Four simple games of baseball 120 years ago opened way to brilliant future for baseball in Japan.
Baseball’s rise to ascendancy as Japan’s most popular western sport began in 1896 when four baseball games played between May 23 and July 4 – three on the cricket ground of the Yokohama Cricket & Athletic Club (YC&AC) in the center of what is now Yokohama Koen/Park and one in Tokyo – rocketed the level of Japanese interest in the sport, game by game.
In May 1896 baseball was by no means a new sport in Japan. Many baseball games had been played since the first recorded game in 1871 in Yokohama between the USS Colorado and a local team. That local foreigners team soon started to play games against a Tokyo foreigners team that included Horace Wilson and other teachers at Kaisei Gakko and Englishman F. W. Strange working nearby in Daigaku Yobimon, and in 1876 the Yokohama Base Ball Club was formed which was merged with three other Yokohama sports clubs in 1884 to create YC&AC. Meanwhile, Hiroshi Hiroaka established the Shimbashi Athletic Club baseball team in 1878 in Tokyo and did his best to promote the sport, and gradually Japanese middle and high schools began to take it up.
What made these four games in 1896 both different from those before them and the stuff of legends was that they pitted a Japanese team against non-Japanese teams AND that the Japanese team demonstrated great skill and prowess and overwhelmed their opposition in three of the four games.
There was not even a pre-mediated plan to play a series of the four games. Originally, Englishman William Benjamin Mason, a teacher in Tokyo’s First Higher Middle School, was simply asked to use his connections with the mainly British-run YC&AC to arrange a single game against the club’s baseball team. That game led to a request for a rematch and the rematch led to a challenge from the baseball nine of the visiting American warship USS Detroit anchored at Yokohama, and that was to lead to the final game played on July 4 as a high profile part of the celebrations of Independence Day.
The Japanese team was the Tokyo Higher School (better known as the First Higher School or Ichiko) which was a school to prepare students to enter the Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo). The game in Tokyo was between Ichiko and the baseball nine of the USS Detroit.
When the first game was played on May 23 1896, neither the foreign community in Yokohama nor the Japanese language media seem to have attached any particular significance to it being the first “international” baseball match. The YC&AC played at least two Brits in their team with cricketer K. F. Crawford being a vice president of the club.
It was only the 12th recorded game played by Ichiko, some of whose supporters had caused the international “Imbrie incident” during the school’s first ever game almost exactly six years earlier. They attacked the Christian missionary Rev. W. Imbrie who taught at Meiji Gakuen where the game was being played when he tried to enter the ground taking a short cut by climbing over a hedge. As a result the game was stopped with Ichiko losing 6-0. The assault on Imbrie was one of several at the time on American missionaries, one of whom died, and came at a time of rising tensions between Japanese and foreigners. One reason for these attacks were issues relating to extraterritoriality and the special status of foreigners in Japan. Meanwhile, economic crisis also exacerbated feelings against privileged foreigners and the unprecedented high price of rice led to reports of mass starvation even in Tokyo. All in all it was not surprising that some Japanese students were restless and that the YC&AC were reluctant to play against Ichiko.
One former member of Ichiko’s baseball club – he played catcher – who was a spectator at that first ever Ichiko game was MASAOKA Shiki who went on to become one of Meiji Japan’s most famous poets and the last of the four so-called “pillars” of Japanese haiku. More later on him.
YC&AC Vs Ichiko on May 23 and June 6 1896
The only Yokohama newspaper to cover that May 23 game and the other games in Yokohama was the Japan Weekly Mail (JWM). The JWM reporter’s coverage of all the games was excellent and his analysis impressive, giving readers a good sense of how each game progressed as well as the general atmosphere. Even the length of each article indicates how the popular interest grew game by game.
The title of the JWM’s two-sentence article with tabulated game stats about the first game was “BASEBALL.” and the article read “A baseball team of the Y. C. & A. C. were badly beaten on Saturday by a nine from the Tokyo Higher School, being out-maneuvered at all points of the game as a glance at the score with show. Mr. Geo. Rice was scorer.” The score was 29-4 and the stats show that Ichiko’s pitcher AOI Jitsuzo was the outstanding player on the field. The losing YC&AC soon requested a rematch which was set for June 6.
