|Japan's oldest, most popular and most
hated team, the Yomiuri Giants are also the
winningest ball club in Japanese baseball
history. With a franchise 4326-2920 win-loss
record (a .597 winning percentage) since their
founding in 1936, the Giants have won
twenty-seven Central League pennants and eighteen
Japan Series titles in the last forty-eight
Owned by the Yomiuri group, a media
conglomerate which includes two newspapers and a
television channel, the Giants have always used
their deep pockets to sign Japan's best players
and buy pennant after pennant.
Founded in 1936, the Tokyo Kyojin (Giants) joined
the newly formed Japanese Professional League and
dominated their contemporaries with top-notch
pitching from Eiji Sawamura, Victor Starfin and
Hideo Fujimoto. The famed pitcher, whom the
Sawamura Award was named after, is best
remembered for throwing four shutout innings
against an American team of all-stars in 1934.
Though he wanted to remain an amateur
and attend college, Sawamura soon found himself
on the Giants roster when his debt-ridden father
signed him away to the Giants in exchange for a
large loan. Appearing in only five professional
seasons, the young legend compiled a 63-22 record
in five seasons while pitching three no-hitters.
Drafted by the imperial navy, Sawamura was killed
at sea in 1944.
Backing up Sawamura in those early
years, Russian-born hurler Victor Starfin led the
circuit in wins from 1937-40, picking up one ERA
and two strikeout crowns along the way. In 1939,
the foreign pitcher appeared in 68 games, going
42-25 in 458 1/3 innings while compiling 282
strikeouts and a 1.73 ERA.
But at the end of the war, with
Sawamura dead and Starfin moving to another team,
Hideo Fujimoto became Yomiuri's top hurler.
Earning a 0.73 ERA while pitching 56 games in
1943, the right-hander ended his career in 1955
with a 1.90 lifetime ERA, a pitching record that
probably will never be broken.
Despite the strong pitching staff,
the Kyojin also had a few great hitters in those
early years. Tetsuharu Kawakami picked up two
batting, three RBI and three home run crowns
between 1938 and '50. Leading the the Central
League with a .377 average in 1951, the
left-handed first baseman retired in 1958 with a
career .313 batting average.
Playing alongside Kawakami, second
baseman Shigeru Chiba retired in 1955 with a .284
average. One of the top sluggers of the period,
outfielder Noboru Aota picked up several crowns
between 1942 and '59 while registering a career
.278 average, 1034 RBIs and 265 home runs--quite
an accomplishment in Japan's dead ball era.
Dominating the CL:
Monopolizing the best baseball players in the
country, the Giants won nine titles before the
establishment of the two league system in 1950.
Joining the Central League, Yomiuri wasted little
time establishing themselves as the team to beat.
With Kawakami, Chiba, Aota, and
Fujimoto leading the team, Yomiuri soon acquired
former Hawaiian football star Wally Yonamine,
Sawamura award winner Takehiko Bessho and rookie
Takumi Otomo. With an all-star cast of
characters, the Giants won eight pennants and
four Japan Series championships by the end of the
decade. However great, none of those players
would every become known as 'Mr. Giants."
Joining Yomiuri in 1958, third baseman Shigeo
Nagashima captured the Rookie of the Year Award
by leading the league with 29 home runs and 92
RBIs. But the man who would later earn the title
"Mr. Giants" with his affected fighting
spirit gained immortality on June 25, 1959.
Playing against the Hanshin Tigers in
the first game ever attended by Emperor Hirohito,
Nagashima dropped a ninth-inning fastball into
the left field stands to win the historic game
for the Kyojin. Naturally, the Yomiuri Shimbun,
the newspaper company that owns the Giants, gave
as much publicity to the event as possible,
leading many naive souls to attribute a god-like
quality to Nagashima.
