Tadashi Henry Wakabayashi was born on March 1, 1908 in Oahu, Hawaii. Both parents were Hiroshima natives who immigrated to Hawaii. His father was a wealthy tradesman who found fortune exporting canned pineapples. As a lad he excelled at football until early in his high school days, a head injury forced him to quit the sport, at which time he took up baseball. His school had an ace pitcher (Yoshio ‘Kaizer’ Tanaka) so Tadashi initially played catcher.
Tadashi made his way to Japan in 1927 when as a high schooler playing on a company team, he was chosen to play in some friendly exhibition games in Japan. He impressed and was scouted by Hosei University, who were determined to have him join their baseball team. However, because he did not graduate from a Japanese high school, he first had to enroll at a Japanese high school. Despite offers from Triple-A American teams, Wakabayashi starred at Hosei University, leading the previously weak club to its first Tokyo Big6 Baseball League championship in his sophomore season. He would go on to bring two more championships to the team, though in doing so (and being vastly overused), injuries and fatigue took its toll on his body. He changed his delivery to more of a sidearm, and in doing so, developed an incredible arsenal of breaking pitches. Wakabayashi got married to a Japanese lady during his sophomore year of university, though he had renounced his Japanese citizenship in 1928. (Prior to that, Wakabayashi had held dual citizenship. He would also reclaim his Japanese citizenship in 1941, renouncing his ties with the United States.) Upon graduating from university in March 1935, he joined a company club, Kawasaki Columbia, earning a salary of ¥500, which was higher than what company executives were earning.
When Hanshin Electric Company announced its intention to field a professional baseball team in 1936, one of the first players signed on was Wakabayashi. (He first rejected an offer from Yomiuri, feeling they lowballed him because they did not have confidence that pro baseball would be successful in Japan.) A product of western thinking, he negotiated a contract signing fee of 10,000 yen with the Tigers – a first in Japan.
Upon joining the professional ranks, it took Wakabayashi awhile to make a major impact. The overuse in university resulted in a sore shoulder and elbow. He did, however, eventually put up stellar numbers for the Tigers, leading them to the 1939 championship. Though he had a vast arsenal of pitches, he relied primarily on his fastball and curveball and impeccable control. At times he would start a hitter with three obvious balls just to let his guard down. In any case, his 28 wins in 1939 helped him to the highest winning percentage of any pitcher that year. He also led the league with a minuscule 1.09 ERA.
One of Wakabayashi’s finest years as a pitcher (and he was also managing the team at the time, too) was in 1944 when the season was shortened to 35 games because of the war. With a large number of rookie pitchers, Wakabayashi called his own number 31 times, winning 22 games and helping the team to a 27-6 record. He earned his first of two MVP awards that season.
When the 1945 season was not played, Wakabayashi returned to his wife’s hometown to join the family business. Things were going well and he had no intention of playing baseball again (he was already 38 years old when the 1946 season began). However, when he heard word that Hanshin had a shortage of players (and that player-manager Fumio Fujimura was being forced to pitch again), he made a sudden announcement that he was returning to the team.
The decision was apparently the right one, as in his first full season back (1947) he picked up another 26 wins and a second MVP award. He once again was player-manager that year, and the Tigers won another league title, finishing a healthy 12.5 games ahead of second place Chunichi. He earned his 200th career win late that season as well, and continued to play for the Tigers for another two seasons, finishing with 233 wins in the pinstripes – still a club record.
When professional baseball decided to divide into two leagues, Wakabayashi – a longtime proponent of the new system – made the decision to join a Pacific League team, largely because the Hanshin Tigers would join the Yomiuri Giants in the Central, and he wanted to aid the other league in its popularity with fans. He signed with the Mainichi Orions (now the Chiba Lotte Marines), where he pitched in three of the next four seasons. He led the Orions to the very first Nippon Series championship. In calling his own number in Game 1, he became the first winning pitcher in the history of the series. He also threw in relief in game 6, and while facing a Kintetsu slugger with the bases loaded and no outs, he intentionally walked the batter – because he already had two homers that game.
With his career winding down, Wakabayashi wanted just one last thing before retiring – to reach 1000 career strikeouts. It took him a couple of outings in 1953, a season after he did not pitch at all, and with one loss and 8 runs against, he got the one strikeout he needed to satisfy himself and officially retire from the game.
Wakabayashi stepped in an out of baseball after his retirement, coaching and managing teams between times as Pepsico Japan chairman among other executive jobs. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1964, however, in the fall of that year he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and passed away in 1965 just a few days after his 57th birthday.
In March 2011, the Hanshin Tigers established an the Tadashi Wakabayashi Award, given to the player on the club who contributes most to the community. It has been won by Shinjiro Hiyama (2011), Kyuji Fujikawa (2012), Minoru Iwata (2013), Tomoyuki Kubota (2014) and Takashi Toritani (2015).