Year Founded: 1950, as the Nishitetsu Clippers
Home Stadium: MetLife Dome, Tokorozawa, Saitama
Previously known as: Nishitetsu Lions (1951-1972), Taiheiyo Club Lions (1973-1976), Crown Lighter Lions (1977-1978), Seibu Lions (1979-2007)
Championships won: 13 – 1956-58, 1982-83, 1986-88, 1990-92, 2004, 2008)
Top 5 players in Team History:
Famous Manager: Masaaki Mori (1986-1994, 6 Japan Series championships won)
Current Top Fielder: 2B Hideto Asamura, .309/.357/.510 slash line, 40 doubles in 2016.
Current Top Pitcher: P Yusei Kikuchi, 2.58 ERA with 127 strikeouts in 143 innings in 2016.
The Saitama Seibu Lions were originally founded as Nishitetsu Clippers in 1950 and they were based out of Fukuoka from 1950-1978. In 1951, they would merge with the Nippon-Nishi Pirates to form the Nishitetsu Lions. Through the 29 seasons in Fukuoka, the Lions would be the first team to employ Caucasian Americans in 1953 with Billy Wyatt and Marion O’Neil.
The Lions would have some early success from their Nishitetsu days, which included a three-peat from 1956-58. Kazuhisa Inao would be the biggest contributor having pitched several Japan Series games as well as becoming the Pacific League MVP in 1957 and 1958.
They would be a competitive team until 1969, when the Lions were caught in match fixing. Similar to the Black Sox scandal of 1919, the Lions were the biggest culprits being part of The Black Mist Scandal which would go beyond baseball and involve auto racing as well as yakuza. Four Lions players would be banned for life with several others suspended for a lengthy period of time. This scandal would hurt the team for nearly a decade and the team was sold to another corporation, being named Taiheiyo Club Lions from 1973-76. They would be sold again and had the title Crown Lighter Lions from 1977-78.
After a fruitless decade of no identity and ownership changes, Seibu would purchase the team and move them to Tokorozawa, Saitama in a brand new outdoor Seibu Stadium. They would adopt a new logo (see above) from Osamu Tezuka inspired by Kimba The White Lion. New chairman Yoshiaki Tsutsumi would hire several baseball-minded people to run the on-field operations. Manager Tatsuro Hirooka was a credible name from his playing days with Yomiuri Giants. The Lions did whatever they could to gain an advantage, which included finding talent through players working at Prince Hotels with their corporate baseball team, a subsidiary of Seibu.
The Golden Era would begin in 1982, when the team would win eight Japan Series titles in an 11-year span through 1992. Notable players from this time included the early days of P Kimiyasu Kudo, C Tsutomu Ito, IF Kazuhiro Kiyohara and OF Koji Akiyama leading the way. There would also be foreign help from OF George Vukovich, P Taigen Kaku (Tai-Yuan Kuo) and later 1B Orestes Destrade in this run. There was only one notable Japan Series loss in 1985, which was responsible for the Curse of the Colonel as it was the only Hanshin Tigers Japan Series championship in their team history. Seibu would also lose the Japan Series in 1993 and 1994.
The late years of the 1990s would have its share of ups and downs as they would win the Pacific League pennant twice, but not win the Japan Series in 1997 and 1998. They also made an appearance in 2002, but the Yomiuri Giants would sweep them in four games. Alex Cabrera would be the most notable foreign signing of the 2000s as he would hit 273 home runs in a six-year span with the team. In 2004, the Lions caught a break with the Pacific League introducing a playoff system. They would finish in second place and win a pennant (by not finishing in 1st) as they defeated the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks in a best of five series. Behind Ito as their manager, they would go on to win the Japan Series against the Chunichi Dragons, ending a 12-year drought.
With all the edgy ways the Lions used to win, Seibu would finally be caught in a scandal as Tsutsumi was caught for several legal troubles. It would penalize the Lions as they would clean house in 2007. The famous Kimba the White Lion logo would start to fade with its connection to Tsutsumi and the team rebranded their appearance to what it is today in 2009. Despite the scandal, the Lions would go on to win the 2008 Japan Series in an improbable fashion, trailing 3-2 and winning both Game 6 and Game 7 on the road in Tokyo Dome.
The Lions have had their share of ups and downs which has often related to not keeping players for a long time. They couldn’t keep everyone once they reached free agency and would either lowball or let the player walk. Daisuke Matsuzaka would be posted to the Boston Red Sox after 2006 and his $51 million posting fee money was used to renovate the present-day MetLife Dome.
With the help of the Golden Era, the Lions are the most successful Pacific League team winning 13 Japan Series titles and a total of 21 Pacific League Pennants. Seibu’s success from the Golden Era may be an afterthought due to being in the Pacific League and not the Central, but they’re also far from the heart of Tokyo in Tokorozawa. They’re not the “other team” like the Yakult Swallows, but they are out of the way being in Saitama prefecture. Their fanbase is far from large and as a result, games don’t have the high attendance like other teams. However, the success cannot be matched with the numerous championships won from the Golden era.
About the Authors:
Graveyard Baseball was founded as a way of talking about the Saitama Seibu Lions and the rest of NPB as we’re awake watching baseball at the Graveyard Hour. We continue to provide coverage of all things Lions in English.