A Brief History
Baseball was introduced in Japan in the 1870’s and was played at colleges and at an amateur level until the turn of the century (1900).
After the turn of the century, two colleges in particular, Keio and Waseda, maintained a fierce rivalry, which in turn helped form the Tokyo Big Six University League. High schools also begin playing in a championship format every spring at Koshien Stadium in Osaka, creating a nationwide frenzy. Both the college and high school tournaments continue to this day and play a big part in the cultural appreciation for baseball in Japan.
As professional teams began touring from the U.S., Japanese began to see that to compete on the professional level their skills had to improve, so many teams were formed at an amateur to semi-pro level. Since there was no league, they would play the visiting foreign teams to showcase their ability.
It wasn’t until the 1930’s, after Babe Ruth and other MLB All-Stars toured Japan, that a professional level team was formed to compete and tour with other professional teams. This “Dai Nippon Tokyo Yakyu Club” (Big Japan Tokyo Baseball Club), which played the Ruth All-Stars in 1934, toured the U.S. in 1935 and became the Tokyo Giants in 1936. The Giants joined seven others teams in “The Japanese Baseball League” (JBL), which operated until 1949 (except for 1945 during WWII), with pitching being the dominant feature of the league.
In 1950, the league (now NPB, Nippon Professional Baseball) split in two into the Central League and the Pacific League, with six teams in each. Each team played games only within its own league except for the Japan Series and for the All-Star games. In 1975 the Pacific League adopted the designated hitter rule, while the Central League still maintains the traditional style of play with the pitchers taking their swings.
The Central has been the more popular league, since it has the nation’s top two teams, the Yomiuri Giants of Tokyo and the Hanshin Tigers of Osaka. Tokyo and Osaka are the two largest cities in Japan and are very competitive with each other. However, competitive balance in the Central League was quite weak, with the Giants dominating the leader standings for many years, while the Pacific League was more competitive, with every team sharing in the leader standings through the years. An amateur draft was initiated in 1965, which provided for a more even distribution of playing talent, although the Giants are the most beloved and sought after team. The domination of the Giants is reflected in nationwide radio and TV monopoly coverage of their games and financial supremacy in salaries and the free agent market.
Another distinct feature of Japanese baseball is that, rather than identifying the city in which they play, NPB team names promote the company that owns them, e.g., the Yomiuri Giants (they play in Tokyo, but are owned by the largest newspaper company in the world, Yomiuri) and the Hanshin Tigers (they play in Osaka, but are owned by the railroad company, Hanshin Railways).
Bunting is an integral part of Japanese baseball strategy, especially in the early innings, given the belief that the first team to score will win. With a few rare exceptions, even sluggers are expected to bunt. Infield defense tends to be good, due to the excessive bunting, non-grass dirt infields, and boot-camp style year-round all-day training. Outfielders tend to have good range, but rarely attempt difficult catches, and throwing arms tend to be average to weak. Catchers are considered to be very good at preventing wild pitches and basic defensive duties, but they rarely block the plate against runners, many have weak arms, and typically they take orders from the bench on most pitch calls.
Japanese ballparks generally are smaller than their MLB counterparts, so home runs are hit at a greater frequency. Pitching velocities also generally are slower than MLB, but pitchers counter with a wide array of off-speed pitches, tending to nip the corners of the strike zone, and rarely throw inside. Due to the extensive daily training, many players tire during games and more players tire near the end of the season. Some ace pitchers throw almost every game during the last week of the season, if their team is in contention, and in the playoffs.
Just one Japanese played in the major leagues during the first 60 years of the JBL/NPB’s existence. That was Masanori Murakami, who debuted with the San Francisco Giants in 1964 at age 20. Murakami was a baseball “exchange student” with the Class A Fresno team when he was promoted to the majors. His Japanese team, the Nankai Hawks, demanded his return, but the Giants refused. The commissioner of baseball was called upon to settle the dispute, and his compromise was that Murakami could pitch one more season in the major leagues, but then the Giants would have to return him to the Hawks, which they did, and he went on to pitch successfully in Japan for 17 more years.
Several factors contributed to the absence of Japanese players from the MLB. The first 10+ years were the pre-war and wars years, and after WWII both sides felt wary of the other for years after the war. In the 1950’s several players were sought after by MLB, but the loyalty to one’s team equated to loyalty to one’s country in the Japanese mindset. To leave would mean a great loss of face, reflecting not only on the player’s character, but that of his family, friends and community.