The Japanese media doesn’t appear to have written anything about that game but after the second game papers like the Asahi wrote small articles explaining what happened subsequently.
The headline for the article about the second game played June 6 was “YOKOHAMA VERSUS THE TOKYO HIGHER SCHOOL” and the longish article read as follows:
“The Tokyo Higher School repeated their victory of a fortnight ago by defeating a team of foreign baseballers on the Cricket Ground on Friday afternoon. The Yokohama team was made up of four players from the Y.C. and A.C. and five from the U.S.S. Charleston and Detroit, but they were no match for the active Tokyo students, who managed to score 28 runs to 9 made by the home team. It must of course be borne in mind that schoolboys with their daily opportunities to practise, their constant matches and sparer figures, have always the advantage over a team of grown men, hastily brought together, who have not played together before and besides are never in practise, even at the best of times, save in match games. Still one expected a little better showing than was made by the foreigners on Friday: their first fours innings produced not a single run. The play of the Japanese youths was smart throughout, the fielding admirably sure, the pitching of Aoi and the catching of Fujino remarkably clever. The day was brilliantly fine, though cool for the time of year, and the ground was thronged with some hundreds of Japanese spectators who cheered most impartially every good point of the game, whether by their own men or by foreign players. Mr. Geo. E. Rice again officiated as the scorer, and Mr. Merriman was the umpire.”
It was after this victory that Japanese newspapers gave some coverage to the two wins and that the baseball nine of the USS Detroit challenged the Ichiko team to a match on their home ground in Hongo in Tokyo which was duly arranged for June 27. When the American naval squad entered the Ichiko ground to music from the ship’s band, it is reported that they found the school had around 10,000 Japanese supporters. In a warm up game the American team had lost to the YC&AC and so it was perhaps not surprising that the navy team lost 22-6.
And so we come to the remarkable last of the four games played by Ichiko in 1896 – that against the YC&AC on Independence Day, July 4. Under the headline “THE BASEBALL MATCH” the JWM’s lengthy description of the game is as follows: “The game commenced at 3 o’clock, instead of 10 a.m., owing to the heavy rain of the early morning making the ground too swampy for play. In the meantime, the Tokyo players had been entertained to lunch in the Pavilion, the repast being furnished by Mr. W. N. Wright. A large number of spectators were on the ground when the game began and they increased considerably as the afternoon wore on. Yokohama went in first to bat and made 5 runs; the Tokyo Higher School failed to score that innings, but in the next drew level. In the third innings, Yokohama made two runs, and Tokyo only one. A change came over the play in the next innings, the Tokyo lads, by excellent fielding, putting out the home side for one run. Then they went in and scored 5, the game thus standing, Yokohama 8, Tokyo 11. From then the game grew more and more exciting, neither team letting a chance go by. Abel made some pretty catches in the right field, while Church, a naval player, relieving Eckhardt as pitcher, made things more lively for the visitors, whose propensity for stealing bases he greatly checked. At the close of the sixth innings, Yokohama had made 10 runs and were two behind the Tokyo Higher School’s score. In the seventh and eighth innings neither side managed to get home, the men being either struck out or put out to get home, the men being either struck out or put out on 1st or 2nd base. Excitement became intense when Yokohama went out to begin the 9th and last innings. They had to make three runs to win, and when two men were caught out without scoring it looked all over but the cheering. Then Dame Fortune went boldly over to their side, and with the assistance of an error or two by the Japanese fielders they managed to get four runs, thus passing their opponents’ score by two runs. Still the Japanese had another innings to play and the possibility of a tie was very imminent. But the home team, pulling themselves into better combination than before, prevented the visitors from scoring another run: the game thus ending in a victory for Yokohama by two runs. The applause – supplemented by many fire crackers – that greeted the hoisting of the telegraph, was frantic; then the Yokohama captain called for cheers for the Tokyo Higher School. These were given in good earnest. Competent critics agree that the Japanese team played a neater and better game in the field than their opponents – the combination produced by constant practise being pretty to watch: but the home team beat them easily in batting, sending the ball further afield with the greatest ease. Mr. W. S. Stone was umpire, and Mr. Geo. E. Rice scored.”
