Year Founded: 1934
Home Stadium: Tokyo Dome, Tokyo
Previously Known As: Great Japan Tokyo Baseball Club (Dai Nippon Tokyo Yakyu Club) (1934), Tokyo Giants (1935–1946) Yomiuri Giants (1947- )
Championships Won: Japan Series 22 (most recent, 2012) Central League 45 (2014)
Top 5 Players in Team History:
Most Famous Manager: Tetsuharu Kawakami, 1961–74, 11 Japan Series titles, including nine straight from 1965–73.
Current Top Fielder: Hayato Sakamoto, shortstop, .344, 23 home runs, 75 RBIs, 13 stolen bases, 81 walks in 2016.
Current Top Pitcher: Tomoyuki Sugano, 9–6, 2.01 ERA, 189 strikeouts, 183.1 innings in 2016.
Brief History: There is no franchise more engrained in the very fabric of professional baseball in Japan than the Giants, Japan’s oldest and winningest club.
Fittingly, Yomiuri also boasts the game’s most robust collection of former stars. Home run world record-holder Sadaharu Oh, “Mr. Pro Yakyu” Shigeo Nagashima, Sawamura Award namesake Eiji Sawamura, Hideki Matsui and the “God of Hitting” Tetsuharu Kawakami are just a few players to have worn the Yomiuri uniform over the years.
The catalyst for the team’s creation was the famed Major League Baseball tour of 1934. The Japanese squad that took on those major leaguers, whose ranks included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, during the tour would later become Japan’s first professional team, known at the time as the Great Japan Tokyo Baseball Club. That team included a teenage right-hander named Eiji Sawamura, who famously struck out nine of the MLB stars in five innings during one contest.
The team was known as the Tokyo Giants when it joined the Japanese Baseball League, forerunner of the NPB. The club won nine titles during that single-league era. The franchise had adopted the ‘Yomiuri’ moniker by the time NPB was formed in 1949. Since beginning play in the Central League in 1950, the Giants have won 36 league pennants and 22 Japan Series titles.
The most famous period in team history was the V9 Era from 1965–73, when the club reeled off nine straight Japan Series titles. The Kyojin were powered by the famed O-N Cannon, with Oh batting third and Nagashima hitting cleanup for the entirety of the run. The other constant was Isao Shibata’s place at either No. 1 or 2 in the order during those years. That team also tapped into the nationalistic spirit of the times, claiming to be “pure-blooded” and needing no foreign players, despite Oh being half-Taiwanese.
The Giants’ success and media exposure allowed the team to become easily the most popular in Japan. In the past, the Giants were also the only team to play all their games on national television. Even as recently as 2008, Seibu Lions pitcher Takayuki Kishi quipped after Game 4 the Japan Series that he knew he would be on TV that night since he was pitching against the Giants. Oh’s run to a world-record 868 home runs, also spread the brand overseas somewhat.
Their success, however, can at least partially (not wholly) be traced to the way the team has historically been able to throw money at the best players. The team has also been accused of not being totally above-board in some of its tactics when it comes to player acquisition in the past — as Hanshin Tigers fans can painfully attest after the Suguru Egawa Incident of the late 70s.
Successful, star-laden and prestigious, the Giants routinely played in front of packed houses at Korakuen Stadium (1949–1987) and Tokyo Dome (1988-present), both in the capital city’s Bunkyo ward. The differences between the crowds for Giants games and for Nippon Ham Fighters (their former co-tenants) contests were amazingly jarring, to say the very least. A penchant for hosting games outside Tokyo also helped endear them to fans across the country. The Giants for instance hosted the first baseball game at Sapporo Dome in 2004, and used to play a home series there every so often.
Yomiuri’s overwhelming grip on the populace has greatly waned with the rise of loyal fanbases in other areas and increased competition for fans’ attention.
They face increased competition on the field these days also. This year’s team, led by second-year manager Yoshinobu Takahashi, will be trying to end a six-year Japan Series drought, a veritable eternity in Giants years.
The 2017 Giants have the Central League’s best pitcher, Tomoyuki Sugano, and one of its best position players, Hayato Sakamoto, to help with that goal. The team had trouble scoring runs last season and will rely on infielder Shinnosuke Abe and free-agent signing Casey McGehee to help turn around the offense. The team also brought in former Fighters outfielder Daikan Yoh, but injuries will keep him off the field for several weeks.
Sugano is surrounded by a pitching staff that is coming off a solid performance in 2016 and may have to carry the team again. The starting rotation will be a little deeper when Shun Yamaguchi gets healthy, but is capable of being successful already.
Rare is the season that the Giants aren’t in the thick of the pennant race, but it won’t be easy to recapture the glory of the past this year.
Jason Coskrey can be found on Twitter at @jcoskrey