The other major factor that prevented Japanese players coming to the U.S. were their NPB contracts. Players were the property of their clubs for 10 years, much like the old pre-free agency MLB contract, but even then a player leaving his team and country would have been considered disloyal and unpatriotic.
This loyalty lessened over the years, creating a pool of players who want to play in the MLB and don’t feel any loss of face in doing so. The pathbreaker was pitcher Hideo Nomo, who exploited a loophole in the agreement between the NPB and MLB by “retiring” at the age of 26, which left him free to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995.
In 1998, MLB and NPB negotiated the “posting system” to address contractual issues raise by the Nomo, Hideki Irabu and Alfonso Soriano cases (Soriano began his professional career with the Toyo Carp). Excluded from the system are players with nine or more years of NPB service, free agents, and amateur players who have never played in NPB. A player under contract to an NPB team may request that his team “post” him. The team may refuse, but if it agrees, the player is offered to all MLB teams in a “silent auction” for negotiating rights to the player. The player’s NPB team may reject the highest bid, but if it accepts, the MLB team has 30 days to negotiate with the player. If agreement is reached, the “posting fee” is paid to the player’s NPB team; if agreement is not reached, the fee is returned to the MLB bidder. Of the 42 Japanese players who had played in MLB through the 2010 season, seven entered MLB through the posting system.
Many MLB players have played in the NPB. Relatively few have performed well, although most were either fringe major leaguers or players in the latter stages of their careers. The combination of smaller parks, more off-speed pitching, great defense, lack of aggressive play, high frequency bunting, dirt infields, boot camp training, and more, together with cultural differences in language, food, travel, living conditions, manners, religion, family, schools and landscape, all posed difficulties for “gaijin” playing baseball in Japan.
On the other hand, Murakami performed well for the Giants, despite his very young age and the considerable cultural differences he faced. For years, baseball experts compared NPB to AAA level in the U.S., but the performance of NPB players in the U.S. has suggested otherwise. Ichiro and Matsui have performed in MLB at levels consistent with their NPB performance; Tomo Ohka and Hideki Okajima may have pitched better in the U.S. than they did in Japan. With cultural and contractual barriers eroding, many Japanese players eager to test their skills in MLB, and MLB teams always on the lookout for talent, it is likely that the influx of players from NPB will continue apace.
Our NPB Players
Sadaharu Ou - 1B L/L 5'10" 174 (1959-80)
He is the most famous Japanese baseball player in the world, known for his career record 868 HR. He was a very patient hitter with a keen eye, strong wrists and a unique flamingo batting stance. Nine time MVP and Gold Glove winner, 2 triple crowns and 11 Japan series championships and the all-time greatest hitter in Japan baseball history is Ou (Oh).
Shigeo Nagashima - 3B R/R 5'10" 168 (1958-74)
The most popular Japanese baseball player in Japan, nicknamed "Mr. Giants". A great defensive third baseman with a potent bat, he teamed with Oh as the "O-N cannon" in the heart of the Giants' batting order.
Hiromitsu Ochiai - 1B/3B/2B R/R 5'10" 181 (1979-98)
He was known as the American boy in a Japanese body, because he rarely followed the traditional training and coaching and bragged about his ability, but still played until he was 45. He didn't become a regular until he was 27 years old and predicted his triple crowns twice.
Isao Harimoto - LF L/L 5'11" 187 (1959-81)
A survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, having severely burnt fingers, unable to hold a bat, and of Korean descent in a country wary of foreigners, he overcame it all to become the all-time hits leader in Japan professional baseball. He is known as the "Hit Machine".
Kouji Yamamoto - CF R/R 6'0" 191 (1969-86)
Kouji is the all-time greatest Hiroshima Carp player, known as "Mr. Red Helmet". He was an excellent fielder with a strong arm and had a streak of 302 chances without an error. Holds the record with 14 HRs in All-Star games.
Masayuki Kakefu - 3B L/B 5'9" 170 (1974-88)
He was known as “Mr. Tigers” for his leadership, power hitting and great fielding. Together with Randy Bass, they led the Tigers to their first and only championship in 1985. His career was cut short by multiple injuries at age 33.
