Masaichi Kaneda, Japan’s ‘emperor’ of baseball, dies at 86

Masaichi Kaneda started each of the thousands of innings he pitched during his illustrious career in Japan the same way. He walked to the mound, dropped his glove, grabbed the rosin bag, tossed it a few times, dropped it, and then picked up his glove. Then he walked to second base, where he threw the first of eight warm-up pitches to the catcher. After each throw, he moved a few steps closer to the mound, until by the eighth pitch he was standing on the pitching rubber.

“He had a cocky walk, this swagger,” said Robert Whiting, who has written books on Japanese baseball and who watched Mr. Kaneda pitch during his heyday more than 50 years ago. “He had it down to a science. He was fun to watch.”


Mr. Kaneda wasn’t just fun, though; he was among the best at his craft — the winningest pitcher in the history of Japanese professional baseball, the only one in Japan to win 400 games. (His 400th was his last.) In the American Major Leagues, only two pitchers have won more: Cy Young, with 511, and Walter Johnson, with 417.

Mr. Kaneda was the all-time leader in Japan in strikeouts, with 4,490, and innings pitched, with 5,526 2/3. He won 20 or more games for 14 consecutive seasons. And when he died Sunday at the age of 86, he was so revered by Japanese fans that he had come to be known as the Emperor.

His death, in a Tokyo-area hospital, was announced by the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 1988. Japanese news outlets said the cause was acute cholangitis, an inflammation of the bile duct tract.

One of Japan’s greatest baseball players, Mr. Kaneda won three Eiji Sawamura awards, Japan’s version of the Cy Young Award. He pitched two no-hitters, including a perfect game. A tall, lanky left-hander with an effectively erratic fastball and a looping curveball, he was considered Japan’s answer to the Hall of Fame Braves left-hander Warren Spahn.


He also had a volatile temper. For a time he held the record for ejections from a game. And he was so eager to add to his numbers that he was known to insert himself into a game at a key juncture so he could secure the win.

Remarkably, Mr. Kaneda did most of his best work while playing for the usually woeful Kokutetsu Swallows (now the Tokyo Yakult Swallows). He spent 15 years with that club, which had only one winning season during that span. As a result, he also holds the record for most losses, 298. (He also gave up 1,808 walks, another record.)

After all the losing, Mr. Kaneda spent his final five seasons with the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, whose record string of nine consecutive league titles started with Mr. Kaneda’s arrival in 1965. He retired in 1969, and the Giants retired his number, 34.

Major League Baseball teams showed interest in signing Mr. 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, Mr. 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 ERA per season.

When the New York Yankees traveled to Japan in 1955 to play exhibition games, Mr. 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, Mr. Kaneda repeated the feat against Sadaharu Oh, Japan’s future home run king.

Mr. Kaneda contended that his fastball topped 100 mph — 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 Mr. Kaneda would adapt to a team known for fostering rigid conformity. But Mr. 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.


After retiring, Mr. Kaneda managed another perennial cellar-dweller, the Lotte Orions (now the Chiba Lotte Marines), from 1973 to 1978. But his tenure with them had one moment of glory: a Japan Series championship in 1974, ending the Giants’ nine-year run on top. He returned to manage the club in 1990 and 1991.

As a manager, Mr. Kaneda was known for his histrionics. He was suspended for kicking an umpire. He threatened to fight Jim Lefebvre, the former Los Angeles Dodger whom he had personally recruited. He tackled Don Buford, a former Baltimore Oriole who played in Japan. He got into scraps with hecklers.

Mr. Kaneda was married twice and divorced once and had three children, according to Japanese news outlets. Information on his survivors was not immediately available.