When did baseball start in Japan and how did it become so popular?

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In the words of the World Baseball Classic champions: 試合開始!

Translation from Japanese to English: Play ball!

Baseball has long been the national pastime in the United States, but it’s Japan that has dominated the sport on a global level at the World Baseball Classic.

When Shohei Ohtani struck out Mike Trout for the final out in a 3-2 victory over the U.S. during Tuesday’s championship game, it gave Japan its third WBC title in five tournaments.

To simply say that the United States is being beaten at its own game would diminish the sport’s long and storied history in Japan, one that dates back to the late 1800s.

Here’s a look back at the history of baseball in Japan, where the sport is known as "yakyu" or “field ball.”

When was baseball first played in Japan?  

It was in the 1870s that baseball was first played at Japanese schoolyards. 

The game was introduced to students at Kaisei Academy in Tokyo by American professor Horace Wilson in 1872, according to MLB.com

Japan’s first organized baseball team, the Shimbashi Athletic Club, was established six years later by American-trained engineer Hiroshi Hiraoka, per The Japan Times. Interest began to grow later that century when a team known as "Ichiko" from the First Higher School of Tokyo became the country's first baseball heroes after defeating Yokohama-based teams featuring adults from America. 

The sport was further popularized in Japan decades later … with the help of Babe Ruth. The New York Yankees legend headlined an American all-star team of MLB legends on a tour of Japan in 1934. The team, which also featured Hall of Famers like Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx, played exhibitions against a Japanese professional team organized by Yomiuri Shimbun president Matsutaro Shoriki. 

The interest generated by the barnstorming tour led Shoriki to keep the All-Nippon team together as the Great Japan Tokyo Baseball Club. That team is better known today as the 

Yomiuri Giants.

When did the Japanese baseball league start?

The Yomiuri Giants became the founding team of Japan’s first pro league, which was created in 1936.

That league was reorganized in 1950 and became known as Nippon Professional Baseball, which includes the Central League and the Pacific League. NPB also has two affiliated minor leagues called the Western League and Eastern League.

Nippon Professional Baseball remains the highest level of baseball in Japan and is considered to be the second-highest in the world behind Major League Baseball. 

Who was MLB’s first Japanese baseball player?

There are more than 60 Japanese players on MLB rosters this season. Their path to the majors was paved by Masanori Murakami, the league’s first player from Japan. 

Nippon Professional Baseball temporarily sent Murakami, and his Nankai Hawks teammates Hiroshi Takahashi and Tatsuhiko Tanaka, to the San Francisco Giants organization as exchange prospects in 1964

Murakami, a left-handed relief pitcher, posted an 11-7 record with a 2.38 ERA and 159 strikeouts in 106 innings with the Single-A Fresno Giants that year, going on to be named Rookie of the Year. 

The 20-year-old was then thrust into the National League pennant race on Sept. 1 after being called up to the big leagues with the Giants, who were 6.5 games back in the standings. That day, he made his debut against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium, striking out the first batter he faced while tossing a scoreless eighth inning in the Giants’ 4-1 loss.

While in the big leagues with the Giants that season, Murakami went 1-0 with one save, a 1.80 ERA, 15 strikeouts and one walk in 15 innings of relief.

The Giants then paid a $10,000 fee to have Murakami return for the 1965 season … or so they thought. The Hawks had no intention of losing Murakami and signed him to a new deal prior to the start of spring training. That led to MLB commissioner Ford Frick enacting an essential baseball embargo between the United States and Japan. 

"If in the face of documentary evidence there still is insistence on the part of the Hawks baseball team in going through with this new arrangement and the breaching of the original contract, then as Commissioner of Baseball I can only hold that all agreements, all understandings and all dealings and negotiations between Japanese and American baseball are canceled," Frick wrote at the time

A compromise was reached and Murakami was permitted by the Hawks to return to the Giants for only the 1965 season. He missed the first three weeks of the season but went on to post a 4-1 record with eight saves, a 3.75 ERA and 85 strikeouts in 74 1/3 innings pitched. That included his first and only major league start, in which he allowed three runs over 2 1/3 innings in a 15-9 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.

That season was his last in MLB as he returned to Japan and played 16 more seasons for the Hawks. Major League Baseball did not have another Japanese player for 30 years.

Who is the most famous Japanese baseball player?

Shohei Ohtani is the latest Japanese baseball star, but he’s far from the first. 

Masanori Murakami was a trailblazer as MLB’s first Japanese player, but his stay in the big leagues was brief due to a contractual dispute. Those who followed in his footsteps decades later became MVPs, All-Stars and eventual Hall of Famers. 

They were “Showtime” before “ShoTime.”

Hideo Nomo

The baseball stalemate between the United States and Japan ended when Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes pitcher Hideo Nomo joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995. He was the first Japanese player to reach the major leagues since Masanori Murakami’s second and final season in 1965. 

The 26-year-old Nomo was named National League Rookie of the Year after going 13-6 with a 2.54 ERA, the best season of his 12-year major league career. He became the first Japanese pitcher to throw a no-hitter in MLB in 1996. He then threw another while making his debut as a member of the Boston Red Sox in 2001. Nomo finished his career with a 123-109 record and 4.24 ERA. 

Sadaharu Oh

Sadaharu Oh of the Yomiuri Giants competed in a home run derby against Hank Aaron in 1974.

Why? Oh was the Hank Aaron of Japanese baseball at the time, having become the first player from Japan to reach 600 home runs. Aaron, who months prior had topped Babe Ruth's MLB record of 714 career home runs, won the exhibition 10-9.

Oh finished his playing career in 1980 with 868 home runs and remains Nippon Professional Baseball's all-time leader. He also won five batting titles, nine MVP awards and 11 championships.

Ichiro Suzuki

Sorry, Pete Rose. But Ichiro Suzuki is baseball’s true hit king. The Japanese superstar totaled 4,367 hits during his combined playing career in Nippon Professional Baseball and Major League Baseball. 

Ichiro burst onto the major league scene with the Seattle Mariners in 2001 after leaving the Orix Blue Wave. The right fielder won both Rookie of the Year and MVP after leading the American League with a .350 batting average. He captured his second batting title in 2004 after hitting .372 and setting an MLB single-season record with 262 hits. The 10-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove winner (and future Hall of Famer) finished his 19-year MLB career with a .311 batting average and 3,089 hits.  

Hideki Matsui

Godzilla!

Hideki Matsui earned that nickname while slugging home runs (332 of them) and winning championships (three of them) with the Yomiuri Giants in Nippon Professional Baseball. In 2003, he went to the Major League Baseball equivalent of the Yomiuri Giants: the Yankees.

During his first home game in the Bronx, Matsui crushed a grand slam in the Yankees’ 7-3 win. The left fielder was named an All-Star in each of his first three seasons and helped New York win the World Series in 2009, his final season with the Yankees. He played another three seasons with three different teams, finishing his 10-year MLB career with a .282 average, 175 home runs, giving him 507 total in his professional career.

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