Welcome to Anime Tropes – a series here on Side of Fiction where we delve into some of the most well-known, lesser-known, and every trope in between that anime has to offer. As I’m sure you know, anime is a medium not short of tropes, so there are many different ones to discuss. If you’d like me to look into a specific one, let me know, I’ll add it to the proverbial list.
Today, we have a fun one. This is a trope I’ve personally been interested in for quite a while. I’ve wanted to know why this was a thing, if there even is a reason for it, and if so, how it could have started.
When we talk about obligatory episodes in anime – as in odd episodes based around a particular theme that most anime seem to follow like the law – we usually think of the obligatory beach episode.
While I think that may be interesting to talk about in the future, It’s not what I want to discuss today. I’d rather talk about another type of obligatory episode in anime that I find far stranger.
That is, of course, the obligatory baseball episode.
You know the one I’m talking about. Your story could be about anything. A tragic young love story, a story about supernatural high school students, a story about an unknowing god, or a story about an Edo period breakdancing samurai, regardless, the characters generally find the time to get together for a friendly baseball match.
Why? Because baseball! Do you need anything else?
For some odd reason – a reason I’d like to discover – baseball has managed to sneak its way into anime in some of the oddest ways.
Do you like your story about little Ash attending Pokémon school? How about they settle their quarrel with Team Rocket over a friendly game of ball?
You enjoy watching your supernatural high school students find those with powers similar to them? They need to compete with a telekinetic pitcher first.
You enjoy seeing Goku and the gang duke it out? Fighting is childish. They’re men. They settle things on the field.
And as I’m sure you know, the proven best way to stop racist Americans from invading your country is to kill them all during a baseball match. This is a fact.
It’s a very odd trope of anime. Its one that I know is a thing, and that was pretty much it. You watch enough series; it becomes common knowledge in your mind. If someone asked me to name a weird anime trope, I’d tell them many, many things, but the obligatory baseball episode is one of them.
Like most things on this site, I learn about it because I, myself, am curious about the topic. I’m not doing it just to get content. I’m doing this because I want to know about it, and the site is an excuse to do just that. And I think some of my findings may be interesting to others.
So without further ado, let’s play ball! People still say that, right? I haven’t held a baseball bat since I had one of those big plastic ones when I was 5 in my backyard.
I want to start with a bit of a disclaimer. A lot of the information in this may not be entirely correct. You would be surprised how difficult it was to find anything concrete about this subject. There just isn’t much information to gather. Still, I do feel fairly confident; just take what I say with a grain of salt.
And, of course, feel free to correct me.
There are a few things I wanted to look at. I first wanted to find out two things: what the first anime or manga ever to be about baseball was, and what was the first anime or manga ever to include a baseball segment in an episode, whether that be for filler or not.
It wasn’t as easy as I expected to pin both of these things down. Still, I feel I’ve gotten pretty close.
The first manga (and anime) I could find that was solely about baseball was Star of the Giants. The manga was written in 1966 by Ikki Kajiwara, with the anime following two years later.
This was a story about a young pitcher named Hyuma Hoshi who dreams of being a star in the big leagues like his father before him. The name – Star of the Giants – was likely derived from the Tokyo Giants, the first team to join the Japanese Baseball League.
It’s possible there was an earlier example, but I think this is likely correct. I want you to remember that anime as a medium has really only been around since about 1961 and 1963 in the way we know it today.
So the first baseball anime/manga was about the first professional Japanese baseball team. That’s poetic, isn’t it?
The next thing I needed to find out was what the first non-baseball anime to feature a baseball episode was. As you might expect, this was very difficult, and I’m still not 100% certain about my conclusion.
There is barely any information about any of this on the web, just a few examples of popular baseball episodes and the like. Nobody really delved into what the first one was. Originally, I thought it was episode 7o of Urusei Yatsura that would have aired in 1983. This was incorrect, as I expected it might be.
After getting the help of the anime subreddit, we arrived at a different answer. Once again, there may be an earlier one, but I’ll go out on a limb and say I’m fairly confident there isn’t.
That is (surprisingly enough) Sally the Witch – a manga also written in 1966, this one by Mitsuteru Yokoyama. However, this anime started the same year the manga was written. Both episodes 12 and 88 were themed around baseball, and possibly one other, but I couldn’t confirm that for myself.
Sally the Witch is important in anime history for being the first Magical Girl Anime, which went on to be its own genre and is considered the first Shoujo Anime as well, as in it’s marketed more towards girls than boys, for those of you who may not know. But who would have guessed it would be important in baseball history as well?
The series more or less followed Sally, remember the one who’s the witch, as she lives in our world getting into all sorts of hijinx as she attempts to hide her powers. Ripe for a good baseball game, am I right?
So we now know what were the first, next is to figure out why they were the first. What connections do they share, or their creators share?
To understand that, we need to dig a little into Japanese history itself.
