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The evidence that the first baseball club in Japan was the Yokohama Base Ball Club and not the Shimbashi Athletic Club!

Historians of Japan’s most popular western sport, baseball, fail to acknowledge the role of Yokohama in the sport’s earliest history in Japan. The Wikipedia website on the history of baseball in Japan describes the introduction of the sport as follows: “It was introduced in 1872 by American, Horace Wilson who was an English language professor at the Kaisei School in Tokyo. The first baseball team was called the Shimbashi Athletic Club and was established in 1878. Baseball has been a popular sport ever since.” The first two events in the timeline of the history of baseball in Japan on the website of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum are similar but it called the Shimbashi Athletic Club “the first formal baseball club in Japan.”

The YC&AC does get a mention in the fourth event of the above-mentioned timeline – for the year 1896: “The Ichiko team wins an international game in Yokohama against a foreign team from the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club, spurring great enthusiasm for baseball in Japan.”

So YC&AC is partly credited for helping – by losing matches – to make baseball popular in Japan but now I have found evidence that YC&AC’s baseball section was originally and formally founded on October 20 1876, making it Japan’s first formal “open” baseball club.

The real history

The earliest known record of a baseball match played in Japan is the report about a game played around October 30th 1871 on the Swamp Ground near No. 264 which appeared in the Japan Weekly Mail on November 4th. However, the fact that the article does not say that the match was the “first ever match played in Yokohama or/and Japan” suggests that the sport was already being played on at least an occasional basis and Yokohama was, of course, the main port of call in Japan for American warships after the opening up of the country.  In December of the same year the New York Clipper published an article about the same game but does state that the game was the first played in Japan.

Japan Weekly Mail story about 30th October game on the old Swamp Ground rather than the Cricket Ground which was in use at the time.
Japan Weekly Mail story about 30th October game on the old Swamp Ground rather than the Cricket Ground which was in use at the time.
USS Colorado in 1861 - it was launched in 1858 and played key role in blockading Confederate shipping in US Civil War
USS Colorado in 1861 – it was launched in 1858 and played a key role in blockading Confederate shipping in US Civil War
USS Colorado off Ganghwado island May, June 1871
USS Colorado off Ganghwado island May, June 1871 during attack on Korea

The earliest known game in the Far East is an 1869 game in Singapore between players from the US navy and counterparts in the British Navy. When US naval ships visited Japan it seems very likely that some of their officers practiced or played baseball on land while in the treaty ports.

By 1873 the Yokohama Cricket Club (YCC) had acquired the lease to the land in the center of the new park planned by Richard Brunton and the players of baseball would have sought the YCC’s permission to also use the great new ground there instead of the Swamp Ground.

In the annual report on the year 1874 by the British Consul in Yokohama Russell Robertson, when comparing the merits of the gardens on the land called the Swamp with the Bluff Gardens it is stated regarding the former, “they are our only possible cricket and base-ball ground.”

In 1875 Japan Punch included a cartoon of a baseball match and it seems to have been in 1875 that groups of baseball players in both Tokyo and Yokohama really brought the sport to life in Japan with their competitive spirit.

The initial focus of this activity was Tokyo and the Kaisei Gakko where the American Horace Wilson is credited with starting to teach his students at Kaisei Gakko how to play baseball in either 1872 or 1873. While the Imperial Naval College and the Imperial College of Engineering were mainly staffed by British teachers, Kaisei Gakko’s teachers included some Americans. In 1875 Kaisei Gakko also hired the great all-round English athlete Frederick William Strange who was clearly also an active and talented baseball player. He had, remarkably, studied at University College London when Dairoku Kikuchi, later head of the Imperial University of Tokyo, was studying there. At around the same time Edward Mudgett, also a teacher, stopped teaching in Fukui and moved his workplace to the Daigaku Yobimon Tokyo. Meanwhile, Durham White Stevens, another keen player was working in the US Legation in Tokyo.

In 1875 the Tokyo-based played combined with some Yokohama-based players such as Samuel Hepburn, the son of J. C. Hepburn, Henry Willard Denison, the consul, who had been paid to play for the Washington Olympics team in the late 1860s, and the students of Kaisei Gakko to play a series of games and these seem to have been the spark that led to the events of 1876.

On July 4 1876 a combined Yokohama-Tokio team beat USS Tennesee.

USS Tennessee in 1875
USS Tennessee in 1875

On Saturday September 2 a match was played on the Cricket Ground between the US Fleet and “the Settlement” which General Van Buren umpired. Hepburn pitcher and Denison catcher. After nine innings the match was tied 26-26 and so they played another innings and the Settlement scored four runs to the fleets single run thereby winning the game.

Following the short article on this game, the Japan Gazette reporter makes the following comment which indicates that as early as 1876 Japanese students were very good at baseball and which alsoblows apart the claim that the Yokohama foreigners refused to play Japanese teams possibly for racial reasons: “We should be pleased to see a return game played before the Tennissee leaves Yokohama: or a match arranged between the settlement and the Japanese students of Kaisei-gakko, who have made such progress in this American game as would likely surprise their opponents.”

