Taking In Tokyo: Culture, History, And The WBC

Today's author describes his recent visit to Japan which included various baseball-related sights and scenes including the Tokyo Dome.Photo byBill Pearch

By Bill Pearch

During college, I joked that my mission as a baseball enthusiast was to discover North America nine innings at a time. After years of experiencing games in my local market, that somewhat facetious goal became a reality.

Always pursuing new baseball adventures, I’ve attended home games in every MLB market throughout the United States and Canada. I even watched Game Five of the 2018 World Series in the heart of Mexico City as the Boston Red Sox defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers amidst the St. Jude’s Day fireworks. When I opened my Christmas gift last December, my jaw dropped. My wife and I were going to the World Baseball Classic in Tokyo, Japan.

My wife, an unrivaled adventure planner, organized a one-week experience filled with exquisite culinary dishes, neighborhood markets, several Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and of course the iconic cherry blossoms which started bursting with color. Mixed in with the local culture, naturally, we visited several Japanese baseball locales.

Having recently read SABR’s latest publication, Nichibei Yakyu: US Tours of Japan, 1907-1958 (Volume 1), I became aware of Horace Wilson’s Japanese baseball significance. Wilson, an American teacher from Maine, was responsible for introducing baseball to his students at the First Middle School of the First University District (which became Tokyo University) in 1872. On that site, located in Chiyoda (a special ward in central Tokyo) near Kyoritsu Women’s University, a statue called The Birthplace of Baseball in Japan commemorates the location of the playing ground where Wilson and his students first played the game.

While roaming Ueno Park searching for the first wave of vibrant cherry blossoms, we stumbled upon an unexpected piece of Japanese baseball history. Masaoka Shiki Memorial Baseball Park honors one of Japan’s famed poets and greatest haiku masters. Born in 1867, Masaoka Shiki played a significant role in developing the craft of haiku. During his youth, Shiki became infatuated with baseball and played the game regularly as a teenager. Some of his earliest haiku celebrate his passion for baseball and helped to popularize the sport in Japan. Shiki was only 34 when he passed away after suffering from tuberculosis. The Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum secured Shiki’s baseball legacy and passion for the game during his 2002 enshrinement ceremony.

Prior to attending the quarterfinal game at Tokyo Dome between Australia and Cuba, we found time to visit the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The museum, founded in 1959, includes all of the artifacts and memorabilia visitors would expect. While not the same scale and magnitude as the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, its contents honor the players, executives, and writers who helped the Japanese game evolve from its humble roots to its current incarnation. Everything a baseball fan can imagine is inside from historic uniforms and equipment to banners and pennants, and numerous individual and team awards. Similar to upstate New York, the Japanese hall of plaques features a powerful walk through the local game’s past. The iconic names are all there: Sadaharu Oh, the aforementioned Wilson, and Hideo Nomo are enshrined. But so many other individuals were included that I made a return visit the following afternoon.

Standing just outside of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is a particularly moving memorial. The cenotaph, also called the requiem monument, honors the Japanese baseball players who were mobilized and died during battle in World War II. This solemn monument, originally erected in 1981 and moved to its current location following the construction of Tokyo Dome in 1988, serves as a touching memorial amongst the bustling amenities and activities of the larger Tokyo Dome City complex.

Having attended home games for all 30 MLB franchises, I happily added Tokyo Dome to my list of new baseball venues. We were on hand to watch Cuba advance to the semifinals after edging Australia, 4-3, during quarterfinal play. Being from Chicago, this game had a distinct White Sox connection with Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert, Jr. donning Cuba’s uniform.

Australia grabbed an early 1-0 lead on Rixon Wingrove’s RBI double in the top of the second inning. Robert, Jr. evened the score in the third when he grounded out and plated Roel Santos. Cuba took control of the game when they scored three in the bottom of the fifth. Australia cut the score close when Wingrove belted a two-run homer in the top of the sixth.

Other than waiting in long lines for concessions and the World Baseball Classic team shop at Tokyo Dome, our first exposure to Japanese baseball was wonderful. We closed out our amazing week in Japan by flying to Miami’s LoanDepot Park to catch two games. We watched the United States demolish Cuba during the semifinals, 14-2, and Japan edge the USA, 3-2. And yes, we witnessed Shohei Ohtani strike out Mike Trout in person.

Bill Pearch, a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, serves as newsletter editor for SABR’s Emil Rothe Chapter (Chicago). He has contributed to SABR’s publications about old Comiskey Park and the 1995 Atlanta Braves. He will have two game summaries in SABR’s upcoming publication, Ebbets Field: Great, Historic, and Memorable Games in Brooklyn’s Lost Ballpark. Follow him on Twitter: @billpearch.

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