Schoolboy No More
The legend of Eiji Sawamura began on November 20, 1934. On that day, his All-Nippon team was facing a visiting club of American All-Stars who were on a goodwill tour, one that included Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Charlie Gehringer. Entering the game in the fourth inning, the 17-year old pitcher struck out nine batters and held the Americans to a single run over five innings pitched. He would fan Gehringer, Ruth, Gehrig and Foxx in succession. Though a homer by the Americans in the seventh saddled Eiji with the loss, when readers opened up their newspapers the next morning, Sawamura became a national treasure. Connie Mack was impressed enough to attempt signing the youngster to a minor league contract in the states. And one year later, when he joined a Japanese team of stars to tour North America, the Pittsburgh Pirates courted his lively fastball.
Each time, however, he declined. During that 1935 tour, Eiji came to dislike America. He could not get used to the lack of rice at mealtime, which he had blamed for what he perceived to be his poor performance. Additionally, he disliked the supposed arrogance of North American women and the differences between western culture and his own in Japan. Although it may have been tempting to join a professional American baseball team, Sawamura was destined to return to Japan and become a founding member of that country’s first professional baseball league.
Eiji joined the Yomiuri Kyojin in 1936, and became their ace. On September 25, he pitched the first no-hitter in Japanese pro baseball history. He duplicated that feat in May of 1937, and went 33-10 with a 1.38 ERA. He also led the league in strikeouts, winning the Triple Crown of pitching.
In 1938, Eiji was drafted into the Japanese Army, and began serving the first of what would become three military tours of duty. He served in Korea and Manchuria until early 1940, and returned to the Kyojin for the 1940 season. While abroad, he had injured his throwing shoulder, and lost some of his velocity and the sharp break on his curve ball. On the mound, he was now limited to a sidearm motion. However, he managed to remain crafty and effective, tossing another no-hitter against the Nagoya team on July 6. It was the third such game of his career.
He served his 2nd tour of military duty in 1942 and returned to play ball again in 1943. Then, in 1944, drafted yet again, he was promoted to lieutenant. His outfit was on a troop transport ship, sailing near the western coast of Yakushima on December 2, 1944, when his vessel was sunk during an engagement with the American Navy. Sawamura and his platoon were all lost at sea. He was 27 years of age.