Cat in a hat, with a bat
Baseball in Japan has evolved quite a lot since Horace Wilson first introduced the sport in 1872, yet foreigners still find many aspects of Japanese baseball confusing – not least the odd names of the teams. Let's run down the dozen Nippon Professional Baseball league teams (without actually running them down) and clear up any misconceptions.
The Nippon Professional Baseball league, or NPB for short, was organized way back in 1920 - the same year the NFL was born - and is divided into the Central and Pacific Leagues, each with 6 teams.
We'll begin with the Central League, from top to bottom according to the final 2007 standings.
Fast trivia factoid: NPB games are allowed to end in a tie if there is no winner after 3 “overtime” innings!
1) Yomiuri Giants
Sadaharu Oh and Hank Aaron
The Yomiuri Giants have a carefully cultivated image as “Japan's Team”, play at the Tokyo Dome stadium and are Japan's oldest (1934) pro team. The team colors, type style and name are all directly lifted from the old New York Giants who moved to San Francisco where, evidently, copyright law does not exist.
Why “Yomiuri”, you ask?The long-time team owner is the Yomiuri Group, a Japanese media conglomerate best known for the Daily Yomiuri newspaper. Can you imagine the “New York Times Yankees”? They folded in the ninth – sorry, couldn't resist.
Legendary Giants star Sadaharu Oh (shown above, with Hank Aaron) holds the world record for home runs at the professional level: 868. Another Giant, Barry Bonds from San Francisco, hit “only” 762. Add another asterisk, please.
2) Chunichi Dragons
Fukudome Bobblehead in Dragons regalia
The Chunichi Dragons joined the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league in 1936, won the national championship in 1954, then subjected their long-suffering fans to a 53-year drought before finally defeating the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in the 2007 Japan Series. The deciding tilt featured a perfect game thrown by a combination of two Dragons pitchers.
Located in the central Japanese city of Nagoya, the Dragons' colors and script style resemble those of MLB's Los Angeles Dodgers. The “Chunichi” in their name refers to the team owner, the Chunichi Shimbun Co., Ltd which is a Nagoya newspaper. The team name was Chunichi Dragons from 1947 through 1950, changed to the Nagoya Dragons from 1951 through 1953, then reverted to Chunichi Dragons just in time for the historic 1954 season.
Among notable Chunichi alumni is Chicago Cubs star Kosuke Fukudome. In his 9 years with the Dragons, Fukudome appeared in 1,074 games, batted .305 overall and posted a .543 slugging
percentage. The extremely rare bobblehead doll shown above depicts Fukudome in his Dragons days.
3) Hanshin Tigers
Hanshin Tigers fans come in all shapes, sizes... and species
The Hanshin Tigers play in Osaka and model their look on the Detroit Tigers, mixed with a little Yankees pin-striping. Established in 1935, the team was originally named the Osaka Tigers but changed to the Hanshin Tigers in 1961.
The Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants have an intense rivalry going that recalls the one between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. “Hanshin” refers to the team owners... no, not another newspaper, the Hanshin Electric Railway Company. As you'll see, electric railways (whatever the heck they are) are very big in the Japanese baseball business. Don't ask me why, they just are. (image via Quasi.net)
4) Yokohama BayStars
Yokohama Bay Stars re-enact Star Wars cantina scene
The only team in the NPB league NOT to feature the team owner's name in their title, the Yokohama BayStars have an interesting history. The team was founded in 1950 as the Taiyo Whales, who in 1953 absorbed the Shochiku Robins under an odd regulation that forced teams with winning percentages under .300 to either merge with another team or disband. Harsh!
The Taiyo Whales moved from Kawasaki to Yokohama in 1978 and dropped the “Whales” tag in 1993 – not because whaling had suddenly lost its cool, but because superstitious fans worried about “dead whales” putting a curse on the team. Call it the Shamu Flu. Wonder of wonders, it worked! The Yokohama BayStars won the Japan Series in 1998... for the first time since 1960. (image via Discover Japan)
5) Hiroshima Toyo Carp
Don't mess with Hiroshima!
The Carp – careful with those typos – have hailed from Hiroshima since 1949 and never play a home game on August 6 in memory of the World War 2 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Carp added “Toyo” to their name in 1968 when Mazda (“Toyo Kogyo” in Japanese) became a major shareholder in the team. The team logo and colors take after MLB's Cincinnati Reds, right down to the stylized “C” on their caps. (image via UmpBump.com)
Fun fact: Micky the baseball dog has been bringing new baseballs to the home plate umpire since 2006. No telling if they're covered in dog drool upon delivery, though.
6) Tokyo Yakult Swallows
She's going to be very popular...
Tokyo's “other team”, the Yakult Swallows date from 1950 and have been owned by Japan National Railways (no surprise), the Sankeu Shimbun newspaper (still no surprise) and finally the Yakult Corporation, a maker of yogurt and related beverages (OK, surprised).
In this respect, one might say the Swallows nickname is very fortunate... except when it comes to photos with cute girls like the one above. Wonder if they sell Super Big Gulps on game day?
Some big-name former MLB players have played for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in the past, including Joe Pepitone, Bill Madlock, Doug DeCinces and Larry Parrish.