Posted : 2014-07-11 14:09
Updated : 2014-07-11 19:20

When Hank Aaron came to Korea

Hank Aaron, center, provides batting tips to Samsung Lions players during a visit to Korea in 1982.

This is the first in a series of articles by the Society for American Baseball Research Korea Chapter (SABR Korea) exploring the rich history of baseball in Korea.

By Patrick Bourgo

Today, Korea is known around the world as a baseball powerhouse. Several players, such as Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin, have contributed to major league clubs. The nation has waged spirited campaigns in international competitions, including the World Baseball Classic.

Earlier in Korea's baseball history, however, it was far rarer for players to be able to measure themselves against their American counterparts.

That's why a visit in 1982 by an American delegation led by the legendary Hank Aaron marked such a momentous occasion.

Baseball has existed here for over 100 years, but when Hammerin' Hank arrived, the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) was still in its initial stage, having just completed its inaugural season.

Aaron, who had been retired for several years, first visited the country by himself, invited by the Samsung Lions to put on some batting clinics. His long list of accomplishments was not lost on Koreans.

These include his 755 career home runs, the major league record for 33 years. He is the all-time leader in runs batted in (2,297) and extra-base hits (1,477) and won a World Series ring in 1957.

Hank Aaron during a visit to Panmunjeom.

On his solo trip, the American took in some sites and visited U.S. soldiers in the Demilitarized Zone. He also agreed to return in the fall and bring with him a team of American players for a series of exhibition games.

True to his word, Aaron returned in October with players from the Atlanta Braves minor league affiliates (AAA Richmond, AA Savannah, and two Single-A clubs). They were joined by Hall of Famer Ernie Banks and future Hall of Famer Billy Williams. The squad was helmed by Edwin Hass and John Sain. Aaron served as general manager.

Aside from the retired Banks and Williams, the Braves side did not include many names that most baseball fans would know or remember. Two players who did make it to the majors were Tony Brizzolara and Milt Thompson. Hank Aaron's son, Lary, a minor leaguer in the Braves organization, was also on the team.

On the other hand, the KBO side featured a number of well-known players including Baek In-cheon, who played in Japan's professional baseball league and is the only player ever to hit over .400 in the KBO.

Ex-Samsung catcher and current SK Wyverns manager Lee Man-soo also played in the series. Lee has the distinction of getting the first hit and first home run in Korean pro baseball. He also won a World Series ring in 2005 as a coach with the Chicago White Sox. Other players who took part in the series were Kim Jae-bak, Ha Gi-ryong, Lee Gil-hwan and Yoon Dong-gyun.

Eight games were played between October 16 and 27, split between Jamsil Stadium in Seoul and Citizen Stadium in Daegu (the home park of the Samsung Lions).

The Braves minor leaguers, plus Banks and Williams, faced off against the inaugural KBO champion OB Bears (now Doosan Bears), MBC Blue Dragons (now LG Twins), Samsung Lions and a KBO All-Star team. They played one game each against OB and MBC, three games against Samsung and three against the KBO All-Stars.

There was also a home run contest before the first game. Hank Aaron and Billy Williams represented the Braves side, and Yoon Dong-gyun and Shin Kyong-shik participated for the OB Bears.

The Braves minor leaguers got off to a slow start in the series. They tied their first game against the Bears, the reigning KBO champs, and then lost their second game 3-5 against MBC. In the second game, Ron Grout hit a two-run home run for the Braves, but it was Kim Jae-bak who drove in the winning runs for the Blue Dragons.

The Braves did not get their first win until moving from Seoul to Daegu. The change of venue seemed to do the Braves wonders, as they crushed the Lions 13-5 and 9-0 in their two-game set in Daegu.

But the impressive offensive display -- highlighted by a total of six homers in the two games -- was not the highlight of their trip to Daegu.

The biggest story happened in the first inning of the first game. A long-since-retired Ernie Banks crushed a grand slam against the Lions pitcher. After circling the bases, the 51-year-old was greeted by his son Joey.

Moreover, with Hank's son Lary having entered the game in the sixth inning, and Joey replacing Steve Curry in the eighth, this game also holds the distinction of being the first (and possibly only) time the sons of the two hall-of-famers played together.

Overall, the Korean teams edged out the Braves' minor leaguers with a record of four wins, three losses, and one tie, despite scoring only 22 runs compared to the Americans' 43.

After returning to Seoul and losing two of three to the Korean All-stars, including a game in which Dragon's third baseman Lee Kwang-un pitched a six-hit complete game, the Braves team played their final game against the Samsung Lions at Jamsil Stadium. A three-run fourth inning by Samsung was enough to avenge the defeats in Daegu with a final score of 4-2. For the Braves, the loss brought an end to their two-week goodwill tour.

There were three shutouts, two by the Braves and one by the Korean All-Star team. Ron Grout stood out for the Braves, hitting at a .333 clip with three home runs and 10 RBIs. All in all, it was an impressive showing for the newly formed Korean professional baseball league and the beginning of many exchanges between the KBO and MLB.

Patrick Bourgo is a Seoul-based baseball researcher and the founder and co-chair of the SABR Korea Chapter.

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