Pyongyang Big League:
A Short History of Baseball
in Northern Korea, Part
I

In the depths of winter as we look forward to the start of baseball in the spring, we look back on baseball’s past in what is today North Korea. In part I, we look at the origins of baseball in northern Korea.

[Baseball] is an American odyssey that links sons and daughters to fathers and grandfathers and it reflects a host of age old American tensions: between workers and owners, scandal and reform, the individual and the collective. –From Ken Burn’s documentary Baseball

In 2008, Koryo Tours arranged the first modern cricket match in Pyongyang. This match involved two visiting amateur teams and the rag-tag home side, the short-lived Pyongyang Cricket Club in a three-way 20/20 tournament over a single day at Taesongsan Park. The local team was made up of Koryo staff, local tour guides*, a bus driver, and a cameraman. At the end of the day, the victors were the visitors - but the sport of cricket was the real winner- and the games went off without a hitch, despite a herd of goats running onto the field at one point, and the quizzical looks of passing local folks and soldiers. So goes the story of the match, a one time-spectacle. Since then, for better or for worse, cricket hasn’t entered the mainstream of DPRK sporting consciousness. After all, Pyongyang has long been more of a baseball town.

It is often assumed that North Koreans do not play baseball on ideological grounds for it America’s pastime. Such misconceptions purely belong to those same foreigners who are often surprised and those ideologues who are often dismayed to find American Coca-Cola sold in stores in Pyongyang or North Koreans using Apple products. American medicines are also popular for its combination of affordability and quality assurance. Sorry ideological purists, anti-globalists, and protectionists the world around! Basketball and volleyball, both of American origin, rank among the most popular sports in the DPRK along with soccer, ping-pong (sport of the Victorian bourgeoisie!), and the native Taekwondo. The best Korean participant in the 2008 cricket match had played baseball during his time in the Korean People’s Army.

A North Korean baseball stamp.

Popular Korean baseball lore holds that American Philip Gillett first introduced this game of ball to the Seoul YMCA in 1905. However, Seoul-based baseball researcher and writer Patrick Bourgo (Twitter @kballhistory) places the earliest recorded baseball game in Korea to autumn 1894 near Seoul’s Dongdaemun. In 1895, American Presbyterians established the first mission in Pyongyang, but it is unclear if any baseball games took place in the early years of what would later become a large community of Americans. According to author Robert Kim, this community also later introduced hockey to northern Korea. (Kim has a fascinating article on the early days of hockey in Pyongyang at Atlas Obscura.)

Some speculate that baseball was likely played in Pyongyang as the city was the first stop of Philip Gillette before he went south to Seoul (Reaves, 2004 in Guthrie-Shimizu, 2012:259). Nevertheless, between 1909-11 Gillett’s Seoul YMCA team set about to tour the peninsula, travelling north to play ball in both Pyongyang and Kaesong. A photograph of the Seoul YMCA team can be seen here.

As American Christian missionaries spread the game through Korea, another foreign power was consolidating its influence over the peninsula: Japan. In 1905 following its victory in the Russo-Japanese War, Japan established a protectorate over Korea and then annexed Korea directly in 1910. Baseball had been introduced to Japan in the 1870’s and the in the first two decades of the 20th century was steadily gaining popularity with the first professional teams were established in Japan in 1920. Over the course of the colonial period (1905-1945), both Americans and Japanese institutions facilitated the spread of baseball in Korea. Like most places, the main institution for the introduction and training of new ballplayers across Korean society were school and company club teams.

In our next entry, we will look at baseball - as it was and has been imagined - in the colonial city Pyongyang, also known by its Japanese name of Heizo.

A North Korean baseball postcard.

*Koryo Tours' founder Nicholas Bonner had the first 'Golden Duck' in modern Pyongyang cricket history.

For Part II of 'A Short History of Baseball in Northern Korea' see here.

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