nintendo mascot mario cheering on the seattle mariners at safeco stadium

Nintendo’s Outlandish Story That Led Them To Become The First Offshore Owner of A Major League Baseball Team

In 1992 Nintendo’s third owner, Hiroshi Yamauchi, committed an unprecedented act of philanthropy. He purchased the Seattle Mariners at the request of a cowboy senator. We didn’t make it easy for him, either.

Who Was Hiroshi Yamauchi?

A story like “Nintendo Buys A Baseball Team” deserves an introduction. Let’s get to know the driving forces residing in the mind of Nintendo’s previous CEO:

Hiroshi Yamauchi reluctantly inherited Nintendo on April 25th, 1949.

On that fateful day, Yamauchi’s grandfather suffered an ill-timed stroke. Young Yamauchi abandoned his law school pursuit to run a failing family business. 

Nintendo was a different company back in 1949. In the days fresh after World War II, electronic entertainment was beyond the realm of imagination.

Yamauchi inherited a Hanafuda playing card company. 

Here comes the kicker: The most prominent man in video game history never laid a hand on a joystick! But Yamauchi was no ordinary man. His eyes gleamed with intuition and perception. He understood our deepest human desires. 

Those traits – nestled in a personality that refused to stutter in sight of change – meant Yamauchi was destined for the entertainment industry. 

hiroshi yamauchi CEO of nintendo
Those aviators are prescription. Fear and Loathing vibes, anyone?

Before retiring, Yamauchi held the title of Japan’s richest man. On the day of his death in 2013, he still retained the title of Japan’s 13th wealthiest.

Along the way, Yamauchi made a series of innovative decisions with the business – like licensing Disney-branded images on American-styled playing cards. He shattered the Japanese mentality about American playing cards being gambling tools. 

Yamauchi also made some notoriously overzealous decisions that almost bankrupted the company – like the infamous “love hotels” and a failed Nintendo taxi service back in the 1960’s.

In many ways, buying the Seattle Mariners without a lick of team sports management experience resembles another whimsical, business-crumbling decision.

So, what on Earth was Hiroshi Yamauchi thinking when he bought an American baseball team?

A rare 1970s image of a Nintendo taxi cap recovered from twitter.
A Nintendo-branded taxi from the 70's

Nintendo of America Moved Headquarters From New York to Washington:

As early as 1982, Nintendo of America set its roots in Redmond Washington, a suburb of Seattle. It was in this HQ that the classic “Jumpman” from Donkey Kong earned his proper name of Mario. He bore a striking resemblance to the new NoA landlord Mario Segale.

mario segale: landlord at nintendo of america in redmond washington

I never imagined Mario as a landlord, but I suppose he is always smashing coins out of the most precarious locations.

By 1992 Nintendo held an 80% share of a growing 5.3 billion dollar market. The SNES lunged Nintendo back into the front lines of the gaming market. The company was making tough decisions like ditching development with Sony’s cutting-edge CD-ROM technology and sticking with cartridges made by Phillips.

Overall, the company viewed its move to Washington as a favorable decision. It was 3,000 miles closer to home than the cramped office in New York. The locals in Seattle treated the business favorably and provided bright and proactive employees.

Business was booming.

The Three Unlikely Men That Came Together:

The story goes like this:

The Seattle Mariners struggled to pay their players. 

Jeff Smulyan, hailing from Indianapolis, purchased the team for 77 million dollars in 1989. Smulyan watched two seasons pass. He witnessed low ticket sales, a dilapidated stadium, and an unfavorable team with a nasty win/loss ratio. 

Perhaps Jeff Smulyan of Emmis Broadcasting felt like he was in over his head. He still owed the bank 40 million dollars. Perhaps he wasn’t aware of the true costs of running a baseball team. The cynic nested on my shoulder tells me he bought the team to flip it for that “GG EZ” profit. Regardless of his reasons, in December of 1991, he listed his team for sale at $100 million.

An immediate bid came in from Tampa Bay, Florida. 

Washington shifted into a state of widespread panic, for baseball fans, at least.

Jeff Smulyan was under contract to provide the residents of Seattle a set amount of time to match the offer.

In that time, a group of local business owners gathered to form a “Baseball Club of Seattle” committee – hoping to prevent their team from high-tailing it to the opposite end of the country.

Washington state’s republican senator Slade Gorton caught wind of this. Slade Gorton was a bit of a political cowboy. He often shot down bills partisan bills in favor of human rights. He was an environmentalist, too. 