Creating a baseball club in Yokohama was now under serious consideration but before they could go ahead they needed an agreement with the YCC regarding the use of its ground. A letter was sent to the club secretary which resulted in a meeting of the cricketers in the Grand Hotel on October 12. “The principal object of the meeting was to consider a letter which had been received by the Secretary from the Base Ball players in Yokohama, in which they desired to be informed whether, if a Base Ball Club was formed, the Cricket Club would grant the use of the Cricket Ground for play and practice, for which privilege the Base Ball Club would be prepared to pay $50 a year,” reported the Japan Gazette. Only nine members turned up to the meeting but there was a heated discussion as some of those present were strongly against letting the baseball guys use the ground on a regular basis. According to newspaper, “granting the request would establish a very bad precedent, and as the Tennis Club had the use of the ground for three days a week,, and could not be interfered with the Cricket Club could, at all events, only make arrangements to grant the use of the ground during the three days in which they had it for their own purposes. It was also thought that, if the number of Base Ball players increased, they would interfere materially with the operations of the Cricket Club. “ However, Mr. Hall, who appears to have played both cricket and baseball as you can see “strongly advocated making arrangements with the proposed Ball Ball Club” and “contended that there would be no interference with the cricketers.” Things were resolved when Mr. Kirkwood proposed the motion (seconded by Mr. Dunlop) “that the Honourary Secretary inform the Base Ball players, that, when a Club of twenty members is formed, the Cricket Club will be prepared to treat with them for the use of the ground: and for the present season they be allowed the use of the ground, during the days it is under the control of the Club, in consideration of whatever donation they may be pleased to give.”

The Japan Gazette fortunately decided to cover the baseball extensively in the month of October 1876.. On Monday October 16 the Japan Gazette has the following report:

“A game of base ball between the nines of Tokio and Yokohama came off last Saturday at the Kaisei Gakko. Owing to the kindness of Mr. Hamao the grounds were in very good condition, and several ladies were present during a large portion of the game. As will be seen from the annexed score our brothers from Tokio were the victors, the game being called before the close of the seventh innings on account of darkness. We understand that the defeat of the Yokohama team was due to want of practice which seriously affected their play on the field: and we would advise them to make the best use of their time between now and next Saturday, to get into playing order, and not let the Tokioites score another victory. If the cricket ground can be secured for next Saturday the return game will be played there. We also understand that the US Flag-ship Tennessee is expected about the first of the month: and in that case we may hope to see another game with the navy before the end of the season.

Japan Gazette on Monday October 23rd 1876 describes the founding of Yokohama Base Ball Club as follows:

“A meeting of those interested in base ball was called last Friday (Ed: 20th October) at No. 32. The following gentlemen were present: Gen. Van Buren, Messrs Morse, Tripler, Doyle, Lillbridge, Hepburn, Denison, Stone, Allen, Rice, Sargent, Merriman, Churchill, Farr, Haskell, and Van Buren. The meeting was called to order and Mr. N. J. Stone took the chair. A resolution was adopted forming a Base Ball Club to be called the “Yokohama a Base Ball Club” to be governed by the rules of the National Amateur Association of the United States. It was further resolved that all those who desired to become members could do so by applying the the Honorary Secretary: and by paying whatever dues might be decided on by the committee, in whose hands of the business of the Club was placed. The following officers were then elected, N. J. Stone, President: H. W. Denison, Captain: J. S. Van Buren, Honorary Secretary and Treasurer: Executive Committee, Messrs Van Buren, Hall and Rice: with Messrs. Stone and Denison, members ex officio.

We understand that the Club numbers already thirty-five members.”

No. 32 was the offices of the Japan Mail and also of Cheshire and Co. and the the later establishment we find working J. W. Hall and L. W. Merriman whose names appear in match reports. From the above it would seem that J. W. Hall was one of the key men involved in the creation of the club.

The very next day they played the return Yokohama Vs. Tokio match and were again well–beaten 23-13. Horace Wilson scored two runs and Englishman Frederick Strange scored three for Tokio while Yokoahama’s pitcher Van Buren scored four runs. The stats on the game reveal who played which position and what they did.

On October 28 the two teams played again a week later with the Yokohama team including a few players from US navy ships in port. This time Yokohama were able to win 24-12 with Denison and Van Buren scoring 10 runs between them.

So who were the people that started baseball in Japan founded the first club -iYokohama Base Ball Club?

‘Gen. Van Buren’ is Thomas Brodhead Van Buren (1821-1889) who was a nephew of the eighth US president Martin Van Buren. In 1874 he was sent to Japan to be the Consul General by president President Grant and stayed until 1885. He had three sons – J. S. Van Buren was elected the first honorary secretary and treasurer of the new club. Henry Willard Denison (1846 – 1914) who was the Vice Consul in Yokohama between 1869 and 1876 and was possibly the best player, was elected captain. The chairman of the meeting to found the club was Nathan Jonas Stone who was born on a farm in New Hampshire 1843. He arrived in Japan in Yokohama around 1872 and went into a partnership called Chipman, Stone & Co., merchants, specializing in the import-export business with which soon had a turnover of a million dollars becoming one of the biggest American companies in Japan. Unfortunately, for him, the company failed in early 1877 and he returned to the US in 1878.

George Rice who often acted as scorer was at the time marshal of the US Consulate. L. T. Farr was acting superintendant of the Yokohama branch of the Imperial Japanese Post Office. Samuel Dyer Hepburn (1844-1922) was the son of James Curtis Hepburn, the American missionary and founder of Meiji Gakuen..

Unfortunately, after an exciting end to the season in 1876, things seem to have gone off the boil in 1877, especially with the departure of Horace Wilson and others .

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