Baseball Traveled to Japan 150 Years Ago. By Way of Maine.

GORHAM, Maine — This small town on the East Coast can make a claim of being one of baseball’s birthplaces. But Gorham, about a 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 far 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 year, and the country credits a Mainer, Horace Wilson, for introducing the game there in 1872.

After leaving Maine to fight in the Civil War, Wilson became one of many outsiders recruited by Japan’s government under the Meiji Restoration to teach the ways of the West to the country as 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.

“Of course, the family knew of Horace Wilson, but no one had any idea that he ever went to Japan,” said Scott Balcomb, whose wife, Abigail, is a great-granddaughter of Horace’s younger brother, Elbridge Wilson.

Scott Balcomb; his wife, Abigail; and her sister Kate Sanborn did not know of Horace Wilson’s role in Japanese baseball until 2000. Wilson was Abigail and Kate’s great-great-uncle.Credit…Brad Lefton
A portrait of Wilson and his family hangs in the farm house that his descendants still own. Wilson, standing, top right, a teacher, went to Japan to help the Japanese learn the ways of the West.Credit…Scott Balcomb

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

“The real story to us,” Balcomb continued, “was that somebody born on this farm ended up in Japan in 1871. That alone was surprising enough, but then the caller started explaining that Horace is considered the father of baseball in Japan and that they want to come to Maine and meet us and then invite us to Japan. We couldn’t believe all the fuss.”

Balcomb, along with three descendants of Wilson, were flown to Japan in 2000 and feted as 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 that are displayed in the museum. They were carted back to Maine, where they now adorn the parlor room, near the room where Wilson was most likely born.

If Gorham has a challenge to its claim as the birthplace of Japanese baseball, it may be from Kents Hill, a town about 60 miles northeast of Gorham that is home to Kents Hill School, a boarding school founded in 1824. School records show Wilson most likely enrolled at the four-year institution in the fall of 1858, meaning he would have graduated in the spring of 1862. His living descendants believe it is most plausible that he first learned baseball as a student at the school.

Mikio Mori, the ambassador and consul general of Japan, threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Citi Field when the Mets honored the 150th anniversary of baseball coming to Japan last month.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
Fans of Japanese baseball came out for the celebration at Citi Field, which included a video showcasing the history of the sport in both countries. The ambassador’s first pitch was thrown to the former Met Masato Yoshii.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Just like challenges over the years to Cooperstown’s claim as the birthplace of American baseball, assertions have also been made that Yokohama was the site of Japan’s first baseball game, a year before Wilson began teaching the sport to students. In 1871, a game was played between American sailors and local residents, according to English-language newspaper accounts.

Nevertheless, Wilson and 1872 are considered the symbolic start, as evidenced by celebrations in the United States and Japan this year. The Consulate General of Japan in New York commemorated the 150th anniversary with a ceremony before a recent Mets game at Citi Field.

Regardless of which version is historically accurate, baseball has had an outsize impact on Japanese culture and U.S.-Japan relations since the Meiji Restoration.

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

While the game flourished almost immediately as an amateur sport, the formation of a professional league was still a decade away when Wilson died in San Francisco in 1927. The forerunner to today’s Nippon Professional Baseball began play in 1936 with seven franchises, four of which 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.

Japan developed its own professional league in 1936. Teams like the Hanshin Tigers and the Hiroshima Toyo Carp pack stadiums.Credit…Philip Fong/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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

And top players from Japan have regularly made their way to the United States over the last few decades. This year, outfielder Seiya Suzuki became the 64th player from Japan to be signed by a major league team when he agreed to a five-year, $85 million contract with the Chicago Cubs.

The first of those 64 players to win a Most Valuable Player Award in the United States was Ichiro Suzuki, who last month became the first player from Japan to be inducted into a major league team’s hall of fame. At a pregame ceremony Aug. 27 in Seattle, Suzuki was honored as the eighth player to enter the Mariners Hall of Fame. He is considered 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 depends on more than just speed or strength. It also requires intellect. Undoubtedly, that’s long been one of the main appeals of the game in Japan. I feel like today’s game is getting away from that aspect and Japan tends to follow America, so I really hope that doesn’t become the trend in Japan. It’s my great hope that Japanese baseball can retain its uniqueness and remain a game that depends on each player thinking critically for himself.”

Ichiro Suzuki was inducted into the Mariners Hall of Fame two weeks ago — a first for a player from Japan. He is likely to be elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame when he is eligible in 2025.Credit…John Froschauer/Associated Press

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

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

“Oh, I think he would be delighted,” she said. “My ancestors really loved when players could do everything. But what he’d really like to know is how is Shohei Ohtani in the classroom? More than anything, I think Horace would want to know if he was a good student.”

Yet another reminder that baseball’s beginnings in Japan are credited to an American teacher, who passed the sport 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 more than two decades.

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