Eiji Sawamura: Japan’s Number One

 

Before dawn on December 2nd, 1944, the USS Sea Devil, a U.S. Navy Balao-class submarine, quietly stalked a Japanese convoy near Kyushu, the southern-most part of the Japanese islands. Radar showed at least 11 escorted targets and the Sea Devil surfaced in the pre-dawn darkness to track the convoy by sight. A sudden wave nearly swamped the surfaced sub – a sailor was washed off the bridge and onto the deck below and water poured into the open hatch, flooding the crew’s mess, radio room and both of its dual engine rooms. Fortunately the damage was repairable and in one of the engine rooms Motor Machinist Mate 3rd Class Ray Ebbets worked hard alongside the rest of the black gang to get their station back online. To those of the crew who were baseball fans, the Motor Machinist Mate’s last name must have rung a bell and for good reason: Ray Ebbets’ grandfather was Charlie Ebbets, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the man whom Ebbets Field was named for.

But all that didn’t matter at that moment. The Sea Devil was on a trajectory to intercept a Japanese convoy and as the rest of the crew hastened to repair their stations, the men in the extreme fore and aft of the sub armed and loaded their torpedo tubes. The captain of the USS Sea Devil, Commander Ralph Styles, ordered the watch below decks, the hatches shut and all preparations to submerge. Lingering just below the surface the skipper watched the convoy through the periscope, maneuvering his sub closer and closer to the convoy, trying to gain the best angle of attack.

Satisfied with his position, Commander Styles launched four torpedoes at a freighter and after missing, quickly ordered two more fired at another one. This time the torpedoes hit and within minutes the freighter began slipping beneath the sea. Commander Styles swung his vulnerable sub out of the path of a destroyer escort and fired 4 more torpedoes at a troop ship. The Sea Devil was now almost directly in the path of the convoy. The skipper sounded the dive alarm and the sub headed for the safety of the deep sea. On the way down everyone on board from Commander Styles to Motor Machinist Mate Ebbets could hear the huge explosion as the Sea Devil’s torpedoes ripped into the hull of the troop ship and ignited the stores of ammunition carried in her second hold. Although they couldn’t see it, the Hawaii Maru disintegrated in the massive explosion killing every man aboard her.

Among the 1,843 soldiers of the Japanese 23rd Division who perished that morning on the Hawaii Maru was Lieutenant Eiji Sawamura. Besides being recently promoted from the ranks prior to shipping out on what was supposed to be his 3rd combat deployment, Eiji Sawamura also happened to be Japan’s greatest baseball pitcher and its first sports superstar. To Ray Ebbets and even the most dedicated baseball fans amongst the crew of the Sea Devil, the name Sawamura probably wouldn’t have rang a bell, but if you added that he was the Japanese schoolboy who struck out Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig and Charlie Gehringer, you then might have gotten more than a few to exclaim: “oh yeah!”

Just over 10 years earlier in what must have seemed like another world, Eiji Sawamura was a 17 year-old high school student with a blazing fastball and tantalizing curve who was hand-picked to represent his country against an American all-star team led by Babe Ruth. He’d been raised to be a ballplayer – his father played years earlier when the game was first introduced to the island by American school teachers and visiting sailors and he passed his love of the game down to his first-born son. After years of practice with his father he’d garnered much praise as a teen while pitching in national high school baseball tournaments and the country’s best colleges were vying to recruit him upon graduation. At the time there wasn’t a professional baseball league in Japan and college and university competition was the highest level a ballplayer could aspire to. When it was confirmed that Philadelphia Athletics owner and manager Connie Mack was bringing a high-profile American all-star team to the islands in the winter of 1934, Sawamura was a shoo-in for the government-sponsored team that would challenge them. There was also talk of that team forming the nucleus of a professional Japanese baseball league in 1935.

There was a hitch, however. If Sawamura played on a professional team he would not be eligible to go to college. After mulling it over, Sawamura decided it was a gamble he was willing to take, reasoning that he could potentially make a good enough living at pro ball to enable him to send his younger siblings to college. Of course there was also the honor of representing his country against the best ballplayers in the world and seeing how he would personally do when pitted against them.