Baseball in Japan
I’m not going to give you the full history of baseball in Japan for a few reasons. Firstly, I’m not the best informed on the topic. Second, there are those who have done it must better than I ever could.
At the bottom of this post, I’m going to link you to a great, great article about baseball in Japan by Tofugu – a wonderful blog for all things Japanese. If you want a more in-depth look, I highly recommend you check it out. It’s an incredibly fascinating history; it really is.
Still, I’ll give you a very brief rundown of what’s important to our discussion.
The first mention of baseball in Japan was in the 1870s when an American English professor teaching Japanese students at Kaisei Gakko – Horace Wilson – decided that they needed more physical exercise. His solution? Teach them the American sport of baseball.
In 1878 the first unofficial baseball team was born. Rivalries flourished, and the sport began to gain some traction. By the early 1900s, baseball teams were formed in universities, and the country as a whole started to take things more seriously. Some schools so much so they sent Japanese players over to America to get better.
More stuff happened, and in 1932, American baseball player Lefty O’Doul came to Japan. Lefty and two others, Moe Berg and Ted Lyons (A couch and a manager respectively) held a bunch of lessons at each of the most promising universities, widely known as the Big 6.
It’s here where things really matter.
In 1934, Lefty got a team of All-Star players from America to come to Japan. This was a great team. I mean, even Babe Ruth came along. The Americans weren’t messing around. Japan assembled their best players and lost every game they played. It was murder. They got destroyed.
Still, this gave Japan some fire to become better.
Two years later, the Tokyo Giants were formed, and the rest is history.
Here’s why this is important.
Baseball is Japan’s biggest sport. It’s likely more important there than it even is in America, where it originated. People go absolutely crazy for the sport in Japan. They lose their minds over it. I’ve heard that there’s nothing like going to a baseball game in Japan, that it’s entirely different than one in America. I’ve heard there’s some energy there. It’s something people seem to love.
For that reason, you could say the obligatory baseball episode in anime exists purely because it’s the country the medium originated from’s favorite sport. I don’t disagree with that; I think that’s likely correct. However, it’s kind of boring. I don’t like the idea of something just happening with no good reason for it.
So I’d rather determine why baseball may have inspired the creators of Sally the Witch and Star of the Giants to make the things they made.
Both creators were born pretty close to each other. Ikki Kajiwara in 1936, and Mitsuteru Yokoyama in 1934. So they had both grown up during World War II and spent their teenage years during the occupation.
As you might expect, this wasn’t the happiest time for anyone. Sure, the war was over, many were glad about that, but I don’t think many Japanese people were happy about being more or less controlled by those you had just lost a war to.
Seeing that it would be good for morale, the Allied troops, along with large cooperation who funded the return, decided to have the pro baseball league in Japan start up again less than a year into the occupation.
Baseball in Japan was beginning to make a comeback at a time when the world needed healing, especially healing between Japan and America. They really weren’t the best friends at this point. Lefty also wasn’t too keen on what Japan had done in the war, but he still returned to Japan in 1949.
And like in 1934, his games in Japan were big hits. So Lefty continued to come back for the next few years, and Japan welcomed him and the baseball players he brought with open arms. Like before, Japan and America had that rivalry between them. And one time, O’doul’s team had actually lost to a Japanese team.
The student had surpassed the master, you could say. This really lit a spark under the Japanese. I imagine they felt like this was actually something they were capable of. They had just won a game against the very people that had taught them that same game. I bet it was a wonderful feeling.
And this was the point where you could say baseball really skyrocketed. Again, the rest is history (that you should definitely read about on Tofugu), and baseball became Japan’s biggest sport.
But Why Baseball?
Now, here’s my theory, because I don’t want to just go “baseball is popular in Japan, so of course, it’s in anime.”
All of the crazy stuff that had happened in Japanese baseball, like them winning against the Americans in 1952, all happened when both Ikki Kajiwara and Mitsuteru Yokoyama would have been in their teenage years, as I said before.
That is also the time that determines who you are likely to be when you grow up. Your adolescence is what turns you into the person you are. It’s the time when we are the most receptive to things. The time that we absorb the most, like some kind of emotional creepy human meat sponge.
A lot of the stuff that happens around that time, even if you aren’t aware of it, will stick with you.
Now I can’t speak for either Ikki Kajiwara or Mitsuteru Yokoyama, but I can imagine growing up in Japan during World War II wasn’t the nicest experience. I can also imagine many Japanese people weren’t thrilled with America at the time.
World War II was pretty awful for everyone involved; we’ll just say that.
So put yourself in the mindset of what either of them could have been feeling as young boys. Way I see it, Japan beating America like that could have symbolized two things for them. If they hated America due to the war, it symbolized Japan beating them at their own game. A big ol’ middle finger, some could say.
Or if they were just glad it was over and was ready for healing, it could symbolize the two countries coming together to play a friendly game of a sport they both love. Either way, I imagine baseball could have had some impact on both of them, as I’m sure it did many in that time.
