Year Founded: 1950
Home Stadium: Jingu Stadium, Tokyo
Previously Known As: Kokutetsu Swallows 1950-1964, Sankei Swallows 1965, Sankei Atoms 1966-1969, Yakult Atoms 1970-1972, Yakult Swallows 1973-present
Championships Won: 7 Central League Titles (2015), 5 Japan Series Titles (2001)
Top 5 Players in Team History:
1) Masaichi Kaneda, pitcher 1950-1964
2) Atsuya Furuta, catcher 1990-2007
3) Tsutomu Wakamatsu, outfield 1971-1989
4) Takahiro Ikeyama, SS/3B 1984-2002
5) Shingo Takatsu, RP 1991-2003, 2006-2007
Most Famous Manager: Katsuya Nomura, 1990-1998, 4 Central League Titles, 3 NPB Titles
Current Top Fielder: Tetsuto Yamada, 2B (.300+, 30+ HRs, 30+ SBs, 100+ RBIs in 2015 & 2016)
Current Top Pitcher: Yasuhiro “Ryan” Ogawa (2013 CL Rookie of the Year)
Whether through explicit intent, competitive stimulus, or plain coincidence, NPB teams have spent the last decade or so burnishing unique identities. Some have remained fairly static: Yomiuri remains both the team of Japan and a reviled nemesis; Hanshin continues to identify with its earthy, devoted fans. But others have evolved considerably. This generation’s Hiroshima Carp is known for its modern new ballpark and female fans who flock to dreamboat players. The Chunichi Dragons have managed to stay interesting with a steady inflow of Latin players. And mobile software company DeNA has taken over ownership of the Yokohama BayStars, breathing new life into the long-suffering franchise.
So who are the Tokyo Yakult Swallows? They’re Tokyo’s “other” team, the somewhat lighthearted alternative to Yomiuri’s evil empire. The team whose fans raise umbrellas to the sky to celebrate runs and wins. The team that re-signs their bird mascot, Tsubakuro, to a new contract each offseason, partially payable in the parent company’s beverage products. The team where Tony Barnette can walk around the field after a game wearing a backpack shaped like a giant bottle of Yakult’s aforementioned drink. The team where Tony Barnette can rise to prominence in the first place.
They’re also perhaps the best NPB team for newcomers. Yakult’s home field, Jingu Stadium, is centrally located in Tokyo, near the famous Meiji Shrine and its surrounding park. Tickets are reasonably priced, and almost always available on a walk-up basis. If you arrive early enough before game time, you might see the team practicing in the park adjacent to the stadium, and maybe cross the street with uniformed players and coaches. There is English guidance in and around the stadium. Concessions are also reasonably priced in the ballpark, and service is good. It’s a great environment to catch a ballgame in, particularly for casual fans.
Yakult started life in 1950, as the Kokutetsu Swallows. Like many other teams of the era, the Swallows were founded by a railway company, Kokutetsu, which has since evolved into JR (Japan Rail). At the time, Kokutetsu’s trains featured a swallow icon, and so was the team named. While the context is no longer relevant, the team has retained the Swallows name through multiple ownership changes, though there was a brief detour in the mid-60’s.
The Swallows’ early years were marked by futility. It took them 11 years to climb out of the B-class (the bottom 3 teams in the league), and they promptly returned the following season. The only consistent bright spot was ace pitcher Masaichi Kaneda. Kaneda personified the era in Japanese baseball when single pitcher would carry his team. He routinely racked up 350 innings pitched, 60-plus appearances, and 50 or so decisions in a single season. Kaneda still ranks as Japan’s career leader for wins, losses, innings pitched, strikeouts and walks, among other stats.
From 1952 to 1975, NPB had a system called the 10-year player system, that granted certain rights to players with 10 years of experience. Among them was the right to sign with a different team. Frustrated after 15 years of losing, Kaneda exercised his 10-year rights after the 1964 season, and moved to the Yomiuri Giants. Kokutetsu in turn lost the will to run the team, and sold it to the Sankei Media Group, with the Yakult corporation taking a minority share. The newly re-christened Sankei Swallows slumped to a last place finish 44.5 games out of first place. Kaneda went on to win the next five Japan Series championships before calling it a career.
The Sankei era didn’t bring much of a change in fortunes, but it did bring about a name change. In 1966, the Swallows were renamed the Atoms, after Osamu Tezuka’s Tetsuwan Atom manga character, known as Astroboy in the US. The team continued play as the Yakult Atoms after Yakult took a controlling interest in 1970, but reverted back to being the Swallows after losing the rights to the Atoms name in 1973.
It’s taken until deep in this writing to get to any real account of on-field team performance, because the team simply wasn’t relevant in the standings until Yakult’s ownership. The Swallows cracked 3rd place in 1974, rose to 2nd in ’77, and managed to win their first title in 1978.
Unfortunately the success would end there, as the Swallows returned to the cellar in 1979 and, apart from a brief rise to 2nd in 1980, spent the ’80s in the league’s lower half. Perhaps Yakult’s most newsworthy event of the ’80s was the 1987 presence of MLB All-Star Bob Horner, who spent one injury-laden albeit effective season on the field in Tokyo.
Things started to change in 1990, with the arrival of manager Katsuya Nomura and catcher Atsuya Furuta. The pair would lead the Swallows to the Central League title in 1992, kicking off a golden era that would last 10 years. The Swallows followed their 1992 league championship with Japan Series championships in 1993, 1995, 1997, and 2001, each closed out by Mr. Zero, Shingo Takatsu. This has easily been Yakult’s most successful period, and saw the team field a number of star players, including Furuta, Takatsu, Kazuhisa Ishii, Kenjiro Kawasaki, Takahiro Ikeyama, Tom O’Malley, and Shinya Miyamoto.
Times haven’t been as prosperous since Yakult’s last title in 2001, but they’ve mostly hung around the middle of the pack. The Swallows’ last big success was a somewhat flukey Central League title in 2015, though they fell to SoftBank in the Japan Series. While it boasts one of Japan’s better offenses, Yakult’s immediate prospects don’t look particularly good, due to a poor pitching staff.
Despite a relatively consistent track record of losing on the field, and being overshadowed in their home market, Yakult has developed a loyal, if small, fanbase. They might be, in some regards, Tokyo’s ‘other’ team, but they’re also something of a hidden gem in the baseball landscape.
Patrick Newman has been following Japanese baseball since 2000, and writing about it since 2008. His work can be found at npbtracker.com.