History and Popularity of Baseball in South Korea

Baseball is a very popular sport in South Korea, with millions of fans cheering for their favorite teams to win the championship in the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) League, the most successful baseball league in the country.

The atmosphere in the stadium is what made baseball so much fun for Koreans to watch alongside actually seeing how the game unfolds. Each team usually has a dance or a chant that fans do to encourage the players to do better at the game, and almost every spectator in the stadium will do these chants no matter the weather.

However, baseball is not an original Korean sport, so who brought this game to Korea? Here is the history of how baseball came to Korea and how it got so popular in the country.

History

Baseball first came to Korea when an American missionary named P. Gillet visited the country during the 19th century. The missionary taught several Korean YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) members the basics of playing baseball.

The Koreans then applied what they learned about baseball in 1896, when the US Marines set up a couple of exhibition games against the Seoul Athletic Club, a group dedicated to further popularizing different kinds of sports in Korea.

During the Japanese rule of Korea between 1910 and 1945, baseball even became more popular in the country due to its already becoming an acclaimed sport in Japan.

In 1921, right between the years of Japanese occupation, several Major League players in America visited Seoul as part of their Asian tour. A team consisting of the best baseball players in Korea was assembled in hopes of defeating the Major League players, but they were crushingly defeated with a score of 3-23.

However, baseball players in Korea started to improve during their participation in the Intercity Baseball Tournament from 1927 to 1942. The Intercity Baseball Tournament is a yearly tournament in Japan where each city assembles a team with its best players. The champions of this tournament are given the “Black Lion Flag” while the first runner-up receives the “White Lion Flag.” Korea’s representative city Seoul won the “Black Lion Flag” in 1940 after defeating Dalian and in 1942 after winning against Osaka.

The Intercity Baseball Tournament is still held to this day, but South Korea is no longer part of the tournament as it is now exclusive to the cities in Japan.

The KBO League

Due to the rising popularity of baseball in South Korea after the Korean War, the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) was founded to help satisfy the people’s hunger to watch local baseball games.

The Korea Baseball Organization then launched the Korea Baseball Championship, now called KBO League, in 1982. The KBO League first had six franchises that are located in different cities in South Korea. These franchises are also often named after the businesses or companies that help support their financial needs.

The first franchises introduced by the KBO in 1982 are:

  • MBC Chungyong
  • Lotte Giants
  • OB Bears
  • Samsung Lions
  • Sammi Superstars
  • Haitai Tigers

Some of these original teams have different names today, while a few of them are defunct. The OB Bears became the Doosan Bears, while the MBC Chungyong is now called LG Twins. The Sammi Superstars became Hyundai Unicorns, but the franchise was disbanded in 2008 and replaced by the Woori Heroes, who is now called Kiwoom Heroes.

The team with the most championship banners is the Haitai Tigers (now known as the Kia Tigers), having won the tournament 11 times out of the 37 total championships in the KBO League.

The KBO League has expanded over the years, having four teams added to the league since 2015. Here are the teams added to the league’s roster:

  • Binggrae Eagles (now Hanwa Eagles, introduced in 1985)
  • Ssangbangwool Raiders (now SK Wyverns, introduced in 1990)
  • NC Dinos (introduced in 2013)
  • KT Wiz (introduced in 2015)

Each of these teams, especially the older ones, has loyal fans that attend almost every game in the season. Despite the confusing name changes for some franchises, which often prompted a change in representative cities as well, fans still flock stadiums to give support to their favorite players and teams.

One of the oldest teams in the KBO League, the Lotte Giants, set a record for having the highest attendance in South Korean sports league history. The record was set during the 2009 season, wherein they drew 1.38 million people to watch their games inside the Busan Sajik Baseball Stadium and the Ulsan Munsu Baseball Stadium.

It is interesting to note that the Lotte Giants have not won a championship since 1992, which makes it even more mind-blowing that they still have such a loyal fan base even if they aren’t winning a lot of games.

The participation of the audience in the games is what makes baseball so popular in the country. These spectators will often have a hypeman in front of them to lead the chants and the dances. The hypeman also plays music and dances during uneventful portions of the game to keep the spectators entertained.

Many people would often argue that South Korean baseball is much more exciting than American baseball, not because of the sport itself since they have the same rules, but because of the crowd participation during the games. As such, attending baseball games remains one of South Korea’s favorite pastimes due to the exhilarating atmosphere inside the stadiums.