In 1934 an All-Star team of American Major League Baseball stars arrived on the shores of Japan. Their goal was to spread the United States’ great national pastime to Japan by way of a 15 game expedition series. The Japanese were overmatched as the All-Star team that included Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Fox mowed down their competition. Yet, one game is still celebrated by Japanese baseball fans. One marked by fantastic talent and incredible sacrifice.
17-year old Eiji Sawamura was widely considered the best high school ballplayer in Japan’s new and budding baseball culture. When he was asked to take part in the exhibition series it meant being expelled from high school and forfeiting the chance to pitch in college. But Sawamura saw it as a great opportunity to represent his country and gave up a future education for the chance to take on the best players in the world. The young righty hurler took the mound against Earl Whitehill and the two became locked in a pitchers’ duel that is still talked about today. Sawamura would steal the show despite ultimately losing the game. That’s not surprising considering he struck out Charlie Gehringer, Ruth, Gehrig and Foxx in succession, a stunning feat comparable only to Carl Hubbell’s performance in the 1934 All-Star Game and, later, Pedro Martinez in the 1999 All-Star Game.
Sawamura would go on to play for the Tokyo Kyojin (Now the Yomiuri Giants) and establish himself as a superstar right off the bat. In 1936 he went 14-3 with a 1.18 ERA and 123 strikeouts at just 19-years old. The next year he went 33-10 with a 1.38 ERA and an incredible 325 strikeouts. He consistently declined to play in America despite the best efforts of big league teams. It’s been long told how an American scout tried to trick the young pitcher into a getting him to sign a deal by telling him the paper he was signing (Which was actually a contract) was just an autograph request. Connie Mack, the legendary architect and manager of the Philadelphia Athletics also attempted to add him.
Sadly, Sawamura’s legend ended tragically. In 1944 he was serving on a Japanese transport ship as World War II was still in full force. While his ship was sailing off the coast of Taiwan it was attacked and sunk by American warships. Among the deceased was Sawamura. The legendary pitcher who had once dazzled against the best hitters Major League baseball had to offer was just 27 years old. Another sad story from history’s worst conflict.
Since 1947, the Nippon Professional Baseball League has awarded the year’s best pitcher the Eiji Sawamura Award, the equivalent of MLB’s Cy Young Award. Many of its recent recipients have gone on to play for Major League clubs. Hideo Nomo won the award in 1990, five years before debuting in America as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Koji Uehara, currently the closer for the Boston Red Sox, earned the prize twice, once in 1999 and then again in 2002. Hisashi Iwakuma, the free agent who has played with the Seattle Mariners since 2012, won his in 2008 as a member of the Rakuten Golden Eagles and his former teammate and current ace of the New York Yankees, Masahiro Tanaka, was the recipient of the coveted title in 2011 and 2013. Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers also won the award in 2007 while pitching for the Nippon-Ham Fighters.
Sawamura lost his life too young and, despite never playing in America, still has a relevant place in baseball. His legacy lives on with the other immortals.