Sunday, May 22, 2016

1950 Shake Up Part 1: 1949

The 2016 Japan Series is still a whole season away, but the 2015 Series, between the Swallows and the Hawks, ended last fall after 5 games and the Hawks Victorious.  The Hawks were part of the original post war league, while the Swallows began life as an expansion team when the two league system of Central and Pacific Leagues was born in 1950.  Some great comments from NPB Card Guy on a post  last year led me to investigate a little more thoroughly the development of the two league system in Japan, taking us back 65 years...

Yuasa Sadao, nearly 50 years old, as old as the 20th century itself, pitched a throwaway game in November of 1950 against another half-centenarian, Shinji Hamasaki (right), as the rest of his teammates prepared for the first Japan Series.  His team, the Orions, were an expansion team who, the previous year, had been a semi-pro team on which Sadao had been involved ever since his days as a star at Meiji University.  The game against Hamasaki and the Braves on the last day of the season represented the end of the first century, setting the stage for the second half, in which the gestation period of baseball in Japan gave way to the complete professional and consumer entity it had already become in the West.  It would be Sadao's only inning of professional pitching, and, though he and Hamazaki would meet again two years later on the field (as coaches) during the Heiwadai incident, his brief role in professional baseball serves as a perfect bookend.

The 1950 Japan Series was to be the final contest of the first season of two-league competition in the history of Japanese professional baseball, The Orions were set to face the Shochiku Robins, another expansion team, in a very late, cold Japan Series that was to be the culmination of two years of wrangling, discussion, debate, shenanigans, wheeling, dealing, compromise and success in forming the system that exists to this day in Japanese baseball.

In the beginning, there was tournament style play. Between the founding of the league in 1936, and the final season in 1944 before the short hiatus brought upon by the final stages of the war, the single league system sufficed for the Japanese baseball loving public, the owners, players, and stakeholders.

That system had been founded after the development of the Yomiuri Giants from an all star team facing the 1934 touring Americans, to a barnstorming team traveling across North America, and into one of the founding seven teams of Japanese Professional Baseball.

Occupied Japan in 1946 was a place of hardship, rebuilding, sorrow and, in many places even starvation.  However, baseball returned in both amateur and professional form, with the new spring. That same pre-war league, now slightly modified, sanctioned and encouraged by the US Occupation leadership, saw a slow return to pre-war form, with additional support from the occupation forces and American influence.

As the seasons became longer and the Japanese fans slowly shed the hardships of the post-war landscape, the league became more and more profitable.  In addition, the occupation army was hungry for anything that tasted of home, and, though they could at times be rowdy and disrespectful, American servicemen attended in droves. The growing Japanese industry took notice.

Additionally, the post-war talent became stronger.  Those who survived the war returned from foreign battlefields.  POW camp and work camp survivors joined any of those who had stayed at home, or those whose kamikaze number had yet to be selected by August of 1945.  As normalcy crept back into their lives, these men gravitated back to the ball field stronger and more determined than ever to succeed.

There was the emergence of popular players and rivalries, such as that of Tetsuharu Kawakami, the God of Batting, with his"red bat", and Hiroshi Oshita with his"blue bat" (right).  They added color to one of the few forms of entertainment that those stricken with the hardships of post-war life could enjoy.  The game's popularity was was soaring.

So much so that several businessmen sought to capitalize on that popularity by introducing some competition in the vein of the Federal League in 1914.  The new league opened for business in March of 1947 with four teams.  The minimal team number, dearth of post-war attendance, and lack of recognition by the main professional league, led to it's dissolution less than a year later.

Though the immediate post-war environment couldn't yet support two leagues, by the second half of the 1948 season, the profitability of professional baseball had become more than apparent. Several national companies, including the Mainichi Shimbun, which had fielded semi-pro industrial league teams in the post war years, now wanted to field pro teams and share in the profits.  The desire among Japanese companies was growing.  Despite the Admission Tax, which was a 60% tax paid to the occupation government, entry into the league was sure to bring in as much money available in occupied Japan.

