Japan has two top-flight leagues, both of which began playing in 1950. Here is a brief history of the Pacific League. There are thousands of stories to tell, but this is as good a place to start as any.
Why start with the PL? It’s marginally stronger than the Central League and is the easiest to watch outside of Japan, through Pacific League TV.
During the postwar Allied occupation of Japan, pro baseball resumed in 1946 under the auspices of its first professional league, the Japan Baseball Federation (not to be confused with Japan’s national federation of today). What had become an eight-team circuit through 1943, lost two franchises in its final wartime season, 1944, but two new teams signed on for 1946 sponsored by the Daiei movie studio and the Tokyo-based Tokyu Railroad.
There are a lot of stories about how after defeating the 1947 challenge from the maverick Citizens League, better known as the National League, the established league began eyeing a split into two. Some have written it came at the urging of SHAEF, the headquarters of the occupation, some have written that it was the brainchild of Yomiuri Shimbun owner Matsutaro Shoriki, the driving force behind creating a league in 1936 for his team, the Giants, to compete against.
In any case, Shoriki apparently was able to recruit the Osaka-based Mainichi Shimbun newspaper into the pro ranks. The Mainichi had a long history as a corporate league powerhouse, and in 1950, the first year of Japan’s two league era, won the PL pennant and the first Japan Series.
Home runs and dead balls
The 1950 season has been dubbed the year of the flying ball as expansion from eight teams to 15 combined with a smaller strike zone instituted in 1949 to turn small-ball loving Japan into a slugfest society, that apparently did not sit well with the old guard.
How Japan then reverted to its second dead-ball era remains a mystery. I have never seen evidence for systemic change, and some hitters maintained their power strokes through the 1950s so it could largely have been social pressure against strikeouts that fueled the drop in power numbers and eliminated an early launch-angle revolution.
There was a drive among two of the existing teams, the Braves and Hawks, owned by Kansai regional railroads Hankyu and Nankai, respectively, to make the PL essentially a competition among railroad company teams. Unfortunately, they were unable to pry the Hanshin Railroad’s Tigers away from their Tokyo rivals, the Yomiuri Giants, as those two clubs became the flagships of the Central League.
Instead, they recruited three other railroad-owned teams to join in, the Fukuoka-based Nishitetsu Lions, the Osaka-based, Kintetsu Buffaloes and the Tokyo-based Tokyu Flyers. With Daiei and Mainichi, they made up a seven-team circuit compared to eight in the CL.
While the CL quickly contracted to six, the PL expanded in 1954 to a more manageable eight with the introduction of the Takahashi Unions, who lasted just three seasons before merging with Daiei, who folded up shop after the 1957 season.
Since then, both leagues have had six teams. The PL’s first champs, the Mainichi Orions merged with Daiei and in 1962 moved into new Tokyo Stadium. In 1969, South Korean candy and real estate magnate Takeo Shigemitsu (Shin Kyuk Ho) bought the club’s naming rights and took it over entirely in 1971 but wanted no part of buying the poorly built stadium and moved his Orions, first to Sendai then to Kawasaki.
In 1992, club moved to its current location on the Tokyo Bayside in Chiba prefecture and became known as the Lotte Marines.
The Tokyu Flyers became the Toei (movie studio) Flyers and after a brief interlude the Nippon Ham Fighters in 1975. In 1970, Nishitetsu’s empire began to crumble after it was revealed that the club was at the epicenter of a match-fixing scandal. The parent company sold the Lions’ naming rights after 1972, and the club moved to the outskirts of Tokyo in 1979 having been bought by the Seibu Railroad.
The next big shakeup came in 1988, when Nankai and Hankyu got out of the baseball business. Nankai sold the Hawks to the owner of the Daiei supermarket chain, who moved them to Fukuoka and built the titanium-roofed Fukuoka Dome to house them. Meanwhile, the Braves were sold to leasing company Orix.
The Fighters gave up on their long cohabitation with the Giants at Tokyo Dome and moved to Sapporo Dome in 2004, which was also the yearJapan’s only player’s strike. This was sparked when the Kintetsu Buffaloes announced they were going out of business and would merge with the Orix BlueWave. Although a combined front of players and fans failed to block that, they did succeed in getting owners to accept interleague play and an expansion franchise in Sendai, the Rakuten Eagles.
