One of the great perks of SABR membership is access online to The Sporting News’ archives. While it now is dedicated to all sports, for a good chunk of it’s earlier history it was almost entirely focused on baseball (with some boxing, horse-racing and college football thrown in here and there). So, today, I take a look at some early references to things in The Sporting News. In this case, in the spirit of MLB’s current tour of Japan, I’m looking at certain topics related to baseball in Japan.
Baseball in Japan in General
While there were some references to Japan as far back as the 1880s, they either are references to other things or exceedingly brief and vague, like this item from the November 13, 1886 issue that I honestly do not understand whatsoever (although John Thorn has thankfully given some insight as to what Copenhagen was– it was a game played by young children):
It began like this:
Base ball (sic) has invaded Japan and to such an extent that the Tokio (sic) Athletic Association has written to President James A. Hart of Chicago for rules and suggestions relative to the furthering of the American national game in the land of the Mikado.
The article goes on to say how “last summer” a “lively little gentlemen” name Tora Hiraoka of “Tokio” attended games in Chicago with Hart (who owned the team we now know as the Chicago Cubs at the time) and had told him of how baseball had been introduced to Japan (“displaying two or three crooked fingers as indisputable evidence”) and that he was sure it could be “immensely popular” if “generally introduced”. The rest of the article is on how Hart had received a letter from Japan and how he believes that the Japanese should take to the game because they are “agile and naturally like athletic sports”, also mentioning how maybe they could play a Australian team that had visited America “last season”.
The most famous stadium in Japan and site of the country’s High School Championships, the first reference to Koshien came in the November 8, 1934 edition of Sporting News, when it was mentioned that Babe Ruth’s tour would likely see even greater crowds in Osaka, since that was where “the Koshien Stadium seats 80,000”.
The “Yankees of Japan” and winners of 22 Japan Series titles, the Yomiuri Giants were first referenced in the January 23, 1936 issue of The Sporting News, where it was reported that they (as the “Tokyo Giants”, their name before their owners at the Yomiuri Group changed it to better advertise themselves) would be coming to America to tour the Pacific Coast, Texas, and the Northwest. The first reference to the Yomiuri Giants under their current name came in 1951. In the November 7 issue, a story on a tour led by Lefty O’Doul and featuring players like Joe DiMaggio and Mel Parnell was printed, and it covered the team’s 6-3 victory over Yomiuri on October 25.
The first Japanese player in MLB history, Murakami was a pitcher who had been sent to the San Francisco Giants as something of a exchange student to play in their minor leagues. However, he pitched so well that the Giants called him up and then refused to send him back to Japan when it was time. The baseball version of a international incident occurred, and it eventually led to the end of Japanese players in North American baseball until Hideo Nomo came over in the 90s.
The first reference to Murakami in The Sporting News was on March 7, 1964, in a story by Bob Stevens on how he and two other Japanese players (Tatsuhiko Tanaka and Hiroshi Takahashi) would be in the Giants’ organization that season. Funnily enough, the story includes a note that neither San Francisco or the Nankai Hawks (their Japanese team) thought any of them would be able to crack a National League roster. Whoops.
Probably the greatest player in the history of Nippon Pro Baseball and owner of the all-time professional record for HRs (868), the first reference to Oh in The Sporting News came in the Jan. 2, 1965 issue, as writer Jim Sheen looked back on some of the biggest accomplishments in the sports world in 1964:
Interestingly, the first mention of Nomo in The Sporting News was a single item in Bob Nightengale’s baseball report on January 30, 1995, where he mentions that he is one of the hottest free-agent pitchers on the market and that the Dodgers, Blue Jays and Mariners were all pursuing him.
Finally, the first reference to Ichiro in The Sporting News also was rather matter-of-fact, coming in a preview issue on Valentine’s Day in 2000, where he was mentioned not because he was joining the Mariners (he wouldn’t until 2001), but because his spring training stint in 1999 had given Seattle some experience with the throngs of Japanese press they would receive for their new reliever, Kaz Sasaki.
Thank you to SABR and their “Paper of Record” database for making this article possible. Also, thank you to @YakyuNightOwl for correcting me on the history of Yomiuri’s name- it was always owned and run by Yomiuri, it’s just that Yomiuri didn’t put their name in the team name until later.