Enter Matsutaro Shoriki.  Shoriki had been the owner of the Yomiuri Shimbum and had organized the Japanese All Star team that played against Ruth and company in 1934 tour.  The core of that team would go on, under the ownership of Shoriki, to become the Yomiuri Giants.

Before the beginning of the 1949 season, negotiations had already begun to include all of the companies clamoring to get in on the profits that would, eventually, roll in.  By February of '49, Shoriki, recently cleared as a war criminal by the occupation government, was appointed honorary president of the federation that would become the professional league in place today.

As the 1949 season got under way, there were eight teams set to play roughly 138 games, after which the Yomiuri Giants would run away with the pennant, 16 games ahead of the  2nd place Hankyu Braves.  Almost every previous batting and pitching record was matched or topped. Fumio Fujimura [left] led the league with 46 home runs and 142 RBI.

Chusuke Kizuka's 59 stolen bases was the second most ever, trailing Kawanishi's record set the previous year. Karao Betto set a record with 129 runs scored. Victor Starrfin won 27 games and Shissho Takesue [below] of the Hawks led all pitchers with 183 strikeouts.  Fujimura took MVP and Hideo Fujimoto of the Giants won the Sawamura Award.

A competitive, stat heavy season, overflowing with post-war talent, in which the perennial favorites won the championship confirmed the need for a new system - more competition and and a championship series would only improve upon a stellar product.   Not only was the league exceeding expectations but fans were getting everything they wanted.

Shoriki, and all plans to expand professional baseball, developed under the watchful eye, and governing hand, of the Allied Occupation of Japan.  The SCAP (Supreme Commander for Allied Forces) and it's commander General MacArthur, had established, in addition to the military tribunal and Allied Council, a civilian section of the occupation forces.  Made up of general accounting, general procurement, government, natural resources, public health and welfare, statistics, civil communications, civil information, civil intelligence civil property and civil transportation, there was, in addition, an economic and scientific section headed up by Maj. Gen. W. F. Marquat.  Marquat's aide de camp was Cappy Harada, a Hawaiian native Nisei who had played baseball with many Japanese natives and was charged by MacArthur with reestablishing professional baseball in Japan in 1946. The civilian section would keep a close tabs on Shoriki and prevent him from obtaining too much power too quickly.

According to his comments to Rob Fitts' in "Remembering Japanese Baseball", in addition to overseeing the return to professional baseball  in 1946 during the occupation, Harada had a hand in the development of the two league system as well.  "In the late 1940's, Mr. Shoriki asked me "How come our baseball isn't getting stronger like the Major Leagues?"I said, "Mr. Shoriki, there's a simple answer.  You have to form two leagues and have a Japanese World Series.  Then, everybody will be fighting for something, and that will foster competition.  Then, Japanese baseball will get stronger." Mr. Shoriki said, "Let's have a meeting on it." The meeting took place at a restaurant in Osaka.  At the meeting were Mr. Shoriki, Ryuji Suzuki [the president of the league], Mr. Nagata [the movie magnate], and Prince [Naruhiko] Higashikuni.  We discussed it and decided that it was a good idea.  I hate to take credit for it but I think I was responsible for creating the two leagues."

Despite Harada's words, Matsuro Shoriki most likely saw it as his own initiative.  Masaichi Nagata, film producer, owner of the Daiai Stars and future President of the Pacific League, also saw the two league system as his idea.  However, Harada's description of the meeting in the Osaka restaurant (which included both Shoriki and Nagata), in addition to the many meetings that would be held throughout the summer and fall, suggest that it was a group effort.  By April, Shoriki was leading the group in a more official capacity,while debate continued on how to structure a new, two-league system.
The new league organization was officially announced on April 16th, when Shoriki said, through the AP, that he "hoped to accomplish at least three things: build up two major leagues like the American and the National in the United States; build more baseball stadiums, and get General MacArthur's approval to invite an American baseball team to Japan next fall."

