The eyes of the boys from Okachimachi Junior High School in Tokyo light up as they grip the bats of professional Japanese baseball stars.
“I want to take this home,” says one, flashing a smile as he lifts a bat used by Seattle Mariners’ outfielder Ichiro Suzuki.
These boys at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum at the Tokyo Dome are living proof that “yakyu” (baseball) still offers the stuff of dreams, even with its popularity losing ground to soccer.
Baseball has a long history in Japan. After it was first introduced by an American teacher to students at Dai- ichiban (No. 1) Junior High School, the predecessor of today’s University of Tokyo, in 1872, the game spread rapidly among college athletes.
The nation’s first professional team, the present-day Yomiuri Giants, was born in 1934, three years after a group of U.S. Major League all stars led by Babe Ruth played against the Japanese national team here.
Baseball saw some dark days during World War II, when it was labeled the game of the enemy. But people returned to the sport with a fervor once the fighting was over, with the game providing a much-needed diversion — and passion — as the nation went about rebuilding itself.
The museum boasts exhibits on the dawn of Japanese baseball, as well as the uniforms and personal belongings of such stars as Sadaharu Oh, who holds the world record for career home runs.
Visitors can search through various data on Japanese pro baseball, and watch footage of memorable scenes.
Although historical items are kept in glass cases, the equipment of present-day stars is available to touch.
The museum attracts large numbers of families, especially during the summer, said curator Miwako Atarashi.
“The No. 1 concept of this museum is to have a good time,” she said, “and to study a bit.”
It operates a research library with some 40,000 publications related to baseball, including foreign books. While the library draws many young visitors busy with individual research projects during the summer holiday season, it is also used by professional sports writers and researchers, librarians said.
Foreign researchers studying Japanese baseball are frequent visitors, even more so now that Japanese players have entered the spotlight in the U.S. Major Leagues, Atarashi said.
A special exhibit through Nov. 25 on “Professional Baseball in the World” features not only the U.S. but also Asia, Latin America and Europe.
There are no English-language explanations for the individual exhibits, but a 13-page pamphlet in English is available at the reception desk upon request.