Baseball at the 1964 Tokyo Games: Hidden in Plain Sight

The baseball cards of Shaun Fitzmaurice and Chuck Dobson, who played in the Olympic baseball exhibition at the Tokyo Games in 1964.
The baseball cards of Shaun Fitzmaurice and Chuck Dobson, who played in the Olympic baseball exhibition at the Tokyo Games in 1964.

Baseball has a long history in Japan, from the time in 1934 when Babe Ruth played in an exhibition series in Japan, to when Hideo Nomo and Ichiro Suzuki exploded on the scene in Major League Baseball, to the recent years of Japan’s success in the World Baseball Classic Series.

But baseball is not an Olympic sport. And it wasn’t in 1964 either.

While baseball was not an official event at the Tokyo Olympics, it was in fact a demonstration sport. On October 11, 1964, a team of 21 American college ball players played a team of Japanese amateur all stars. And the American team went on to win 6 to 2 in front of 50,000 fans at Meiji Stadium.

The baseball cards of Gary Sutherland and Ken Suarez, who played in the Olympic baseball exhibition at the Tokyo Games in 1964.
The baseball cards of Gary Sutherland and Ken Suarez, who played in the Olympic baseball exhibition at the Tokyo Games in 1964.

That was the first of a series of exhibition games that the Americans would have with Japanese teams across the country, in cities like Numazu, Hamamatsu, Nagoya and Osaka. Japanese fans got to see future major leaguers like Chuck Dobson (Athletics), Gary Sutherland (a utility man who played for 7 major league teams), and Shaun Fitzmaurice (Mets), who hit the first pitch of the first exhibition game for a home run.

But the reality is, baseball was not an official event, and was thus given little attention by the press, which may have suited some of the players fine. As told in this interesting history, “Baseball in the Olympics“, by Peter Cava, the American players were not Olympians, and so did not live in the Olympic Village, or live by strict curfews.

The contingent wasn’t considered part of the official U.S. Olympic team. Instead of quarters in the Olympic village, the baseball players found themselves staying in an antiquated YMCA. Eventually the team moved to more suitable lodgings in a Tokyo hotel. They soon became the envy of the other American athletes. Unlike their brethren in the Olympic village, the baseball players weren’t subject to curfew. One team member recalls attending a party with sprinter Bob Hayes and Walt Hazzard of the basketball team. When Hayes and Hazzard had to leave early to make curfew, the baseball player continued to boogie to his heart’s content.

The overriding purpose of these exhibition games, according to Stanford University athletic director, Dutch Fehring, is to make sure that baseball enters the consciousness of the International Olympic Committee. “We’ve never been so close in getting baseball into the Olympics,” says Fehring in an interview with Stars and Stripes.

“Close” in this case was another 28 years, when baseball finally debuted at the Barcelona Games in 1992. Unfortunately, only 16 years later, baseball had its last Olympic inning at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Baseball and softball are both currently being considered for re-introduction at the 2020 Tokyo Games. The Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee took that vision one step closer when it officially recommended five new sports to the IOC on September 28. For baseball fans like me, I’d love to see them play ball again in Japan.

The baseball cards of Alan Closter and Mike Epstein, who played in the Olympic baseball exhibition at the Tokyo Games in 1964.
The baseball cards of Alan Closter and Mike Epstein, who played in the Olympic baseball exhibition at the Tokyo Games in 1964.