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Japan Celebrates 150 Years of Baseball


GORHAM, Maine — This small town on the East Coast could make a claim of being certainly one of baseball’s birthplaces. But Gorham, a few 30-minute drive inland from Portland, has no intention of picking a fight with Cooperstown, N.Y.

Gorham is content with its more modest and way more surprising claim of being the birthplace of Japanese baseball. As improbable as that seems, the evidence is convincing. Japan is celebrating 150 years of baseball this yr, and the country credits a Mainer, Horace Wilson, for introducing the sport there in 1872.

After leaving Maine to fight within the Civil War, Wilson became certainly one of many outsiders recruited by Japan’s government under the Meiji Restoration to show the ways of the West to the country because it emerged from two centuries of isolation.

Wilson is credited with teaching baseball in 1872 to his students at Kaisei Gakko, a forerunner to the University of Tokyo. That version of history was recognized as official when Wilson was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003, an honor that began with a phone call to Wilson’s descendants in Gorham in 2000, which left them flabbergasted.

“After all, the family knew of Horace Wilson, but nobody had any concept that he ever went to Japan,” said Scott Balcomb, whose wife, Abigail, is a great-granddaughter of Horace’s younger brother, Elbridge Wilson.

The Balcombs live within the white, two-story farmhouse where Horace was born and raised. Wilson Farm has been within the family repeatedly since Horace’s father, Hubbard, purchased it in 1836.

“The actual story to us,” Balcomb continued, “was that any individual born on this farm ended up in Japan in 1871. That alone was surprising enough, but then the caller began explaining that Horace is taken into account the daddy of baseball in Japan and that they need to come back to Maine and meet us after which invite us to Japan. We couldn’t imagine all of the fuss.”

Balcomb, together with three descendants of Wilson, were flown to Japan in 2000 and feted as a part of a campaign to get Wilson inducted. Three years later, Wilson became the second American, and third foreigner with no Japanese heritage, to be elected.

The family received bronze replicas of the plaque and bust of Wilson which might be displayed within the museum. They were carted back to Maine, where they now adorn the parlor room, near the room where Wilson was most certainly born.

If Gorham has a challenge to its claim because the birthplace of Japanese baseball, it might be from Kents Hill, a town about 60 miles northeast of Gorham that’s home to Kents Hill School, a boarding school founded in 1824. School records show Wilson most certainly enrolled on the four-year institution in the autumn of 1858, meaning he would have graduated within the spring of 1862. His living descendants imagine it’s most plausible that he first learned baseball as a student at the college.

Identical to challenges through the years to Cooperstown’s claim because the birthplace of American baseball, assertions have also been made that Yokohama was the location of Japan’s first baseball game, a yr before Wilson began teaching the game to students. In 1871, a game was played between American sailors and native residents, in line with English-language newspaper accounts.

Nevertheless, Wilson and 1872 are considered the symbolic start, as evidenced by celebrations in america and Japan this yr. The Consulate General of Japan in Latest York commemorated the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary with a ceremony before a recent Mets game at Citi Field.

No matter which version is historically accurate, baseball has had an outsize impact on Japanese culture and U.S.-Japan relations for the reason that Meiji Restoration.

In 1915, with Wilson back in america, the National High School Baseball Championship was created. Today, it’s entrenched as an annual summer extravaganza gripping your entire country, with 3,782 high schools participating this yr. Sendai Ikuei of Miyagi Prefecture was crowned the 104th champion in August.

While the sport flourished almost immediately as an amateur sport, the formation of an expert league was still a decade away when Wilson died in San Francisco in 1927. The forerunner to today’s Nippon Skilled Baseball began play in 1936 with seven franchises, 4 of that are still in operation. N.P.B. has since grown to 12 teams divided into two leagues, the Central and Pacific, with franchises from the northern city of Sapporo to the southern city of Fukuoka.

The standard of play in Japan has steadily risen, with the country winning an Olympic gold medal in baseball in 2021 on the Tokyo Games. Japan also won the primary two editions of the World Baseball Classic, in 2006 and 2009.

And top players from Japan have repeatedly made their solution to america over the previous couple of a long time. This yr, outfielder Seiya Suzuki became the sixty fourth player from Japan to be signed by a serious league team when he agreed to a five-year, $85 million contract with the Chicago Cubs.

The primary of those 64 players to win a Most Precious Player Award in america was Ichiro Suzuki, who last month became the primary player from Japan to be inducted into a serious league team’s hall of fame. At a pregame ceremony Aug. 27 in Seattle, Suzuki was honored because the eighth player to enter the Mariners Hall of Fame. He is taken into account a shoo-in to make the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown when he becomes eligible in 2025.

Suzuki reflected on why this imported game from the West has captivated Japan for 150 years.

“Japanese people appreciate using their mind,” Suzuki said in Japanese. “Baseball is a sport that will depend on greater than just speed or strength. It also requires intellect. Undoubtedly, that’s long been certainly one of the primary appeals of the sport in Japan. I feel like today’s game is getting away from that aspect and Japan tends to follow America, so I actually hope that doesn’t grow to be the trend in Japan. It’s my great hope that Japanese baseball can retain its uniqueness and remain a game that will depend on each player considering critically for himself.”

With Suzuki’s retirement in 2019, Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels ascended to prominence as probably the most completed lively Japanese player in American baseball. A two-way star, Ohtani was the American League’s most dear player last season and is a contender again this yr.

Sitting within the dining room at Wilson Farm, Abigail Balcomb was asked what she thought her great-great-uncle Horace would consider Ohtani’s ability to thrive as a batter and pitcher.

“Oh, I feel he can be delighted,” she said. “My ancestors really loved when players could do all the pieces. But what he’d really prefer to know is how is Shohei Ohtani within the classroom? Greater than anything, I feel Horace would need to know if he was a very good student.”

Yet one more reminder that baseball’s beginnings in Japan are credited to an American teacher, who passed the game along to his students 150 years ago.

Brad Lefton is a bilingual, freelance journalist based in St. Louis. He has covered baseball in Japan and America for greater than 20 years.

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