Japan's team: More
than simply reporting the Giants, the most-read
newspaper in Japan tossed journalistic ethics
aside, advertising their team as if crude
self-promotion were a virtue. During the 1950s
and '60s, as nearly every Japanese home welcomed
a television, the Yomiuri conglomeration helped
televise Giants games nationally on its airwaves.
Not surprisingly, millions of baseball fans in
outlying areas became Giants junkies.
The proliferation of television
coincided with the baseball team's most
successful period, the V-9 (Victory 9) years.
Starting in 1965 the Giants won nine Central
League pennants and Japan Series titles in a row.
Returning to baseball after a brief retirement,
manager Tetsuharu Kawakami rebuilt the Giants,
putting emphasis on hitting to win games. With
help from Nagashima, first baseman Sadaharu Oh
led the team's offense in those years.
Oh: Though he joined
Yomiuri in 1959, the left-handed slugger didn't
begin clouting home runs with authority until
1962. Believing himself a failure in those first
three seasons, Oh nearly quit the game before a
coach introduced the application of zen to
batting. Since he had developed a hitch in his
swing, the only way for him to correct it was to
stand on one foot, like a flamingo. Gaining
balance through concentration, the lefty slugger
eradicated his hitch and from 1962 to '74 led the
league in home runs every year.
During the V-9 years, Oh and
Nagashima monopolized the Central League's home
run and RBI titles while also combining for six
batting crowns. Not surprisingly, Oh picked up
five of his eight most valuable player award in
those years while Nagashima took three of his
five MVPs during the victory streak. So
remarkable were their hitting that many fans
abbreviated their names, referring to the duo as
the "O-N cannon."
Though he earned an unprecedented
second-straight triple crown in 1974, Oh's
remarkable feat became overshadowed by the Giants
falling to second place for the first time in a
decade and by Nagashima's decision to retire.
With Kawakami stepping down, Mr. Giants returned
to the team the next year as manager.
End of an era:
Proving himself ill-suited for the job in his
first year at the helm, manager Nagashima drove
the Giants into the ground, leading the team to
their only last place finish in franchise
history. After guiding Yomiuri to a 47-76 record,
Nagashima made a public apology for his
mismanagement. Personally, though, he and others
in the organization began a new Kyojin tradition:
blame the foreigner.
Davey Johnson, the foreign player
Yomiuri acquired in 1975, became sick and injured
and hit miserably during the regular season.
Accusing Johnson of faking his ailments,
Nagashima regularly sent in a pinch-hitter if the
American second baseman didn't get a hit in his
first two at bats.
According to Johnson, when the team
released him after the 1976 season, the Giants
fabricated a story that he was released because
he demanded too much money. In fact, Johnson said
he would have taken a salary cut, but Nagashima
had to apologize for jerking him around. Mr.
Giants could apparently apologize to millions of
Yomiuri fans, but not to one American player.
Though the Giants rebounded in 1975
and took the CL flag, they lost to the Hankyu
Braves in the Japan Series. Aside from Oh
breaking Hank Aaron's home run record in 1977,
the Kyojin finished the decade without much to
After leading the Giants to fifth
place in in 1979 (only the team's second losing
season since 1950) and an unsatisfactory 61-60
record a year later, Nagashima was forced to
resign. With Nagashima gone, and Yomiuri once
again equipped with a competent manager, the
Giants soared to first place and defeated the
Nippon Ham Fighters in the 1981 Japan Series.
Manipulating the system:
During the 1980s a new crop of stars replaced the
old, the most notorious being Suguru Egawa. Back
in 1965, with the Giants dominating Japanese
baseball, the high school and college draft was
established in order to make the leagues more
competitive. Though it took ten years, by the
mid-1970s the ideal had for the most part become
reality. No longer did the Giants continue
rolling to Japan Series championships year after
year. At no point was the draft system seriously
challenged until Hosei University hurler Egawa
refused to play for any team but the Giants.
