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Japanese All Time Baseball Team

Updated on February 15, 2015
Alex J Ulacio profile image

Venezuelan Writter. Journalism student passionate about sports: baseball, rugby, basketball, etc. Voracious reader and lover of life.

Baseball in Japan is a big deal. Since 1880 is the most popular team sport in the country and it’s played in all levels, from little leagues to high school to college and of course, Pro Baseball. The Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB) is the highest competition of professional baseball in Asia and has produced the best players in Japan History from the first one, Eiji Sawamura to the latest, Masahiro Tanaka. That’s why we have designed our all time line up of Japanese baseball.

Pitching Rotation

Five starters:

Sawamura
Sawamura

Eiji Sawamura

Gone too soon, Sawamura was Japan baseball’s first great star and national hero who died in war. He arrived to NPB with the Yomiuri Giants and he became one of their aces. It is estimated that he threw the fastball at 90-95 mph, he had a Bert Blyeleven-curve ball and a circle change. He had such a great command over his pitches that Connie Mack wanted to bring him to America but he rejected the offer saying: “I hate America”.

Sawamura’s best year was 1937, his record was 33-17, pitched the first two no hitters in the league history and his ERA was 1.83, winning the Triple Crown. In 1938 he went to war and was back to baseball in 1939 with a shoulder injury that affected his performance and despite that, he pitched another no-no.

In his career he posted a 63-22 record, with 554 strikoous and ERA of 1.74. His number uniform (14) was retired in 1947, the same year the Sawamura Award was established to be given to the most active, whole-game, starting pitcher.

Sawamura had died in 1944 at age of 27. On December 2 that year, Sawamura went to the warfront in Philippines by ship for the 3rd time. Tragically, his ship was attacked and sunk in the East China Sea.

Kaneda
Kaneda

Masaichi Kaneda

Left-handed pitcher, born to Korean parents, Kaneda was known as “The Emperor” for his dominance on the mound.

Kaneda started his career with Kokutetsu Swallows in 1950 and retired with Yomiuri in 1969 and was inducted to Japan Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988. His record was 400-298, 365 complete games and 82 shutouts (all time records), 2.34 ERA and 4490 strikeouts (world record once), plus 1 no hitter and 1 perfect game.

His fastball was estimated at 100 mph, his 2-seam fastball at 94-96 and his best pitch was the slurve, which he overused causing him injures. He also had the change up in his repertoire.

A pitcher with control problems at the beginning of his career, he spent 14 years with the worst team in NPB, the Swallows, during his stance there he won 45% of the team’s victories. Due to the lack of hitting support, Kaneda lost at least 20 games in 6 seasons. He won 20 games or more for 14 seasons in a row, including two 30-wins seasons. He accumulated 10 strikout tittles, setting a then record of 350 K’s in 1955. Three years later he established a world record of 64.1 innings pitched not allowing any run.

Starffin
Starffin

Victor Starffin

Born in 1917 in Russia, his parents took him to Japan shortly after and he lived as Japanese. He was nicknamed the Blue-eyed Japanese.

Putting his baseball achievements aside, his life was fascinating. He spoke 3 languages, which allowed him to work as interpreter of SCAP during WWII and at the beginning of the conflict, he was placed in a detention camp at Karuizawa with other foreign diplomats and residents. He was already forced to change his name to be Japanized, "Suda Hiroshi", since 1940. After his baseball career ended he worked as an actor. Asked how he felt about his baseball legacy, Starffin only replied: “I feel sad… and lonely”. He was killed in a car accident in 1957 after a long battle with alcoholism and depression.

He spent the first 9 years of his career with Yomiuri, setting a season record in wins with 42 in 1939. Previously (1938) he won the pitching Triple Crown with 19-2 record, 146 strikeouts and 1.05 ERA. He compiled a streak of 18 games with a win. He amassed 350 complete games, three 30-win seasons, 1 no hitter, 2 MVP awards and in 19 years of career his ERA was only 2.09. His lifetime record was 303-176, being the first pitcher in NPB history to reach the 300 wins. He also played for the Taiyo Robins, the Kinsei/Daiei Stars and the Takahashi Unions.

