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Latham's 1998 Guide to Japanese Baseball...
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Yomiuri Giants History

Kyojin (Giants Japanese character)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 years.

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.

Early Success: 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."

"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 cheer about.

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 authority.

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 six games.

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 third base.

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.

Yomiuri Giants
Past Stars
1998 Outlook
Links: Turning the page . . .
Introduction: The Yomiuri Giants, Japan's wealthiest, most powerful and popular team.
Players: Hideki Matsui, Masumi Kuwata, Kazuhiro Kiyohara, and other Giants players.
Past Stars: Sadaharu Oh, Victor Starfin, Warren Cromartie and other past Giants stars.
History: (This page) How did Yomiuri become Japan's most popular and successful team?
Manager: Yomiuri has won two pennants in five years despite bumbling skipper, Shigeo Nagashima.
Ballpark: Since 1988, the Giants have shared Tokyo Dome with the Nippon Ham Fighters.
1998 Outlook: The Giants should improve in 1998, but they'll have to fight for a pennant.
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