In a convoluted series of events,
Egawa was first drafted by the Lions in 1977 but
refused sign a contract with them. Biding his
time while playing semipro ball in the U.S. for
one year, Egawa signed a deal with the Giants one
day before the 1978 draft. Predictably, the
contract was ruled illegal, but the Giants
threatened to withdraw from the Central League
and form their own baseball circuit if they were
not allowed to sign Egawa. The thinly veiled
blackmail worked, and Yomiuri got their man.
A few years later, the Giants signed
Tatsunori Hara. Though never quite living up to
his advance billing, the third baseman compiled a
.279 career average with 382 home runs before
retiring in 1995. Joining the Giants in 1984,
former Montreal Expo Warren Cromartie batted .321
in seven years, including a league-leading .378
average in 1989.
In the mid-1980s, the Giants also
recruited three pitchers who would lead the team
throughout the 1990s: Masaki Saito, Masumi
Kuwata, and Hiromi Makihara. Despite the many
talented players, the Giants could no longer
expect their revitalized opponents to play dead.
In an attempt to find a winning
formula, the Giants hired Sadaharu Oh to manage
the team in 1984. Though a very intelligent man,
leadership never proved to be the shy and aloof
home run king's strength. In five years at the
helm Oh delivered just one pennant. Along the
way, coaches questioned his ability and several
players, most notably Egawa, ridiculed his
Even Cromartie, who deeply admired
Oh, mentioned that new manager Motoshi Fujita
brought a sense of direction to the Giants in
1989. Though he delivered pennants in his first
two years and the 1989 Japan Series championship,
the new skipper fell out of favor two
unspectacular seasons later. In 1993, the Giants
again handed the helm to Nagashima.
Choking on the past:
On cue, Mr. Giants guided the Giants to only
their third losing season since the establishment
of the two league system--all of them on his
watch. With the help of sophomore slugger Hideki
Matsui, the Giants clinched the 1995 pennant on
the last day of the season, posting an
unspectacular 70-60 record. With the Seibu Lions
in turmoil over manager Masaaki Mori's surprise
resignation, the Giants took the Japan Series in
Falling to third place the next year,
the Giants returned to the Japan Series in 1996,
only to fall to the Orix BlueWave in five games.
Attempting to rebuild the team, owner Tsuneo
Watanabe and manager Nagashima dreamed up a
recipe that looked great on paper: fill the
Yomiuri line-up with four clean-up hitters and
the Giants will score five runs every game.
In addition to Matsui and former
Yakult first baseman Katsumi Hirosawa, the Giants
acquired broken down first baseman Hiroo Ishii
and free agent first baseman Kazuhiro Kiyohara.
Of course they already had three time triple
crown winner (and first baseman) Hiromitsu Ochiai
as well as 30 year old first baseman Takeshi
Omori. In order to sign Kiyohara, the Giants
essentially had to promise him that he would play
his natural position. Releasing Ochiai only
solved part of the problem. Hirosawa was sent to
right field while Ishii had been penciled in at
That Nagashima did not question this
arrangement is either a tribute to his lack of
standing in the Giants organization (Mr. Giants,
"manager for life," lacking standing?)
or the early signs of senility (but those signs
go back at least twenty years).
In addition to these goofs, Nagashima
made several bizarre managing decisions during
the 1997 campaign. Once, when he had used up all
his position players, he sent pitcher Kazutomo
Miyamoto to the plate as a pinch-hitter.
Predictably, Miyamoto struck out.
In July, facing Yakult southpaw
Kazuhisa Ishii, Nagashima tried to pack his
line-up with as many right-handers as possible.
As a result, diminutive second baseman Toshihisa
Nishii was shifted to left field where he
misplayed at least two balls that allowed
Swallows runners to score.
With such an abysmal defense and
bizarre mismanagement, it's little surprise the
Giants finished the season at 63-72, their fourth
losing record in since 1950--and their fourth
with Nagashima at the helm. The Giants may be
trying to relive the glorious V-9 years by
keeping Nagashima around, but all they're really
doing is choking on the past.