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Baseball Diplomacy

September 6, 2017

By John J. Brandon

Although I work for The Asia Foundation, it is rare that my work takes me to Japan. I’ve been to Japan eight times over the past 18 years, but only for a few days and never outside of Tokyo. But in my most recent visit in July, I arrived from Singapore in the late afternoon, and at the spur of the moment inquired if the Yomiuri Giants were playing. Less than two hours later, I was sitting in my seat in the Tokyo Dome to watch the Yomiuri Giants play the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.

Yomiuri Giants baseball fans

Yomiuri Giants baseball fans cheer during a game at the Tokyo Dome. Photo/Flickr user Chi-Hung Lin

Baseball has been primarily, but not always, a binding force between the United States and Japan. It began in 1872 when an American professor, Horace Wilson, introduced baseball to college students at Keizai University (now Tokyo University). In the hope of trying to bridge widening political differences between the U.S. and Japan, a group of American All-Stars headed by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig played in a series of exhibition games in 1934 against Japanese teams. The Americans won all the games. One of the players, Moe Berg, a light-hitting catcher who was not of all-star caliber, but was fluent in Japanese as well as six other languages, was added to the roster at the last minute. When Babe Ruth was asked by reporters to comment about Berg’s ability to speak seven languages, the “Great Bambino” said “he can speak seven languages, but he can’t hit in any of them.” Berg played sparingly and hit only .111. At some point after that, dressed in a kimono, Berg talked his way into St. Luke’s hospital pretending to visit then U.S. Ambassador Joseph Grew’s daughter who had just given birth. He never saw the ambassador’s daughter. Instead, Berg went to the hospital’s rooftop, one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo then, pulled out a movie camera and filmed the Tokyo skyline. Eight years later, Berg’s film was used in the planning of Jimmy Doolittle’s bombing raids of Tokyo in 1942.

After the war, baseball was used to help restore better relations between both countries. San Francisco native and former batting great, Francis Joseph “Lefty” O’Doul, served as baseball’s goodwill ambassador. He helped start Japanese professional baseball in 1935 and organized the 1949 American all-stars tour, which General Douglas McArthur called “the greatest piece of diplomacy in U.S. history.” O’Doul repeatedly returned to Japan to help in the development of the Nippon Professional Baseball League and its players. For this, O’Doul was posthumously inducted into Japan’s National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002. The only other non-Japanese player inducted is Horace Wilson, for introducing baseball to Japan.

I was 12 years old (in 1968) when I first knew professional baseball was played in Japan. That year, the National League Champion St. Louis Cardinals, went to Japan to play a long exhibition series against Japanese teams, and a couple of games were broadcast on Saturday afternoon on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. That’s when I first heard of Sadaharu Oh, Japan’s greatest home run hitter. When I was in college, Sadaharu Oh and Hank Aaron, America’s home run king, squared off in a homerun derby where Aaron narrowly bested Oh, 10-9. While Oh was a great player, hitting 868 home runs in his career, and would have been an all-star had he played in the U.S. major leagues, Japanese players in general were then still nowhere as good as American ballplayers. Nevertheless, I admired how Japanese players, despite losing, were total sportsmen, giving their best effort up to the final out.

Aside from the ball park dimensions and strike zone being smaller, what other differences would I now see attending my first Nippon Professional Baseball League game in July 2017? For one, the games start earlier in the evening, at 6:00 p.m., instead of 7:05 p.m., when most major league games start in the U.S. The game ended in two hours and 45 minutes, and 11 runs were scored. If 11 runs were scored in a Yankee-Red Sox game the time would have been four hours plus. The average MLB game in America in 2017 lasts for three hours and eight minutes. Moreover, the last time average MLB games were played in two hours and 45 minutes was more than 30 years ago, in 1985. One reason for the lengthier games is that American ball players constantly leave the batter’s box between pitches. In Japan, hitters leave the batter’s box only when a pitch is fouled off.

Other differences I saw were not on the field, but in the stands. All the years I have gone to ballgames in the U.S., the beer concessionaires have been men. But in Japan, they have what they call biiru no uriko, which translates roughly to “beer girls.” All of the concessionaires serving beer and whiskey are young women with mini-kegs on their backs running through the stands to sell Japanese beer to devoted fans. I cannot picture this happening in the American ball parks I’ve been in.

At American ballparks, fans buy peanuts, crackerjack, hamburgers, and hotdogs off of young and middle-aged men in baseball jerseys in the aisles. But not in the Tokyo Dome. One walks to a stand to purchase a very civilized and beautiful bento box with sushi rice, meat, or vegetables. Not only is it healthier and more refined dining, but miraculously, everyone cleaned up after themselves. No trash was left as everyone deposited their waste in either garbage cans or recycling bins at the end of the game. This is definitely not the case in the U.S., where peanut shells, popcorn, cotton candy, beer cans, and discarded nacho trays litter the aisles and are left under the seats.

The Yomiuri Giants were the home team that July evening, and about 90 percent of those in attendance were Giants fans. But what struck me was that the Swallows fans were all assembled in one part of the stadium, the left field bleachers. Throughout the game fans sang and chanted when their team was at bat. Giant fans did not try to drown out the Swallows fans’ cheers, like opposing teams do in the U.S. Swallow fans brought an eight-person brass band to lead their team on. In some ways, the stadium atmosphere was more reminiscent of an American football game than a baseball game.

Today, a number of Japanese players have become superstars in America—the most notable being Ichiro Suzuki, who after hitting .353 playing nine seasons in Japan has gone on to get 3,070 hits (and counting) and hitting .312 lifetime in the major leagues. His 4,348 hits make Ichiro, as he is known in the U.S., the all-time hit king in professional baseball when factoring in the 1,278 hits from his career in Japan. Ichiro will undoubtedly be a first ballot hall of famer and the first Japanese to be inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

I had a great time attending the game. The Japanese love for baseball is as strong as Americans’ love for the game. A couple of American friends in Tokyo who I met afterwards were surprised I had gone, and went by myself—something I had never done in my life. They have lived in Japan for years and have not gone to a single game. Despite the hundreds of baseball games I’ve attended for more than half a century, I had never attended one under a dome. My experience was a great one, and hopefully next time I’ll get to go with friends.

Oh, by the way, the home team won. Giants 8, Swallows 3.

John J. Brandon is senior director for The Asia Foundation’s International Relations programs in Washington, D.C. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

Related locations: Japan
Related programs: Regional and International Relations

1 Comment

  1. Lovely article and great observations. I wish they had bento boxes at ball games in the US!

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