Swinging lanterns and carrying flags, fans and even portable Shrines, the cheerleaders come to the annual midsummer Inter-City Baseball Tournament at Tokyo's Korakuen Stadium. In mini-skirts and summertime kimonos, happi coats and flowered hats, they pirouette atop dugouts and act out the often-sad legends of Old Japan. For 10 days Korakuen, which to the Japanese fan has the sort of aura that once enveloped Yankee Stadium in the U.S., is turned into a festival of color and highly organized hurrahing as some 30 teams representing cities and industrial organizations from across the country compete for both a baseball and a cheering championship. Telephone companies, sake makers and fertilizer manufacturers are represented, and at last year's tourney the rooters for good old Nippon Oil Company of Yokohama arrived in red caps that could be taken off and used as megaphones to cheer on their team.
This tournament is only one of many in Japan, where interest in baseball is so widespread that it has caused Walter O'Malley to suggest that before very long a Japanese team will be playing in our major leagues. O'Malley, whose Los Angeles Dodgers have played the Eastern circuit, witnessed at firsthand thousands of people pouring out of the factories and offices at lunchtime to swing a bat on rooftop playgrounds or play pitch-and-catch on the sidewalks of Tokyo, Osaka and even "industrial Sapporo, 340 miles from the Russian shore. The first pro ball game was not even played until 1934, yet Tokyo's Yomiuri Giants have drawn more than two million people to Korakuen Stadium in each of the last five seasons, a feat accomplished in this country only by the Yankees at the end of World War II and Los Angeles in the heyday of Sandy Koufax, Maury Wills and Don Drysdale.
The cry of puray boru ("play ball") is heard constantly in the land, and by 8 each morning thousands of games are in progress. Spring and summer high school championships are broadcast on national television and the big-time university rivalries draw huge crowds. It has often been said—mostly by Americans—that the Japanese are too small to compete against clubs in the United States, but the winner of the last two Little League World Series at Williamsport, Pa. was a Japanese team. This may presage a trend. Although they have played the game for almost 100 years, the Japanese were not very good until U.S. major-leaguers began visiting their country on goodwill tours. These ended in some terrible mismatches—between the '30s and 1955 four different All-Star teams plus the New York Giants and Yankees ran up a record of 84-3—but the Americans greatly increased local interest and, incidentally, taught their hosts the subtleties of the game.
During the last three tours Japan's record against the Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals was a more respectable 17-34, and the old criticisms that the Japanese were too timid on the base paths and at bat and too weak to throw strongly from the outfield were beginning to evaporate like heavy morning mists. The Japanese excel in pitching. Masanori Murakami had an earned run average of 1.80 when he worked for the San Francisco Giants in 1964. Japanese fielders also have arms now, and the only reason why Sadaharu Oh, who hit 49 home runs last year, is not a star in the U.S. is that with his annual income—$100,000—he cannot afford to play in this country. The level of play has become so high, in fact, that the day of American imports is beginning to pass. The Yomiuri Giants, winners of 15 pennants in 18 years, have never used an American.
If there is still a noticeable weakness, it is in the managing. It is not uncommon, for instance, for a manager to call on his star pitcher every day. No doubt that shortcoming will be overcome, too. Currently, Japanese officials are anxious to begin a true World Series, with the winner in this country meeting Japan's No. 1 team. Even though there are many complications to be resolved, there may well be inter-majors games in the coming supersonic age. But cheerleaders? Well, why not? The American game could use a little Eastern ginger.