Deep roots of baseball planted in Hokkaido during opening up in Meiji era

Courtesy of Masako Kuji
All-Japan catcher Jiro Kuji poses with the legendary Babe Ruth during the Japan-U.S. baseball series of 1934.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the introduction of baseball into Japan. From those early roots to the tour by the great Babe Ruth in 1934 to Shohei Ohtani and other Japanese players becoming stars in the major leagues today, the sport is played in every corner of the country.

Hokkaido has been a hotspot for the sport from almost the very beginning.

At Hokkaido University, current team manager Tadaki Akino, 63, said the members feel the weight of history. “Those who came ahead of us paved the way for us,” Akino said. “Because of such a history, we are able to play this sport.”

Courtesy of Hokkaido Museum
David Penhallow, who is said to have spread baseball at Sapporo Agricultural Collage

It was in 1872 that Horace Wilson, an American lecturer at what would become the University of Tokyo, introduced baseball into Japan — just a year after the Meiji government established the administrative system based on prefectures to replace the feudal domains of the Edo period (1603-1867).

American teachers, students in Tokyo and others began spreading baseball nationwide. In Hokkaido, the gospel of baseball was spread by David Penhallow, while the famous Japanese haiku and waka poet Masaoka Shiki was doing the same in his beloved Ehime Prefecture.

Penhallow was a professor who accompanied Dr. William S. Clark to Japan. Clark holds place in Japanese educational lore to this day, thanks to his inspirational quote, “Boys, be ambitious!” which appears on the pedestal of his bronze statue on Sapporo Hitsujigaoka Observation Hill, a tourist spot commanding a panoramic view of the city.

Clark and Penhallow both played leading roles at what was then the brand-new Sapporo Agricultural College — which is now Hokkaido University.

When he was in the United States, Penhallow reportedly founded the baseball club at his university, which became that school’s first sports club. And records show that in 1877, Penhallow placed an order for baseball bats and balls for his Sapporo Agricultural College students.

It is said that even after Clark left the college, Penhallow enjoyed playing baseball with his students when he wasn’t teaching them.

“To Penhallow, when you said physical activity, it meant baseball,” Akino said. “He seems to have made it into what is now called an extracurricular activity.”

Penhallow’s name continues to live on in another way. Hokkaido University confers its “Penhallow Prize” to an organization or individual for outstanding performance in extracurricular activities.

The university’s baseball club was founded in 1901. Akino tells the current members they need to be prepared to carry the weight of history.

From Sapporo Agricultural, the game spread gradually to other parts of Hokkaido. In 1912, nine years after the first game in the traditional rivalry between Waseda University and Keio University was played, Sapporo Agricultural started what would become an annual duel with Otaru Higher Commercial School, now called Otaru University of Commerce.

The fixture became the “Waseda-Keio battle of the North,” and became so popular it is said that games would draw crowds of 10,000. The rivalry between the two schools’ cheering squads became a tradition that continues to this day.

Clark and Penhallow were examples of a Meiji era (1868-1912) phenomenon in which foreign advisors were hired by the Japanese government to serve as educational leaders to impart skills and knowledge at central and local government offices and schools.

According to Yasuyuki Miura, a curator of the Hokkaido Museum, many such foreign advisors dispatched to Hokkaido were said to have been from the northeastern part of the United States. Sapporo and that U.S. region — from which Clark and Penhallow hailed —are located at almost the same latitude and have similar climates.

It is believed that the first rules resembling the modern game of baseball were written down in the United States in 1845, with the first known game played in New Jersey the following year. As such, people in the east would have had more opportunities to be exposed to baseball.

Entering the 1900s, Japan saw many baseball games between what were called junior high schools under the old school system. As to why the sport would quickly spread in a vast land that became snow-bound in winter, Miura conjectured: “The people involved in helping with the opening up of Hokkaido were mostly Americans. I suppose one point is the link with the United States, where baseball was born.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Es Con Field Hokkaido stadium in Kita-Hiroshima, Hokkaido, where the Fighters will begin playing in March next year

In 2004, Hokkaido got its first team in Japan pro baseball when the Nippon-Ham Fighters relocated from Tokyo to Sapporo. Since then, a number of Japan’s biggest stars have worn the Fighters uniform, further increasing the passion for baseball in Hokkaido.

In the year of the Fighters’ move, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, the current manager, joined the team, followed the next year by current San Diego Padres ace Yu Darvish. In 2013, the team welcomed two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani, now one of the major leagues’ most popular stars.

In March next year, the Fighters will begin playing in their new home stadium of Es Con Field Hokkaido, located in Kita-Hiroshima, heralding a new era in Hokkaido baseball.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Chiyogadai Park Stadium, locally known as Ocean Stadium, in Hakodate, the home ground of the Hakodate Ocean Club.

Oldest club team in Japan

Baseball in Hokkaido is believed to have first been played at Sapporo Agricultural College, after which it spread to other areas.

Outside of school teams, the oldest existing amateur club is the Hakodate Ocean Club, which was formed in 1907 mainly by elementary school teachers assigned to Hakodate.

The club’s home ground, Chiyogadai Park Stadium, is more familiarly known as Ocean Stadium. It was there in 2014, well before Ohtani would establish himself as a global star in the major leagues, that he threw his first pro shutout while with the Fighters.

Outside the stadium there is a bronze statue of Jiro Kuji, a catcher with the club who played in the two Japan-U.S. baseball series hosted by Japan in 1931 and 1934, the latter of which included the legendary Ruth.

Before being relocated to its current spot, the statue had been positioned to face in the direction of a bronze statue at Asahikawa Starffin Stadium of Victor Starffin, the former standout pitcher of the All-Japan team who played with Kuji — forming a long-distance battery between the two.