Membership applications from companies aiming to participate in the expanded league were numerous throughout the following months: the Mainichi Shimbun, Kintetsu, Kyoto Shimbun, Kumagai Gumi Co., Ltd., Japan National Railways, Shochiku, Ocean Fishing, Nagoya Railroad, Nishi-Nippon Railroad Co., Ltd., West newspaper, Seibu Railway, and others.

With the 1949 season waning, Mainichi, Kintetsu, and Nishi-Nippon Railroad Co., Ltd. became part of the forming league by the end of September. 

Only a few days later, on the second to last day of September, a conference was held during which representatives of the current teams raised objections to expanding the league. They were voted down, and the new association moved towards a final vote at a meeting after the end of the season in December.

Also set for the post-season was the first visit from a US professional team since the 1934 tour. As Shiriki had explained, the owners wished to add legitimacy to the new league with a visit from a Major League team.  SCAP saw it as a good idea as well, but attempts to convince a Major League team fell through. Cappy Harada, already involved in the organization of the new leagues, was empowered by Gen. MacArthur to supervise a tour of Japan by the San Francisco Seals.

Cappy, in turn, contacted his old friend Lefty O'Doul, who still retained a great deal of popularity from his time in Japan in 1934.  The tour was arranged with the assistance of baseball writer Sotaru Suzuki, O'Doul's friend and organizer of the 1934 tour.

The Seals would play seven games against various amateur and professional Japanese All-Star squads, and against US Air Force and other US military All-Star squads. The tour would be the cherry on top of a great year for Japanese baseball.

By the end of the 1949 season, the receipts confirmed what all of these 'stakeholders' had been excited for.  The league had drawn over four million fans during the '49 season, a 25% increase over the '48 season.  However, each team posted a loss except for the Giants, who claimed simply to break even. The Tigers, though finishing in the second division, made almost enough to break even.  This may have been the result of the “Admission Tax” (mentioned above) paid by all Japanese companies to the occupation government of 60%, cutting into the 1.15 million in gross receipts for the league. The NY Times reported that Columbia University Prof. Carl Shoup's recommendation of reducing the admission tax was set to be enacted into law by the Japanese National Legislature, which would ease the burden on the new league.

The 1949 Tigers most likely drew so many fans as much due to their location as because of the star studded product they fielded.  Despite finishing in the second division, 20 games out of first, the Tigers fielded one of the most talented teams in the league.  Fujio Fujimura was only a few batting points short of winning a triple crown, and player-manager Bozo Wakabayashi led the pitching staff with a 3.29 ERA.

The stars of that team, including Wakabayashi [above, left], Karao Betto, Shosei Go and Takeshi Doigaki, would go on to shake up the new system and lead a new team, in a new league, to the 1950 pennant.

In October, the Seals arrived in Japan to a parade on the Ginza.  To quote Cappy Harada: "One of the highlights was at the opening ceremonies when I had General MacArthur's permission to raise the Japanese flag and play the anthem at the same time. It was the first time after the War that the Japanese flag had been raised together with the Stars and Stripes, so it was a very historical moment.  The Japanese people were very surprised, and a lot of them were moved to tears."  

The tour would eventually attract over 400,000 fans and contribute greatly to the popularity of professional baseball in post-war Japan.

On the day that the San Francisco Seals landed in Japan for the 1949 tour, Shogi Uno, President of the Yomiuri Giants, was meeting with MLB Commissioner Happy Chandler during the World Series in New York.  He was seeking advice on the inevitable expansion of the current pro system in Japan.  According to Uno, "6 new clubs want[ed] to horn in on the gravy."  Chandler responded with an old axiom borrowed from Benjamin Franklin - "If you don't hang together, you will all hang separately."

By December, the stage was set for the dissolution of the one league system that had subsisted since 1936, and the beginning of an Americanized system that would persist for the next 60 plus years. It was also set for new rivalries and loyalties. Continued in Part 2....
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