Book Review – Japanese Baseball: A Fan’s Guide

There just aren’t a lot of good books out there (in English) about Japanese baseball. But for anyone wondering what the game was like 25 years ago, this primer by Brian Maitland is a decent way to spend a couple of hours in the offseason.

Written in 1991, the book covers everything you would want to know about Japanese baseball – at least the way the game was defined and played back then. Maitland writes about the game’s history, strategy, fans, stadiums, records, gaijin, tours, tickets and media, and even breaks down all the “Japlish” used by the media (primarily terms that have made their way into Japanese, but retain a bit of their original English form). It is by no means exhaustive, but certainly covers all bases – pun intended.

A few things caught my eye while reading this. First, since I was not around the game in the 1980 and early 1990s, I cannot really comment on its accuracy. But it certainly paints a picture of a game that, for the most part, I do not see in the early 21st century. For starters, the statement that all the stadium food at games is bad? That there is no originality? Koshien’s food choices would beg to differ, as I’m sure plenty of other more modern stadiums would, too.

Second, Maitland writes in very blunt terms, many of which have gone out of style in this politically-correct world of ours. When talking about the methods of Japanese managers, he says, “This narrowmindedness is one reason why Japanese are such poor teachers…” Furthermore, many of the claims he has made are completely untrue in the game today. He talks about Japanese outfielders having poor arms and always having to rely on the cutoff man. Just type in the word レーザービーム (laser beam) into YouTube and you’ll find a ridiculous number of plays made by excellent Japanese outfielders. There’s also talk of the bullpen at Koshien being in the “lucky zone” (between the original outfield walls and a fence that was put several feet in front of it, in an effort to increase home runs. While this was true when the book was written, just a year later it was removed for good. Of course there was no way for Maitland to know that some of his information would become dated mere months after his book’s release. But he definitely wrote this book to appeal to a pre-Internet audience who knew little about Japanese baseball.

Case in point: some of his stories lack accuracy, at least from my understanding of Hanshin history. He claims that Cecil Fielder left Hanshin after seeing what happened to Larry Parrish, who led the Central in home runs in 1989 with the Swallows and was released in the offseason. In fact, Fielder asked for a large raise, and Hanshin was unwilling to give in to his demands, which is why he walked after just one season. In another case, Maitland claims that Hanshin chairman Furuya committed suicide because he was so distraught over being unable to convince Randy Bass to return to the team while his son was undergoing emergency surgery in America. That, in fact, is not the reason Mr. Furuya jumped off a high building. Not exactly, anyways. In fact, Maitland says the suicide happened before Bass got released by the team. This is also not accurate. The release happened first. Maybe Maitland misread some articles, or maybe what was published about these players back then actually told the story this way. Or maybe he just didn’t check his facts carefully enough.

Another interesting Hanshin anecdote, which I suppose may have been true in 1991 but sure isn’t remembered now. When talking about the hysteria over the 1985 Tigers clinching the pennant for the first time in 21 years, he said a lot of fans did radical things. But the most bizarre was that a female newscaster said she would marry the first man she saw after the team clinched the pennant. (She backed out and simply started dating the man.) Ummm… is that more bizarre than the Colonel Sanders incident, which gets no mention at all in the book? I suppose perhaps that is a legend that grew over time, and just 6 years after the fact, was not yet a full-fledged curse. But ask anyone today about what happened in Kansai in the fall of 1985, and the Colonel will no doubt be the most popular anecdote you hear.

As I said earlier, you can do a lot worse things with two hours while you wait for the baseball season to start up again. But unless you’re really curious about the state of baseball 25 years ago, you can probably find better ways to spend your cash. If you want a real understanding of Japanese baseball, you gotta read You Gotta Have Wa. Or if you can read Japanese, then 白球太平洋を渡る is what you want.

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T-Ray is the founder, chief writer and Junior Executive Vice President of Hanshin Tigers English News (H-TEN). Find him on Twitter @thehanshintiger.