Inao
Inao

Kazuhiza Inao

Inao’s greatness was of such dimension, that fans coined the expression: “God, Budah and Inao”. He posted a career mark of 276-137 with 1.98 ERA and 179 complete games with 2574 strikeouts, his nickname was “Iron Man”.

He was the youngest of 7 siblings from a poor family. When he arrived to Pro Ball he was not even considered a prospect, but he pitched the opening game of 1956 season, threw a shutout and started an 8 game winning streak, finished the season with 21-6 record and 1.02 ERA. He was named Rookie of the Year.

In 1957 Inao established a Pacific League record of 38 wins, including a 20 wins streak, 10 complete games and the MVP award. He gained his nickname due to his bulk of work, that season he also threw 20 games as reliever.

For 4 season in a row, Inao won at least 30 games, that’s why when he won only 20 in 1960 it was considered a decline, but a year after he tied the japanase record, winning 42 games with 1.69 era, completed 25 of his 30 starts, striking out 353 batters and won half of his team victory. His last great year was 1963: 28-16 record, 226 strikeouts and 24 complete games. He won two Triple Crowns (1958 and 1961).

Inao’s most memorable performance took place in the Japan Series of 1958 when his team, Nishitetsu Lions faced the Yomiuri Giants. Inao started game 1 surfering oh high fever and lost. He didn’t pitch game 2 but his team lost again. In game three, still weak for the fever, Inao only allowed 1 run but lost the game. Down 3 to 0, Inao took the mound for the Lions and kept the Giants scoreless for 7 innings and won the game. In game 5, Inao didn’t start but when the game went extrainnings he pitched a perfect 10th inning and later hit a walk-off home run. Inao convinced his manager to let him throw game 6 and he pitched a shutout. With series tied at 3, Inao pitched game 7, allowing 1 run in 9 innings, getting the win and the pennant for the Lions. The greatest comeback in baseball ever!

An shoulder injury in 1964 make Inao’s performance decline, it virtually ruined his career. Inao continued to be a great pitcher but no longer a demigod.

Nomo
Nomo

Hideo Nomo

Nomo was not the first Japanese player in MLB but he was the first to shine and he opened the door for those who came after. His professional debut occurred in 1990 with the Kintetsu Buffaloes and he struck out 287 batters in 235 innings. His success was attributed to his unorthodox pitching mechanics and his forkball.

Taking advantage of a loophole in his contract, Nomo announced his retirement in Japan and was free to play in the United States. He played for the Dodgers in 1995, earning the Rookie of the Year Award, opened the All Star Game and pitched a no hit no run the next year.

Nomo’s legacy is not only measurable by the numbers but also by what he represented. He allowed us who live in the western side of the world, to see for the first time a legitimate exponent of the high level of baseball that is played in Japan. He opened the door to many Japanese stars that have since played in the majors (Ichiro included). Nomo was inducted to Japanese Hall of Fame last year.

Enatsu
Enatsu

Closer

Yukata Enatsu

Left-handed. His personal problems aside, Enatsu was a very successful starting pitcher before switching to the bullpen, a role in which he succeed as well. When his career ended he held the league record for saves with 193, since broken. He was one of the first closers in the history of Japanese Baseball History, assuming the role in the late 70’s and winning five Fireman of the Year awards.

As a starter, he won 21, 23 24 and 25 games. He set the seasonal record for strikeouts with 401 in 1968. He also set a record with strikeouts in 23 consecutive innings, which would last 34 years. A 16-time All-Star, Enatsu won MVP awards in 1979 and 1981, led the league in ERA in 1969, won a Sawamura Award in 1968, led the league in wins in 1968 and 1973, led in saves 6 times, strikeouts 6 times and shutouts 5 times.

Despite spending a good portion of his career in the bullpen, Enatsu ranks among the top 20 all-time in NPB in wins with 203, is tied for 12th with 45 shutouts and 5th in strikeouts (2,987). He is 16th in career ERA (2.49).