Hiromitsu Kadota - LF L/L 5'7" 178 (1970-92)
A good outfielder and hitter until he ruptured his Achilles tendon, he then switched to DH and became a great power hitter. He was one of the best sluggers in NPB history even though he suffered from diabetes.
Kazuhiro Yamauchi - RF R/R 5'9" 170 (1952-70)
He was a top-notch outfielder with a strong arm and led the league in many offensive categories, including extra base hits and on base percentage. He was traded to the Tigers in 1964 for another superstar, pitcher Masaaki Koyama.
Kouichi Tabuchi – C/1B R/R 6'2" 202 (1969-84)
He was a monster of a man in size by Japanese standards and a great defensive catcher who hit towering home runs. He has the second highest home run to plate appearance ratio in NPB history behind Oh. He usually pinch hit or played first base on his catching rest days.
Katsuya Nomura - C R/R 5'9" 187 (1954-80)
He was the prototype catcher in Japan that hit for power, was great defensively, and caught every game of the season (6 years, every game; 8 other years, all but 1 to 5 games). He caught 2931 games over his 26 season career and he was a manager for 27 years, including 8 years as the player-manager for the Hawks.
Hideji Katou – 1B/LF L/L 5'9" 165 (1969-87)
He was a key player on the 1970’s Braves champion team as their cleanup hitter and a solid defender.
Tsutomu Wakamatsu – LF/CF L/L 5'6" 165 (1971-89)
He was the prototype hitter who could hit to all fields and was tough to strikeout. He was nicknamed “The Little Big Hitter” due to his small size but great contact hitting.
Yutaka Fukumoto – CF L/L 5'6" 150 (1969-88)
He was the greatest defensive center fielder in NPB history and by far the best base stealer. His legs were insured by his team during his prime at $500,000.
Taira Fujita – SS/1B/3B L/R 5'9" 179 (1966-84)
He was a great contact hitter who could hit to all fields and had some pop in his bat. He played his entire career for the Hanshin Tigers. Had a streak of 208 plate appearances without a strikeout.
Hiroyuki Yamazaki – 2B/SS R/R 5'9" 167 (1965-84)
He was a slick fielding second baseman who had great contact power. His career was very steady and he remained a reliable player throughout.
Masaichi Kaneda - P L/L 6'0" 160 (1950-69)
He was known as “The Emperor” due to his pitching dominance and longevity. He won 400 games despite pitching for the lowly Swallows for 15 years. Being of Korean descent, he achievements were not recognized early in his career, but his power pitching style overcame that. He relieved often between starts during the season and always at the end of the season and during the playoffs as was common for all teams in the 1950’s. As a batter, he smacked 38 HR in his career. With an overpowering fastball and a snapping curve he is considered to be the greatest pitcher in NPB history.
Kazuhisa Inao – P R/R 5'11" 176 (1956-69)
A workhorse of a pitcher known as “Ironman”, he holds the single season mark for wins at 42. During the 1958 Japan Series, he pitched 6 of the 7 games and 47 innings winning the series and MVP honors, earning him the nickname “God, Buddha”. His pitches included fastball, change, slider, curve and shuuto.
Yutaka Enatsu – P L/L 5'10" 198 (1967-84)
He was the Japanese strikeout king who holds the record of 401 K’s in a season. As a starter he was quite dominant, but halfway through his career he switched to the closer role and became Japan’s first true closer. In 2000, he was voted by fans as the greatest Japanese pitcher.
Masaaki Koyama – P R/R 6'0" 160 (1953-73)
A dominant pitcher who had pin-point control and rarely walked batters, Masaaki was the workhorse for his teams. He was involved in a major trade for power outfielder, Kazuhiro Yamauchi.
Tetsuya Yoneda – P R/R 5'11" 191 (1956-77)
He earned the nicknames “toughman” and “gas tank”. This pitcher was an iron man, pitching over 200 IP for 17 straight years. As a hitter, he slugged 33 HR for his career.
Minoru Murayama – P R/R 5'19" 182 (1959-72)
A hard thrower with surprisingly good control, the “Man of Flames” as he was known, was the star pitcher for the Tigers during his career. His father was a diehard Tigers fan and his last request before he died was that his soon choose the Tigers as his team. He had a rivalry with Nagashima throughout his career.
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