That 2005 season also saw the Hawks transferred from Daiei to telecommunications giant SoftBank, giving the PL two high-tech parent companies to go with one meat packer, one railroad, a leasing company and
|1950||Mainichi||Orions||毎日||PL Orions||CL Robins|
|1951||Nankai||Hawks||南海||CL Giants||PL Hawks|
|1952||Nankai||Hawks||南海||CL Giants||PL Hawks|
|1953||Nankai||Hawks||南海||CL Giants||PL Hawks|
|1954||Nishitetsu||Lions||西鉄||CL Dragons||PL Lions|
|1955||Nankai||Hawks||南海||CL Giants||PL Hawks|
|1956||Nishitetsu||Lions||西鉄||PL Lions||CL Giants|
|1957||Nishitetsu||Lions||西鉄||PL Lions||CL Giants|
|1958||Nishitetsu||Lions||西鉄||PL Lions||CL Giants|
|1959||Nankai||Hawks||南海||PL Hawks||CL Giants|
|1960||Daiei Mainichi||Orions||大毎||CL Whales||PL Orions|
|1961||Nankai||Hawks||南海||CL Giants||PL Hawks|
|1962||Toei||Flyers||東映||PL Flyers||CL Tigers|
|1963||Nishitetsu||Lions||西鉄||CL Giants||PL Lions|
|1964||Nankai||Hawks||南海||PL Hawks||CL Tigers|
|1965||Nankai||Hawks||南海||CL Giants||PL Hawks|
|1966||Nankai||Hawks||南海||CL Giants||PL Hawks|
|1967||Hankyu||Braves||阪急||CL Giants||PL Braves|
|1968||Hankyu||Braves||阪急||CL Giants||PL Braves|
|1969||Hankyu||Braves||阪急||CL Giants||PL Braves|
|1970||Lotte||Orions||ロッテ||CL Giants||PL Orions|
|1971||Hankyu||Braves||阪急||CL Giants||PL Braves|
|1972||Hankyu||Braves||阪急||CL Giants||PL Braves|
|1973||Nankai||Hawks||南海||CL Giants||PL Hawks|
|1974||Lotte||Orions||ロッテ||PL Orions||CL Dragons|
|1975||Hankyu||Braves||阪急||PL Braves||CL Carp|
|1976||Hankyu||Braves||阪急||PL Braves||CL Giants|
|1977||Hankyu||Braves||阪急||PL Braves||CL Giants|
|1978||Hankyu||Braves||阪急||CL Swallows||PL Braves|
|1979||Kintetsu||Buffaloes||近鉄||CL Carp||PL Buffaloes|
|1980||Kintetsu||Buffaloes||近鉄||CL Carp||PL Buffaloes|
|1981||Nippon Ham||Fighters||日本ハム||CL Giants||PL Fighters|
|1982||Seibu||Lions||西武||PL Lions||CL Dragons|
|1983||Seibu||Lions||西武||PL Lions||CL Giants|
|1984||Hankyu||Braves||阪急||CL Carp||PL Braves|
|1985||Seibu||Lions||西武||CL Tigers||PL Lions|
|1986||Seibu||Lions||西武||PL Lions||CL Carp|
|1987||Seibu||Lions||西武||PL Lions||CL Giants|
|1988||Seibu||Lions||西武||PL Lions||CL Dragons|
|1989||Kintetsu||Buffaloes||近鉄||CL Giants||PL Buffaloes|
|1990||Seibu||Lions||西武||PL Lions||CL Giants|
|1991||Seibu||Lions||西武||PL Lions||CL Carp|
|1992||Seibu||Lions||西武||PL Lions||CL Swallows|
|1993||Seibu||Lions||西武||CL Swallows||PL Lions|
|1994||Seibu||Lions||西武||CL Giants||PL Lions|
|1995||Orix||BlueWave||オリックス||CL Swallows||PL BlueWave|
|1996||Orix||BlueWave||オリックス||PL BlueWave||CL Giants|
|1997||Seibu||Lions||西武||CL Swallows||PL Lions|
|1998||Seibu||Lions||西武||CL BayStars||PL Lions|
|1999||Daiei||Hawks||ダイエー||PL Hawks||CL Dragons|
|2000||Daiei||Hawks||ダイエー||CL Giants||PL Hawks|
|2001||Kintetsu||Buffaloes||近鉄||CL Swallows||PL Buffaloes|
|2002||Seibu||Lions||西武||CL Giants||PL Lions|
|2003||Daiei||Hawks||ダイエー||PL Hawks||CL Tigers|
|2004||Seibu||Lions||西武||PL Lions||CL Dragons|
|2005||Lotte||Marines||ロッテ||PL Marines||CL Tigers|
|2006||Nippon Ham||Fighters||日本ハム||PL Fighters||CL Dragons|
|2007||Nippon Ham||Fighters||日本ハム||CL Dragons||PL Fighters|
|2008||Seibu||Lions||西武||PL Lions||CL Giants|
|2009||Nippon Ham||Fighters||日本ハム||CL Giants||PL Fighters|
|2010||SoftBank||Hawks||ソフトバンク||PL Marines||CL Dragons|
|2011||SoftBank||Hawks||ソフトバンク||PL Hawks||CL Dragons|
|2012||Nippon Ham||Fighters||日本ハム||CL Giants||PL Fighters|
|2013||Rakuten||Eagles||楽天||PL Eagles||CL Giants|
|2014||SoftBank||Hawks||ソフトバンク||PL Hawks||CL Tigers|
|2015||SoftBank||Hawks||ソフトバンク||PL Hawks||CL Swallows|
|2016||Nippon Ham||Fighters||日本ハム||PL Fighters||CL Carp|
|2017||SoftBank||Hawks||ソフトバンク||PL Hawks||CL BayStars|
|2018||Seibu||Lions||西武||PL Hawks||CL Carp|
|2019||Seibu||Lions||西武||PL Hawks||CL Giants|
The Hawks, winners of Japan’s first postwar pennant, became the PL’s first powerhouse. Under manager Kazuto Tsuruoka*, they won five pennants in the 1950s and another four in the 1960s, thanks in part to their Hall of Fame catcher Katsuya Nomura, who was something like Japan’s Josh Gibson.
