100 years and counting

Six years ago, Nippon Professional Baseball tooted its horn about the 80th anniversary of pro baseball in Japan, citing the December 1934 organization of the Greater Japan Tokyo Yakyu Club, the team that was to play visiting major leaguers and become the founding member of Japan’s first pro league.

All of that is true, except for the part about 2014 marking 80 years since the start of pro baseball in Japan. But when the Yomiuri Giants say there’s something to celebrate, NPB organizes a party.

And because Japan’s baseball media suck up so much to the Giants that they create a vacuum, one rarely hears anything to the contrary. Thus it was a great surprise recently when I saw a headline referring to this year as the 100th anniversary of pro ball in Japan, marking the 1920 founding of Japan’s first professional baseball team, the Japan Athletic Association, also known as the Shibaura Association.

Not surprisingly, the story came from outside the mainstream baseball media, on FNN Prime, the website of Fukuoka broadcaster TV Nishinihon. The station has been championing the campaign of Hawks chairman Sadaharu Oh to push for NPB to expand to 16 teams.

It’s said history is written by the winners but in this case, history was written by the survivors. The Shibaura club had no pro league to play in, although a second team was formed in 1921 in Seoul, the capital of Imperial Japan’s colonized Korean peninsula. On June 21, 1923, the Shibaura Association, while on tour on the continent, played the Tenkatsu Baseball Team in Seoul. The hosts won Japan’s first pro baseball game 6-5.

The Shibaura Association won the other two games played between the clubs, the last in Tokyo on Aug. 30. Two days later, the Seoul club lost its equipment in the Great Kanto Earthquake, when much of Tokyo was reduced to ashes. That was more or less the end of the Tenkatsu team, although a kind of Tenkatsu cover band toured the United States the following year.

The Shibaura Association’s ground survived the earthquake but was mobilized for relief efforts after the earthquake and was never returned to the team, which officially folded the following January.

The news was not lost on Ichizo Kobayashi, the owner of the Osaka-based Hankyu railroad, which services the area between Osaka and Kobe. In 1923 he had proposed a league sponsored by private railroads in the region in order to attract riders to the lines serving the clubs’ ballparks. Perhaps with an eye on realizing that dream, Kobayashi formed a new team out of the remnants of the Shibaura Club and located them in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, a hot spring town near Osaka.

A financial panic in 1927 forced the Osaka Mainichi Newspaper to fold its corporate team, costing the Takarazuka Association its principal rival, and the Association folded for good two years later when the Great Depression hit Japan.

Although members of the Shibaura and Takarazuka teams played leading roles in the organization of the first league five years later, the Giants have nearly succeeded in erasing those teams from history.

During my time at the Daily Yomiuri, I frequently had to argue long and hard to edit out the phrase “Japan’s first pro team” in stories referring to the Giants and change the reference to the “oldest existing pro team,” which the editors could live with. The editors kept wondering why I couldn’t just get with the program and settle for the word “oldest” which our revered Japanese paper treated like a fact.

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