Enatsu was jailed in 1993 for heroin possession and spent three years in jail.

Nomura
Nomura

Catcher

Katsuya Nomura


Nomura is a no-doubter choice for Japan’s all time Catcher. No one was better than him in that position. He appeared in four decades: his first season was 1954, the last 1980. He retire at age of 45. He never played a single inning in any different position.

He’s second in the all-time home run list: he hit 657 four baggers, a world record for catchers in professional baseball. He led the pacific league in home runs 9 times, 8 in a raw. He led the league in RBI’s 6 times in a row, 7 overall. In 1965 he won the first Batting Triple Crown in NPB history: .320 batting average, 42 home runs and 110 runs batted in.

He played 27 full seasons behind home plate. He holds the world record in professional baseball for most games caught: 2918 and there was one season when he caught all of the innings of his team (150), including 16 double headers. He was starting catcher of all games of his team in five seasons.

Between 1970-1977 he was manager-player of his team (Hawks). He retired with the Lions. He was then a successful manager winning three Japan Series with Yakult.

OH
OH

First Baseman

Sadaharu Oh

There is no need of introduction for him. He’s the most recognizable character of Japanese baseball in the world. He holds one of baseball most precious records: most home runs in the world: 868.

Oh was a main piece in the most successful dynasty in Pro Baseball: the Yomiurui Giants that won 9 pennants in the 60’s and 70’s. His stardom started in High School, when in the mythical Koshien Tournament he pitched with a bleeding blister in his hand.

His growth at professional level was slow. Hard work finally paid and he became the greatest player in Japanese Baseball History. Between 1963 and 1970 he amassed 8 seasons in a row over .300 batting average, in the middle he won 3 batting crowns. Overall he had thirteen .300+ batting average seasons and 5 batting championships. He led the league in home runs 15 times, 13 of them in a row. He batted 50 or more home runs twice, including 1964 when he set a then record of 55 home runs. He led the league in RBIs 13 times with two streaks, one of 4 seasons and another one of 8. Oh also won the Batting Triple Crown twice in a row: 1973 (.355, 51, 114) and 1974 (.332, 49, 107).

He was named the league MVP 9 times and won 11 Japan Series with the Giants. Defensively, he won 9 Gold Gloves awards. He’s Japan all-time leader in runs scored (1967), runs batted in (2170), On base percentage (.446), slugging (.634) and OPS (1.080)

Chiba
Chiba

Second Baseman

Shigeru Chiba

Shigeru Chiba was the star second baseman for the Yomiuri Giants in the early days of the club. He led the league four times in walks and was named the best second baseman of the league seven times. His debut occurred in 1938 and led the league in triples in his first season.

Overall, Chiba had hit .284/.384/.388 in his career, with 913 walks and 981 runs in 1512 games. He hit 96 home runs, 81 of them to the opposite field. His tendency to hit the ball to right caused teams to employ an outfield shift towards that direction. Chiba was always amongst the top leaders in batting average, on base percentage, walks and stolen bases. He was the first player to draw 100 walks in a season. He was also expert in fouling off pitches to keep the plate appearance alive and to make pitcher waste time. He later taught Wally Yonamine the trick and both could make the opposite pitcher to waste 25 pitches to start the game.

His last game was in 1956, being the first player to have a “retirement game” in his honor, a tradition that has been held since. He wore uniform number 3 for the Giants, a number that the following player inherited.

Mr. Baseball
Mr. Baseball

Third Baseman

Shigeo Nagashima

Mr. Baseball,as he is called in Japan, is one of the most complete ball players ever produced by that country. Legend could be the perfect word to describe him. Nagashima showed off his talent since the very beginning of his career.

In his first season (1958), he hit 28 home runs, a record for rookies and it could have been more if he would have touch first base in a four bagger that was eliminated. His batting average was .305, led the league in runs batted in with 92, runs with 89 and doubles with 34, slugging, home runs and total bases. Besides Rookie of the Year, he was selected as the third baseman of the Best nine, award he would achieve in all of his seasons.

