Masaichi Kaneda, Japan’s ‘Emperor’ of Baseball, Dies at 86


Major League Baseball teams showed interest in signing Kaneda in the 1960s. But he chose to stay in Japan to challenge, in vain, Cy Young’s record of 511 wins.

“It would be a great honor to pitch in the American major leagues, but there is more to be gained here,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1963. “And I feel I owe something to Japanese baseball, which has been so good to me.”

He was born Kim Kyung-Hong on Aug. 1, 1933, to Korean parents in the coastal city of Nagoya. Ethnic Koreans at the time faced widespread discrimination in Japan, so he did not use his given name. He became a naturalized citizen in 1959.

A precocious ballplayer, Kaneda dropped out of high school to join the Swallows in 1950 at age 17. After a rough first season, he posted a record of 22-21 the next year. In one four-year stretch in the mid-1950s he averaged 28 wins, 363 innings pitched, 321 strikeouts and a 1.61 earned run average per season.

When the Yankees traveled to Japan in 1955 to play exhibition games, Kaneda struck out Mickey Mantle three times. Three years later, facing Shigeo Nagashima, the highly touted rookie who became one of Japan’s best players, he struck him out four times in Nagashima’s professional debut. The next season, Kaneda repeated the feat against Sadaharu Oh, Japan’s future home run king.

Kaneda contended that his fastball topped 100 miles per hour — an assertion that could not be verified because the radar gun had not yet been invented.

He signed with the Giants, Japan’s most dominant team, as a free agent after going 27-12 in 1964. Commentators wondered how a free spirit like Kaneda would adapt to a team known for fostering rigid conformity. But Kaneda outworked his younger teammates, and despite a mediocre record in his five seasons with the club, he was given the honor of starting the first game of the Japan Series (Japan’s equivalent of the World Series) in each of those years.

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