In that final and, arguably, most important game played on July 4, the YC&AC had eked out a victory. While the JWM reporter indicates the win was down to the “naval player” Church, he doesn’t mention the role of the USS Olympia like he mentions the role of the USS Charleston and the USS Detroit in supplying players from their baseball nine for the second game. The USS Olympia was the flagship of the US navy’s Asiatic Squadron and its baseball team was the strongest in the squadron but the ship didn’t arrive in Yokohama until the day after the second game! According to a story in the Japanese media, Church was a black major leaguer, but from the late 1880s black players were banned from playing in the major leagues. Moreover, the baseball records relating to Hiram Lincoln Church (1863-1926), the only player from that period with the name Church, show him as a left fielder only being picked to play for the collapsing Brooklyn Gladiators franchise in their final three games against Syracuse in August 1890 because he was at the time living in Syracuse where the games were being played. Church’s time in the navy and on the USS Olympia is not mentioned. Clearly more research is necessary clarify the background of the man who rescued the YC&AC from total humiliation. NOTE: Since writing this story I have discovered that the so-called ‘professional’ baseball player ‘Pop’ Church was not Hiram Church but actually an 18 year-old from Rhode Island called Ernest Fisher Church. You can find out about him in a separate story on the subject on the website.
Despite losing that final game, there was clearly no one who doubted that the Japanese players had outplayed their foes. AOI Jitsuzo, his team mates and coach KANAE Chuman were now national heroes. Yokohama Commercial High School and Shizuoka High School immediately set up baseball clubs with AOI becoming the coach of the former not long after.
The above-mentioned poet MASUOKA Shiki also contributed greatly to the promotion of baseball in Japan. He referred to baseball frequently in his poetry, translated many of the special baseball terms into appropriate Japanese, and being a journalist at the time, published a series of three longish articles introducing baseball to readers not long afterwards in the Nippon newspaper that attracted a lot of attention.
The Ichiko games against the YC&AC have attracted a lot of attention and variety of interpretations from historians and writers over the years and have been used as primary evidence to support various contentions such as that they somehow helped facilitate the realization of Japan’s sense of self-respect as a national in the world.
Many of the writings on such subjects are weakened by basic factual mistakes especially regarding the YC&AC which is commonly referred to as the Yokohama Athletic Club. Indeed, if you google “Yokohama Athletic Club” you will get thousands of hits and even find a Wikipedia page. In 1896 the name of the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club was then still called the Yokohama Cricket and Athletic Club. Many writers also seem to believe that the club was an American club dedicated to playing baseball.
More sinister is the way in which several writers seem to, sometimes gleefully, cast aspersions on the characters of the entire YC&AC membership of those days, especially the baseball team. A good example of this is the following from Alan Klein’s book called Baseball on the Border: “The Yokohama Athletic Club rejected the first invitation in 1891 and all subsequent invitations until 1896. Initially, the Americans rejected the Japanese because it was felt that a nation of kite-fliers and flower arrangers could never offer a sufficiently virile challenge to Americans playing the American game.”
In fact, the early history of western sports shows clearly that instead of taking an exclusionist stance towards Japanese participation in their sports, foreign athletes and teachers, including many Americans, actively lobbied for the introduction of sports in schools and colleges in order to improve the physical health of students.
When Japanese sports teams and sportsmen were judged to be good enough, their foreign counterparts were usually keen to compete against them. As far back as September 1876 a story on baseball in the Japan Gazette stated “We should be pleased to see ….a match arranged between the Settlement and the Japanese students of the Kaisei-gakko, who have made such progress in this American game as would likely surprise their opponents.” As indicated above, the fact that Ichiko couldn’t get a game between1891 and 1896 against the YC&AC was not due to the feelings and/or racial beliefs of the club’s members but was due to a combination of unrelated external circumstances and events.