In 1959 he hit .334 winning the first of his six batting crowns (only surpassed by Ichiro’s seven crowns). In 1960 he set a record by hitting a triple in 4 consecutive games. In 1961 he got his first MVP award and last home run crown. Nagashima had become so famous that his wedding was televised.

Other Nagashima’s achievements include 10 times leading the league in hits (record), in runs two times, three times in doubles, twice in triples and five in RBIs. He’s 12th in the all time home run list with 444, 8th in triples with 74 and sixth in doubles with 418. His 2471 rank seven all time. He won 5 MVP awards, tied with Nomura and surpassed only by Oh.

In the history of Japan Series he ranks first in MVP awards (4), batting average (.343), hits (91), doubles (14) and RBIs (66). His numbers do not say he was the best player but his relative short career (17 years) allowed other players to surpass his marks. His name is worshiped in Japan.

Yoshida
Yoshida

Shortstop (tied)

Yasumitsu Toyoda

In 1953 he won the Rookie of the Year with the Nishitetsu Lions after posting a .281 batting average with 27 home runs. In 1956, Toyoda won the Japanese batting title with a .327 average and was also honored with the Japan Series MVP award.

Toyoda was a weak fielder. He led the Pacific League in errors twice and topped 27 errors eight times. Later in Toyoda's career, he moved over to first base. During his career, Yasumitsu was chosen for six Best Nine squads and nine All-Star teams. He had a .277 lifetime batting average with 263 home runs. Toyoda was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.

Yoshio Yoshida

One of Hanshin Tigers legends, his number 23 is retired. He was one of the best defensive shortstops. He was famous for his steady batting and his defence at shortstop, and received the Best Nine Award of the NPB nine times, in 1955-60, 1962, 1964-65. This is the best record till now.

After retirement, he became the manager of the Hanshin Tigers three times, in 1975-77, 1985–87, 1997-98. The 1985 season was his best. His Hanshin Tigers won the Central League's championship for the first time since 1964, and broke the Seibu Lions in the Japan Series. This is the only time the Hanshin Tigers won the series. He finished his career with 2007 games played with 1864 hits and 66 home runs.

In 1989-95, Yoshida lived in Paris, and managed the French national baseball team.Since then, Yoshida has had a new nickname, "Monsieur". He was selected as a member of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992.

Harimoto
Harimoto

Leftfielder

Isao Harimoto

He was born during WWII in 1940 in Hiroshima and survived the release of the Atomic Bomb but he lost his sister who worked as nurse, shortly after he lost his dad. Due to an accident as a child his right hand was severely burned, rendering his middle, ring and little fingers virtually useless and twisted in to a “curved in” shape. To compensate, the boy forced himself to become left-handed–and played as a left-handed hitting and throwing baseball player.

He arrived to Professional Baseball in 1959 with Toei Flyers and earned the Rookie of the Year Award. With time he became the best hitter in Japan history, he could hit for average and power, he had the speed and patience. He won the MVP and the Japan Series MVP in 1962. After the Flyers, he played for the Giants and Orions.

On may 28th, 1980, Harimoto hit his 3,000th hit: a homer, becoming to this day the only hitter with 3,000 hits in Japan. His lifetime average was .319, collecting 16 seasons over the .300 mark and his highest average was .383 in 1970. He finished with 3,085 hits, 504 home runs and 319 stolen bases, alongside Willie Mays, they are the only players in the history of Professional Baseball with at least 3,000 hits, 500 homers and 300 stolen bases.

Harimoto scored 1676 runs, he went to the All Star Game 18 times, won 3 MVP awards and had 5 seasons of at least 30 home runs. He won 7 batting titles (record shared with Ichiro) and he’s remembered for having a fast and elegant swing.

Fukumoto
Fukumoto

Centerfielder

Yutaka Fukumoto

At one point he held the world record for career and single-season stolen bases. A member of the Hankyu Braves for twenty years. In 1970, he stole 75 bases in 90 tries, taking the first of 13 consecutive stolen base titles and made the first of 17 All-Star teams (he was MVP of three All-Star games and his 19 steals in all-star action is a record).

