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Negro Leagues
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Negro Leagues Legacy

Same scenario, different outcome
Japanese Leagues continue to thrive despite losing Ichiro
By Robert Falkoff

When Jackie Robinson signed a pro contract with the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' farm club, in 1945, it spelled the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- When Jackie Robinson took his legendary steps toward the Major Leagues starting in 1945, it signaled the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues. Could the same thing happen to the Japanese Leagues now that Japanese icon Ichiro Suzuki has brought his skill and flair to the United States?

It's not likely, according to those with expert knowledge of what the Japanese Leagues are and what the Negro Leagues were.

"There are some very strong parallels," said Negro Leagues historian Bob Kendrick. "But the big difference is you have an ocean and a government that separates the Japanese Leagues from the Major Leagues. Generally speaking, the fan base in Japan cannot follow the Japanese stars into Major League stadiums, as was the case when the fan base in the Negro Leagues went over in person to see how those great Negro Leagues stars would fare in Major League Baseball.

"But surely, Japanese baseball has to be concerned about great stars leaving. Over a period of time, it's going to diminish the product."

After Robinson made his Major League debut with the Dodgers in 1947, a cluster of Negro Leagues stars followed. But it took 12 more years before every Major League team had at least one African-American player, with the Boston Red Sox being the last in 1959 when they signed Pumpsie Green.


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"The fact that it took Major League Baseball so long to integrate totally allowed the Negro Leagues to operate until 1960," Kendrick said. "The Eastern (Negro League) clubs took a major hit right off the bat. The Western (Negro League) clubs were able to have a greater realm of success because they weren't so close to Major League teams. But the handwriting was on the wall. Many of the black owners saw it, too, and got out of the business. They were losing players without getting compensation."

The initial impact that Robinson had in bringing African-American fans to Major League ballparks was enormous. To illustrate, Kendrick shared a story from an elderly gentleman who visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, where Kendrick is director of marketing.

"The man was telling me about Jackie's first visit to Wrigley Field," Kendrick said. "He said there were so many African-American fans in the stadium you would have thought it was a home game for the Brooklyn Dodgers. They were there to see Jackie. They weren't there to see the Cubs. That's the impact that Jackie had."

Kendrick noted that Suzuki, who took the American League by storm by leading the Seattle Mariners to 116 wins and winning the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards last year, brings an excitement to a baseball game that Robinson once exhibited. Kansas City Royals pitcher Darrell May, who spent the last four years in Japan, used to marvel at Suzuki's hand-eye coordination.

"I faced Ichiro in the All-Star games a couple of times and in Spring Training," May said. "I thought he'd do well in the Major Leagues, but I don't think anyone expected him to do what he did last year. I've seen so many tapes on that guy, with pitchers afraid to throw to him. They'll actually bounce the ball to the plate and he'll still get a base hit after the bounce. It's phenomenal to see a guy with that kind of hand-eye coordination."

There are other ex-Japanese League stars who are working hard to make a mark in the Major Leagues like Suzuki: Kazuhiro Sasaki, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, to name a few. Even the Cardinals went to the Japanese Leagues to acquire the services of So Taguchi, a speedster they expect to bolster their outfield this season.

Although the Japanese Leagues have lost some players in recent years, Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau director Frank Marcos said the Japanese Leagues remain strong and vibrant.

The Japanese Leagues remain strong even though players like Ichiro Suzuki went to the United States to play baseball.
"I've been over there several times and it's quite an experience," Marcos said. "To see a game there is a thrill. The fans are very supportive of their home team. You've got loud, large crowds and fans who are very intelligent about baseball. It's non-stop noise, with cheering and drums, from the first out until the last out."

While Marcos envisions annual movement of some Japanese players to the Major Leagues, he foresees the Japanese Leagues continuing to thrive.

"The Japanese players are huge heroes there," Marcos said. "It takes a special athlete to come (to the United States). They may make more money here, but they may not turn out to be the stars they were in Japanese baseball. Our game is bigger, faster, stronger. If you take a power hitter there and try to project him as a power hitter in the Major Leagues, it may not equate. In Ichiro's case, he just had the type of game that he could transfer from Japan to our league without losing a beat. But he's a rare player."

Furthermore, Japanese League teams are able to collect millions of dollars when giving up a player in his prime.

The Mariners paid $13.125 million to the Orix BlueWave of Japan's Pacific League after the 2000 season for the rights to negotiate with Suzuki, who then agreed to a three-year contract worth a little more than $14 million.

The Dodgers paid $11.26 million to the Yakult Swallows for the rights to negotiate with the 28-year-old Kazuhisa Ishii.

"In Japan, either they can keep a player well through his prime through their free-agency system or they command a big sum of money for releasing a player early," Marcos said. "It's big business over there. Will we continue to see movement? We probably will. But not in big numbers."

Robert Falkoff covers the Royals for the This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.