By Kang Hyun-kyung
In 1982 when the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) league was born with six clubs, baseball fans here watched the MBC Blue Dragons’ manager Baek In-chun playing on and off as a designated hitter.
Baek, then a 40-year-old baseball veteran trained in the Japanese league for two decades, hit a home run during the opening game against the Samsung Lions on March 27 at Dongdaemun Ballpark in Seoul.
During the 1982 season, Baek batted . 412, the highest single season batting average in KBO history that still stands. He is the only baseball manager in KBO history who simultaneously played as a hitter.
As the founding manager of the Blue Dragons, a franchise which existed until 1989, Baek was one of the two baseball managers who introduced Japanese-style baseball to the KBO League in its early years. The other was Japanese-born manager Kim Sung-deuk who played in the Japanese league from 1959 to 1963 and led the OB Bears — now the Doosan Bears — to win the league championship for the 1982 season.
Japanese baseball relies on smallball — a baseball tactic to win games based on advancing base runners into scoring position through stolen bases, sacrifice fly balls and bunts.
By contrast, Major League Baseball (MLB) is more power-based, and players there are encouraged to score through home runs and other hits.
As the first Korean-born athlete to play in the Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball League, Baek put his emphasis on strengthening the bullpen to prevent rival teams from scoring runs and his smallball strategy led the Twins to become the Korean Series winner in 1990, the year when the franchise was founded and made its debut in the KBO League.
His baseball career continued in two other franchises later — the Lions (1996-1997) and the Lotte Giants (2002-2003).
“In the 1980s, there was a popular belief that U.S.-style baseball didn’t fit Korean players,” baseball columnist Jeon Yong-bae said. “Koreans were meager in the eyes of Major League players and their physical traits caused players and coaching staff here to believe the Japanese-style baseball was more suitable for Koreans than the Major League-style.”
That mindset changed in 1994 when Park Chan-ho signed a $1.2 million contract with the LA Dodgers and became the first Korean-born Major Leaguer. Park with the nickname of the Korean Express became the first Asian-born pitcher to achieve 124 wins in the Major League.
Park’s successful adaptation to Major League baseball has inspired many Korean players to seek careers in the U.S. Several Korean baseball players have since played there. Currently five Korean-born players are playing in the Major League — Choo Shin-soo of the Texas Rangers, Kim Hyun-soo of the Baltimore Orioles, LA Dodgers pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin, Pittsburg Pirates’ infielder Kang Jung-ho, and Minnesota Twins’ first baseman Park Byung-ho.
Baseball writer Anthony Castrovince said Korean-born players have begun to make an impact in the Major League.
“Ryu Hyun-jin’s initial success with the Dogers was important,” he wrote in the article, “Korean Players Make Mark on MLB” published online in March 2016. “But Kang Jung-ho’s stellar, albeit injury shortened, rookie year with the Pirates after nine seasons in the KBO was a true game-changer that has legitimated the jump straight from the KBO to MLB and opened the door for others.”
Korean baseball has become outward looking since Park, and Major League baseball has affected the KBO league.
Park’s influence is also evident in the viewership of Major League baseball games in Korea. Baseball fans followed the games where the Korean Express appeared to cheer him on, albeit remotely. Now Korean MLB fans follow the games for their favorite Korean-born players in the Major League.
The KBO league has a much shorter history than the U.S. and Japanese leagues. Since baseball was first introduced by U.S. missionary Phillip Gillet in 1905 as a pastime, it took nearly eight decades until a professional baseball league was created here. U.S. baseball history is traced back to over a century ago, whereas the Japanese league was formed in the 1930s.
Korean baseball players pulled together meaningful accomplishments, despite their short history. Korea won a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and became the runner-up of the World Baseball Classic in 2009. The national team also won a bronze medal in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Baseball analyst Choi Won-ho said Korean players have both the strengths of Major League-style and Japanese-style baseball and this has enabled them to achieve such tangible results.
Over the past three-and-a-half decades since the birth of the professional baseball league, baseball has become Koreans’ favorite sport.
In 1982, about 1.5 million Koreans went to ballparks. In 2016, the number increased over five times — the KBO League attracted over 8 million fans last year.
Hall of fame candidates
Over the 35 years of KBO history, stars were born and they helped the league grow fast.
“The KBO League was a success from the very beginning because there were star athletes and they entertained spectators with their fantastic plays,” Choi said. “Blue Dragons’ cleanup hitter Lee Jong-do hit a home run when all the bases were loaded during the opener against the Lions and helped his team win the game. Bears’ pitcher Park Chul-soon’s phenomenal 24 wins during the 1982 season paved the way for his team’s winning season. These star players attracted spectators to ballparks.”
Choi said former Tigers’ pitcher Sun Dong-yol, who entered the KBO league in 1986, was a key man who also made baseball fans stick around ballparks. In his heyday, Sun, now a coach for the national team for the World Baseball Classic, was called “National Treasure” for his high-speed ball whose velocity reached 155-kilometers per hour, and successful ball control. Some analysts said he is the pitcher of the century.
Former Giants’ pitcher Choi Dong-won (1958-2011) was another towering figure in KBO history. With the nickname “Baseball Genius,” Choi was famous for his precise pitching style.
Choi and Sun were both legendary pitchers representing the eastern and western parts of the country, respectively, as their teams were based in the southwestern city of Gwangju and the southeastern port city of Busan.
Baseball analyst Jeon said Lions’ cleanup hitter Lee Seung-yuop is one of the greatest players of all time and a strong candidate to be inducted into the forthcoming Baseball Hall of Fame to be established in Busan.
Lee hit his 600th home run last September, becoming the first Korean player to reach that level.
The number is made up of all the home runs he hit in the KBO and the Japanese league.
The slugger is to retire after the 2017 season.