And that sticking with them may have been why Kajiwara went on to create Star of the Giants and why Yokoyama thought baseball was a good plot for a portion of his magical girl anime. Yeah, that part may be stretching it.
But it does raise an interesting point. Sally the Witch would also be the first example of a baseball episode being used specifically as filler. Something that supports this is how the anime aired just a few months after the manga had started. This means they would have needed extra material (filler) so the anime wouldn’t miss weeks on TV as the story was being written.
When trying to think of some arbitrary plot to keep viewers watching, it isn’t all that surprising that an episode based (pun intended) on the country’s most popular sport would make perfect sense. Thus, the baseball filler episode was born, as is often the form it takes.
The “Key” to This Trope
But all of this wasn’t what made us aware of the trope. Nobody would question an episode or two of baseball in an anime here and there. No, there is one man responsible for that. The reason we even have the obligatory baseball trope in the first place. That man is Jun Maeda.
You may know him from a lot of things. He’s worked on quite a bit. Most people know him for working at visual novel studio Key. Not only as a writer for various series but also composes soundtracks for their works as well. Even if you don’t immediately recognize the name, you’ll know who he is when I tell you some of his works. It’s hard to watch anime without knowing the name Jun Maeda, really.
For most, I only have to say the name of one series he wrote most of, and that’s all it takes. He’s the man behind much of Clannad.
You can thank him for your tears; I’m sure they fuel him. He also did work on Angel Beats, Charlotte, Little Busters, and more recently, the Day I Became God, as well as some other stuff. He’s a great writer.
Still, we aren’t talking about that today. What I want to talk about is a strange similarity much of his works have in common. Do you know what that is? I bet you do. They, for whatever reason, almost always have at least one baseball episode in them. Clannad actually has two!
Angel Beats has one. Charlotte has one. Little Busters is the most baseball story that’s not even about baseball I’ve ever seen. Seriously, it’s the only story in the world that could be about a sandlot baseball team that never actually plays baseball!
What about his new anime that just ended, The Day I Become God? Yes, there’s one! What else do you expect? And what’s interesting is that these aren’t used for filler reasons. The last thing Angel Beats needed was filler; trust me, even Maeda himself wanted more than just 13 episodes for it. I doubt a baseball filler was the answer to that.
Charlotte, while I do love that anime (yes, you can disagree with me), I admit it needed more episodes than it got for sure. But there’s still a baseball episode. It has to be there.
In series like Clannad, big story developments take place during these baseball matches. Certainly, they can provide some nice comedy, but Maeda seems to see them as more important than that. He includes them in almost every series, regardless of the length, and they’re usually significant to the story itself.
I was super curious why this is. You have no idea. Unfortunately, I haven’t a clue! I looked into this a lot. I scoured every inch of the internet. I even read through Maeda’s dead blog written over a decade ago! I couldn’t find any discernible reason why he includes baseball in things.
I assume he likes baseball, but I couldn’t even find any specific time he had said that! Baseball is such a joke with his work, but it seems like nobody ever asked the guy before. And because of that, I can’t tell you definitively why he includes it in his work.
I really, really wanted to find out why. I wanted to find some deep connection to baseball and unravel this whole story once and for all! However, that didn’t happen. But, I did find at least some interesting information that required some digging to get to. Information relating to Charlotte.
Believe it or not, the characters in that were named after players and family from the Yokohama DeNA BayStars, a baseball team in Japan. Why that is, I don’t know. I heard it may be some kind of sponsorship, but, again, I couldn’t tell you. I’ll link the site below, just be warned it is in Japanese. So give that Google Translate a workout.
This raises the question that maybe every one of his works has some mysterious baseball-related sponsorship hidden in the cracks that we’ve never discovered. And he is, quite literally, obligated to include the obligatory baseball episode. But that’s far fetched, I admit. Still, it’s about all I, and the collective power of the internet, got.
I would have liked to put a lid on this baseball trope forever. I wanted, for myself, to know definitely why it exists. Sadly, that didn’t happen. There’s just not enough to go on.
You want the actual answer? Baseball is popular in Japan. Really about the best I can give you. Still, all the theorizing I did above was a whole lot of fun, and I learned so much more about this than I expected to.
Did I expect to find such a touching story as I learn about a sport where people hit balls towards each other? Nope!
Did I expect to find out that an anime about supernatural high school students were named after baseball players? Nope!
Did I expect the likely first example of baseball in anime to come from something called Sally the Witch? No way.
This is a trope with a whole lot of unsolved mysteries, yet has like the most boring answer to anything ever. So that’s fun. Not everything can be some great conspiracy, but I sure do try to make it so.
Thank you very much for reading
What’s your favorite obligatory baseball episode in anime? There’s a lot of crazy ones out there. Mine is a close tie between Samurai Champloo’s and Dragon Ball Super’s. There’s just something magical about seeing Goku go Super Saiyan God while beaming a baseball at the speed of light.
The crazy Charlotte x BayStars thing.