseball in Japan is rather well understood. In 1872, Horace Wilson was working as an English professor at the Kaisei Academy in Tokyo when he introduced the game to his students. The game quickly took root in the school and surrounding areas, and organized adult teams had begun to form by 1878.
One of the earliest catalysts for turning baseball into a game with national appeal in Japan came in 1896. In that year, a team from Ichiban Chugaku (now Tokyo University) took on a group of American workers from the Yokohama Country & Athletic Club. To the surprise of many, the local Japanese students not only won the game, but did so easily, defeating the Americans by a 29-4 score.
Scholastic baseball remains extremely important in Japan to this day. The national high school tournaments at Kōshien draw huge crowds and television audiences, and many future stars have first been identified due to outstanding performances in these tournaments.
Playing Across the Pacific
The early 20th century is a period in baseball history when barnstorming was extremely common, and even the Pacific Ocean wasn’t enough to stop teams from Japan from playing their American counterparts on a regular basis. Some of the top university teams in Japan would take time to tour the United States in order to improve their skills, and teams of Major League All-Stars would come to Japan in order to compete against student and amateur teams. Unsurprisingly, the professional Americans would dominate these contests: from 1908 to 1934, the American professional teams would win 87 of 88 games, with the only win coming when pitcher Michimaro Ono lead his amateur Mita side to a 9-3 victory over Herb Hunter’s Major League All-Stars on November 23, 1922.
Perhaps the most important tour in the history of baseball in Japan came in 1934, when an incredibly strong team of Major League stars came to tour the country. The Americans brought over great players including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Charlie Gehringer, and Lefty Gomez. To even be competitive against such a team, Yomiuri Shinbun owner Matsutaro Shoriki knew that he would need to put together the best talent Japan had to offer.
While he was able to do so, the Japanese team still lost all 18 games by a combined margin of 150 runs. There were some thrillers along the way, however, including a 1-0 pitcher’s duel in which the young Eiji Sawamura pitched seven scoreless innings before giving up a solo home run to Gehrig for the game’s only run. The Japanese team would stay together as a professional squad, and in 1935, they became known as the Yomiuri Tokyo Giants.
Japan Turns Pro
By 1937, eight teams had formed the Japan Professional Baseball League, which lasted until Allied air raids made play impossible late in World War II. Following the war, play resumed with the enthusiastic blessing of the Occupying Forces. By 1950, the league had grown large enough to feature two leagues, the Central and the Pacific, a format that has lasted until this day.
Today, Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) features 12 teams. Traditionally, the teams have been identified by their corporate owners rather than the cities in which they play, though this has started to change in more recent years. Teams play a 144 game season that culminates in playoffs and the Japan Series, the Japanese equivalent to the World Series.
Making the Game Their Own
Given that the Japanese form of the game was developed fairly early in baseball history, it’s perhaps not so surprising that there are some subtle (and not so subtle) differences in how the professional games are played in Japan and the United States. In some ways, the game can be smaller: both the ball and the strike zone are smaller in size, and the average park size is well below that of the Major Leagues: in fact, five of the NPB teams play in stadiums that would be too small under MLB regulations.
More obvious is the fact that NPB games can end in ties. During the regular season, a game will end in a tie should the game finish the 12th inning without a winner. Even in the playoffs, there is a limit of 15 innings before the game will be called. Most teams will finish the regular season with at least one tie in any given season due to these rules, and in close races, they can have an impact on the final standings.
For many years, the NPB was regarded as an “AAAA” league by many in the United States: in other words, it was said to have a talent level higher than that of minor leagues in the US, but below that of the Major Leagues themselves. Over the years, many Japanese players have had successful careers in the MLB after getting their starts in Japan.
The first was pitcher Masanori Mukakami, who played with the San Francisco Giants from 1964-1965. All the rest have played since 1995, including such luminaries as Hideo Nomo, Hideki Matsui, and Yu Darvish. The most successful of all is undoubtedly Ichiro Suzuki, who won the American League MVP and Rookie of the Year awards in 2001, has collected over 3,000 hits in his career, and holds the record for most hits in a single season with 262.
An International Power
Any discussion of modern baseball history in Japan must also include the country’s success in international play. The national team won the first two World Baseball Classic tournaments in 2006 and 2009, showing that their players could compete against the best in the world. The country has also proven formidable on the youth level, as teams from Japan have won the Little League World Series 11 times. While the overall level of talent in Japan may be below that of the United States, the nation has a rich baseball history and has developed a depth of professional talent that has made it a perennial contender in any international tournament the country enters.