OSAKA – Hiroshi Yamauchi, who ran Nintendo Co. for more than 50 years and led the company’s transition from traditional playing card maker to video game giant, died Thursday. He was 85.
Kyoto-based Nintendo said Yamauchi, who was also known for owning the Seattle Mariners baseball club, died of pneumonia at a hospital in central Japan.
Yamauchi was Nintendo president from 1949 to 2002, and engineered the company’s global growth, including developing the early Family Computer (Famicom) consoles and Game Boy portable devices.
Nintendo, which makes Super Mario and Pokemon games as well as the Wii U home console, was founded in 1889.
Reputed as a visionary and among the richest men in Japan, Yamauchi made key moves, such as employing the talents of Shigeru Miyamoto, a global star of game design and the brainchild of Nintendo hits such as “Super Mario” and “Donkey Kong.”
A dropout of Tokyo’s prestigious Waseda University, Yamauchi’s raspy voice and tendency to speak informally in his native Kyoto dialect was a kind of disarming spontaneity rare among Japanese executives.
Yamauchi had little interest in baseball, but was approached to buy the Mariners, who may otherwise have had to move out of Washington state, where Nintendo of America Inc. was based, to Florida without a new backer. The 1992 acquisition made the Seattle club the first with foreign ownership.
“Hiroshi Yamauchi is the reason that Seattle has the Mariners,” then-Sen. Slade Gorton said Thursday from his home in Bellevue, Washington. “When no one else would stand up and purchase them and they were about to leave to go to Florida, he did, simply as a civic gesture.”
The Mariners issued a statement on his death saying his gesture of goodwill to the citizens of the Pacific Northwest is legendary, and Yamauchi also promoted Japanese players.
Yamauchi never watched his baseball team play in person and transferred his majority shares to Nintendo of America in 2004.
Yamauchi is survived by his eldest son, Katsuhito Yamauchi. The funeral is Sunday at Nintendo, following a wake Saturday.