In his first two appearance against the Americans, Sawamura was hit hard. It wasn’t something to be ashamed of, the Americans won every game by a large margin and no Japanese pitcher had been able to handle the seasoned professionals. It was his in third try in which he made history and became an instant legend.

With the midday sun at his back, the 17 year-old took the mound in the bottom of the first inning at Kusanagi Stadium in Shizouka, a city about 80 miles south of Yokohama. Before more than 30,000 fans Sawamura faced lead-off batter Eric McNair, shortstop of the Athletics, who hit a harmless pop fly for the first out. Future Hall of Famer and 6-time all-star Charlie Gehringer was up next. One of the toughest men in the majors to strike out, Sawamura did just that, with a little help from the glaring sun behind him. Next, the great Babe Ruth took his place at the plate. Although the big man was at the end of his storied career, he could still pound the ball. The local teams he faced on the tour presented no real obstacle to him and he hit one home run after another, captivating the appreciative Japanese fans. Although he hadn’t performed all that well against the Americans, Sawamura had previously fanned the Bambino 10 days earlier and went into his windup knowing that The Babe was indeed fallible. Two fastballs and one curve later, he did it again to end the first inning.

In the bottom of the second Sawamura took the mound to face Lou Gehrig. With his big leg kick, blazing fastball and that midday sun, Gehrig went down swinging as well. The Japanese crowd, who had routinely rooted for the American stars thus far, now began to sense that something magical was happening. Ever since the turn of the century American teams had come to Japan and thoroughly defeated the local competition. In most games it wasn’t even a close contest, but here and now, a home-grown ballplayer was striking out the greatest baseball players in the world.

The giant Philadelphia Athletics first baseman Jimmie Foxx was up next. His muscular physique had intimidated even the best pitchers in the American League, but here in far-off Japan an unknown 17 year-old high school kid struck out the 9-time all-star. That Earl Averill broke the strike out streak by getting thrown out on a grounder didn’t matter, Eiji Sawamura was an instant national hero.

After the game Connie Mack reportedly attempted to sign him to an A’s contract but Sawamura declined. He didn’t know English and didn’t want to leave Japan. American newspapers picked up the story, and while many baseball fans might not have known the kid’s name, they sure knew the story of the Japanese schoolboy who struck out Ruth, Gehrig, Gehringer and Foxx. The American all-stars spoke highly of the young pitcher. By the time they left Japan, Sawamura had struck out every big leaguer on the team except Bing Miller at least once. The American ballplayers told reporters that the kid’s fast ball floated upwards and with 3 more years seasoning could make the major leagues.

Back in Japan, Sawamura and most of the specially assembled team formed the nucleus of the Dai Nippon Tokyo Yakyu Club which was sent to tour North America the following spring. With the idea of learning better baseball by playing against the pros, the team, quickly renamed the Tokyo Giants, played from Canada to Mexico and as far east as Cincinnati. Along with fellow pitcher Victor Starffin, Eiji Sawamura was the toast of the American media. Sawamura did fair when pitted against minor league Pacific Coast League teams but extremely well against mid-level semi-pro competition. His fastball was estimated as being in the low-90’s and his curve was judged to be of major league quality. While in Milwaukee a man approached Sawamura before a game. Thrusting a piece of paper at him, the young pitcher, who didn’t speak English, thought he was signing yet another autograph for a grateful fan. It was only after that same man confronted the Tokyo Giants’ manager after the game inquiring when Sawamura will report to the Pittsburgh Pirates did it finally come to light that the “fan” was actually a scout! According to the Giants’ business manager Sotaro Suzuki, it took a small payoff to make the scout tear up the contract.

It was a good move because by the time the tour ended Sawamura had come to hate America. He couldn’t get used to the lack of rice at mealtime and blamed it for what he perceived to be his poor performance on the tour. He didn’t like the arrogance of North American women and the western culture differed too much from what he was used to back in Japan. Although it may have been tempting to join a professional American baseball team, Sawamura was destined to return to Japan and become a founding member of that country’s first professional baseball league.

From the start of its first season in 1936, Eiji Sawamura was the undisputed star. Tokyo Giants’ teammate Victor Starffin was Sawamura’s equal in talent, but he was a foreigner of Russian parentage. Sawamura was pure Japanese, and the fans loved and regarded him almost as a God. That first season he pitched Japan’s first no-hitter and the following year tossed another one as well as winning a remarkable 33 games for the Tokyo Giants. Then, at the height of his fame he was asked to serve his country once again, this time in the army.