The speedy center fielder really hit the prime time in 1972 when the 24-year old hit .301 and more importantly, he swiped 106 bases in 131 tries, setting a then-world record to break Maury Wills's mark. In one game he stole five bases, a Pacific League record. That year he had his legs insured for 100 million yen. He scored 99 runs, leading the league; he would lead the Pacific in each of the eight seasons to follow and would lead 10 times in his career. He was named to the first of ten Best Nine teams, won the first of a record twelve consecutive Gold Gloves and was named MVP for the only time in his career.

In '73, he led the league in doubles for the first time (he would do so three more times) and won the second of eight triple leads. In 1976 he was named Japan Series MVP after leading the Braves to their second Japan Series victory in a row. That year he led the league with 73 walks, the first of six times he would lead in that statistic. At the age of 28, he broke Japan's all-time career stolen base record.

Fukumoto retired in 1988. In addition to the previously mentioned records and honors, he holds the NPB records for triples (115). He is tied for 5th all-time in hits. His 1,656 career runs are second only to Sadaharu Oh and are the record for the Pacific League. He retired with 1,065 steals, 469 more than the #2 man in Japanese pro baseball history.

Ichiro
Ichiro

Rightfielder

Ichiro Suzuki

Undoubtedly the most famous Japanese baseball player in the world, Ichiro has shined in all scenarios he had showed up. If he had power, Ichiro would be recognized as the most complete Nippon player of all time. Nagashima, Oh and Harimoto never played the majors, which could be an argument to back up Ichiro’s candidacy as Japan Best Player in history.

Ichiro started his career in great fashion with the Orix Blue Waves in 1994, in that season he hit 210 hits, becoming the first player in the history of NPB to hit 200 hits. That year he won the first of his 7 batting crowns, a record shared with Harimoto. Had Ichiro stayed in Japan his full career he could have doubled that mark. His last season in Japan was in 2000, he finished his stint in his country with 3 MVP Awards, 7 Gold Gloves, 7 Best Nine selections, and a lead in RBIs and home runs.

In 2001 he arrived to the majors with Seattle and was named MVP and Rookie of the Year. He was the first player in MLB history to collect 10 consecutive seasons with at least 200 hits, he’s been in 10 All Star Games, has won 10 Gold Gloves, 3 Silver Slugger Awards, 2 batting crowns and he set a season record of 262 hits in 2004. He holds 22 records in the American League. Still not retired but looking for a new contract, Ichiro will probably be the first Japanese player to be inducted into Cooperstown’s Hall of Fame.

Ochiai
Ochiai

Designated Hitter

Hiromitsu Ochiai

A batting machine, his original position was third base, he also played first but his defense was always a headache. His offense, au contraire, was the cause of his fame.

Unlike most of the players, he didn’t reach pro baseball via College, he actually quit on school due to difference with his coaches. After dropping up school he played in the Industrial Leagues and from there he jumped to NPB with the Lotte Orions.

Hiromitsu Ochiai is known as the exception to the Japanese baseball culture's way of conformity and structure. He wouldn't take batting practice or infield practice if he didn't want to. He refused to change his bucketfoot swing despite many coaching efforts to do so. Because of that, he was not regular in a line up until he was 28.

His first full season was 1981, he hit .326 and .325 the next year, leading the league in hits with 150, doubles (32), home runs (33) and RBIs (99), winning his first Triple Crown.

In 1985 he earned his second Triple Crown with .367 batting average, he set a record of 146 RBIs in a season with 118 runs and 52 home runs, he was his fourth batting crown. In 1986 he hit .360 with 50 home runs and 116 runs batted in, clamming his third Battin Triple Crown, with Mexican Hector Espino, they are the only ones to win 3 Batting Triple Crown.

He managed the Chunichi Dragons too.

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      Tyler Helsabeck 2 years ago from York, PA

      Great article about a topic that is not discussed enough.