Tsuruoka was a master innovator. The more one looks at things others are credited with developing, one realizes that many were simply copying something Tsuruoka had success with for Nankai. The Hawks’ Joe Stanka was the first elite starting pitcher not to pitch out of the bullpen in between starts, while former ace Tadashi Sugiura and Japan’s first major leaguer, Masashi Murakami, became Japan’s first one-two elite relief tandem.
The second PL powerhouse came out of Fukuoka. There, iconoclastic and controversial skipper Osamu Mihara, turned his back on the idea that baseball was all about not striking out. Behind power pitcher Kazuhisa Inao and power hitters Futoshi Nakanishi at third base and shortstop Yasumitsu Toyoda, the 1954 and 1955 Lions became the first team to hit 100-plus homers in consecutive seasons. Those teams who struck out 700 times at the plate.
That dynasty met its end when Nakanishi’s brilliant career was sidetracked by tendonitis, Inao’s arm gave out, and Mihara wore out his welcome–as he had previously with the Giants and would again in the future.
The Golden Braves
Although one of Japan’s first teams with ties to pro baseball long before the Giants were even a thought in Matsutaro Shoriki’s imagination, Hankyu’s club became a PL powerhouse in the mid-1960s under Hall of Fame manager Yukio Nishimoto.
Although Japanese baseball people sometimes talk about the sacrifice bunt as if it was mentioned on the slabs Charlton Heston brought down from Mount Sinai, but it really wasn’t an essential part of the dogma in the 1960s. Even so, winning teams tended to bunt more than losing teams since winners had more runners and trailed less often.
Nishimoto’s first three pennant-winning teams in 1967, ’68 and ’69, big pitching and power-hitting clubs, were each last in their league in sacrifice hits.
The Braves never won a Japan Series under Nishimoto, but did so under his apprentice, Toshiharu Ueda, from 1975 to 1977. Ueda might have won four-straight had not a foul home run in the 1978 been ruled fair in the Braves’ Series defeat to the Yakult Swallows.
Seibu’s golden era
After moving to the Tokyo suburbs in Saitama Prefecture in 1979, Seibu moved its first manager, Rikuo Nemoto, into the front office, and under his tutelage they won 11 pennants between 1982 and 1994. That streak started with hard-ass former Giants shortstop Tatsuro Hirooka as manager and ended with meticulous former Giants catcher Masaaki Mori at the helm.
Despite running one of the most dominant offensive and defensive teams in Japanese baseball history, Hiraoka and Mori are most responsible for the automatic sacrifice bunts that have plagued Japan for the past four decades.
The Hawks Part 1
The Hawks were a bust when they first moved to Fukuoka in 1989, playing in a city that still pined for their Lions. But things turned around starting in 1993 when the Hawks hired Nemoto. The former Lions front office wiz, who had also been an architect of the Hiroshima Carp dynasty in the CL, managed the Hawks for two seasons before moving upstairs. Through his machinations and skill, the club’s talent base expanded rapidly, and in 1999–the year the Hawks captured their first pennant in 26 years and their first Series championship in 35.
That team was managed by Sadaharu Oh, who proved to be a good motivator and developer of talent if a poor tactical manager. But with the collection of talent provided by Nemoto, Oh’s Hawks won two three pennants and two Japan Series between 1999 and 2003. Oh’s shortcoming was in short championship series, and after the PL introduced a playoff system, his teams were wiped out in the postseason in 2004 and 2005 after dominating the league all year.
The Hawks Part 2
When Oh was diagnosed with stomach cancer after winning the first WBC with Japan in 2006, the Hawks struggled as well, not recovering until after telecommunications giant SoftBank bought the club after the tumultuous 2004 season.
Under SoftBank, the Hawks became the first PL club to attract a free agent CL star in his prime, Seiichi Uchikawa. In 2010, the club cleaned out the last remnants of the Daiei front office, hiring a new GM and international director, while investing in young player development. Those efforts have resulted in another huge talent expansion, Japan’s biggest payroll, five league pennants and six Japan Series titles.
*– One of the confounding things about Japanese baseball is the practice of players changing their names, either the reading of the Chinese characters used in their names, or the characters themselves, or in the case of Tsuruoka, his family name since it is customary that a family with no sons will adopt one of their daughter’s husbands to preserve the family line.