At his induction physical he was singled out as the ultimate specimen of Japanese manhood. The press that eagerly covered his induction quoted army officers crediting the game of baseball and sports in general as the ideal way for the country’s youth to prepare for battle. Sawamura trained as an infantryman and in April of 1938 was sent off to war. Japan had been skirmishing with China off and on since 1931 and beginning in 1937 had been waging full-on war trying to conquer the entire country. As he battled across China with the 33rd Infantry Regiment the Japanese newspapers following the ballplayer wrote fanciful stories of how his great pitching arm was now used lobbing grenades so accurately that he saved his comrades time and again from certain death. He was shot in his left hand in the fall of 1938 but recovered quickly and rejoined his unit in the field. When out of the front lines he gave morale-boosting exhibitions throwing the heavy hand grenades in distance competitions for the benefit of grateful troops. The Japanese press ate it up and baseball fans back home devoured news of their great hero.

The pitcher returned to the Giants in 1940 having completed his military service. Now 24 years-old, Sawamura had contracted malaria and suffered from insomnia. The 2 years of fighting and hand grenade exhibitions had done serious damage to his arm, and he was forced to alter his delivery from an overhand to a sidearm motion. His control was still as good as it ever was, but the famed fastball was left somewhere back in China, and he had to rely on out-smarting his opposition with his brains instead of speed. Though he tossed his third no-hitter that season, Sawamura wasn’t the pitcher he had once been. His record of 7 wins and 1 loss looks good on the surface but the Japanese Professional Baseball League was a shell of its former self with most of its better players serving in the military. Even with the lesser quality opposition he slipped to a 9 and 5 record the following season. None-the-less he was still the idle of baseball fans nationwide and his mere presence on the mound pulled in the crowds. He married his long-time sweetheart Sakai Yuko in the fall of 1941 and just days later was notified that he was recalled to active duty.

When the Japanese Army invaded the Philippine Islands in December of 1941, Eiji Sawamura was with them. Where he once challenged the Americans on the baseball field, he now fought them on the field of battle. Brought up in the way of the modern warrior where surrender is not an option, Sawamura could not hide his disdain for the Americans when they put down their rifles and surrendered. When interviewed by visiting newspaper correspondents Sawamura repeated false rumors of American atrocities against Japanese civilians that enraged the people back home. Again his legendary accuracy in throwing hand grenades was put to use saving he and his comrades from certain death at the hands of the Americans. Because of his great fame, Eiji Sawamura became a valuable propaganda tool back home in Japan through whom his story of sacrifice and duty inspired many who aspired to emulate the living legend.

Sawamura was discharged in the spring of 1943 and once again he rejoined the Tokyo Giants. Whereas in 1940 he relied on his famed control to stay competitive when his speed and arm failed, a year in the Philippine jungle robbed him of that last remaining talent. After only pitching in 4 games that season, the Giants declined to sign him for 1945. Undaunted, the pitcher thought about shopping his services around to other teams but the owner of the Giants, Sotaro Suzuki convinced him to retire. He argued that it would be useless trying to hang onto past glory and would do nothing except cheapen his memory. He was a hero to millions of his countrymen and as such should go out with grace and honor. Eiji Sawamura agreed, but in the end, it didn’t matter all that much. With the Japanese Navy all but destroyed and the Imperial Army being systematically wiped out island-by-island, Sawamura found himself again recalled into the service. He and his unit shipped out of Yokohama November 27th on the way to the Philippines when the convoy it was traveling with crossed paths with the USS Sea Devil.

After the war baseball played a large part in restoring normalcy and pride to a devastated Japan. Eiji Sawamura, in part due to his timely retirement which preserved his legend, was held up as Japan’s greatest ballplayer. His death in the war also helped promote an anti-militarism feeling amongst the Japanese people. In 1947 the reconstituted Nippon Professional Baseball League introduced the “Sawamura Award,” given at the conclusion of each season in recognition of the best pitcher in the game. When the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame was founded in 1959, he was among the first 9 inductees. To this day he is still a legend, often referred to simply as “Japan’s Number One.”

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