And, most importantly for this story, Slade was a devout baseball fanatic. Seriously, I challenge you to look up a memoir about him that doesn’t mention how vigilantly he worked to keep this baseball team alive.

slade gorton issuing president george w. bush with commemorative seattle mariners jersey.
Slade Gorton hanging with his buddy George W. Bush... More on that later.

Slade Gorton contacted businesses all around the region. He found some support from Microsoft and Boeing, but neither of them stepped up to the plate to do the financial heavy lifting.

Then he contacted Howard Lincoln at Nintendo of America. Howard wasn’t just the guy in charge of NoA, he was the owner’s prodigal stepson.

Slade Gorton won the approval of our friends at Nintendo of America by working pretty hard on preparing bills for intellectual property rights. That’s a pretty big deal to companies foraying in the field of electronics. Have you ever bought a Chinese knock-off of an iPad? Maybe you’ve seen some of those Indonesian bootlegs of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas – featuring reskinned main characters such as Vegeta and Wolverine’s celebrity actor “Huge Jackman”.

Yeah. It’s pretty scummy business. Companies spend millions of dollars on video game production, Nintendo included.

Hiroshi Yamauchi surprised the nation by offering to pay out of pocket for the remainder of the $100 million that needed to be raised. He claimed it an act of appreciation for the support the Seattle region had garnished.

After a few conferences, the investment total came to $125 million once accounting for team renovations. Yamauchi’s investment was expected to be 75 million – bringing him into the spotlight as a 60% majority shareholder of the Seattle Mariners.

The MLB Wasn’t Pleased About A Japanese Company Purchasing A Team:

The head honcho commissioner of the MLB, Fay Vincent, was on his last leg of his three-year reign over the American baseball dynasty. Long story short, he fell out of favor with the league during a 1990 lockout strike that lasted all through spring training.

Fay Vincent increased minimum player salaries from 78,000 to 100,000.

So, when public outcry emerged among the American people about a foreign company threatening to own a team in the industry of “America’s Past Time” Fey Vincent wanted to step up to the plate and save the day. His reputation counted on it.

Foreign ownership in global sports teams was not an unprecedented matter, by any means. European teams were owned by foreign entities and their success was unaffected.

Still, we had big names and PR representatives from large companies hollering about the indecency. Chrysler reps commented on how the move was a threat from Japan by creating economic colonies within the states.

We know Chrysler’s real concern. A Toyota can scrape up quite a few miles. Japan doesn’t slouch when it comes to manufacturing.

I even fumbled across an article claiming the purchase was an act of retaliation for our president vomiting on the Japanese prime minister. Pretty silly stuff, in retrospect.

Anyway, back on topic: Slade Gorton continued making claims that Nintendo of America was an American company. He made a few phone calls, and the MLB compromised by holding a board meeting about the topic.

The ownership panel consisted of 8 MLB team owners. The most prominent players were George W. Bush, owner of the Texas Rangers/Future president of the United States, and Bud Selig, owner of the Milwaukee Brewers/Soon-to-be lead commissioner of the MLB.

Arms flung up in the air for a unanimous 7-0. Jeff Smulyan sat quietly and did not vote.

    • Fred Kuhlmann – St. Louis Cardinals 
    • Bill Bartholomay – Atlanta Braves
    • George Bush – Texas Rangers
    • Jerry Reinsdorf – Chicago White Sox
    • Bud Selig – Milwaukee Brewers
    • Stanton Cook – Chicago Cubs 
    • Peter O`Malley – L.A. Angels
    • Jeff Smulyan – Seattle Mariners

Their final verdict was that Nintendo could spend as much as they wanted on the Seattle Mariners. They were not permitted to hold more than a 49% share of the team. They were not allowed to make any decisions for the team aside from selling their shares or moving the team to another city. A man named John Ellis was designated to do the rest.

If this was meant to deter Hiroshi Yamauchi from buying the Mariners, it backfired. 

Baseball is plenty popular in Japan, but Yamauchi was utterly uninterested in it. He never attended a single game. Not even when the Mariners came to play in Tokyo. He never attended a single board meeting.

Yamauchi’s primary intent was to do Seattle a favor.

The terms and conditions were settled. Hiroshi Yamauchi dumped $75 million into a baseball team for no reason other than being asked to. 

He signed his rights over to Nintendo of America so that the team could retain American ownership. He overpaid his stock share. He didn’t get involved in any boardroom disputes.

Suddenly, the budding Japanese Super-giant, Nintendo, quietly owned the largest stake of a franchise in America’s most popular spectator sport.

As Time Pressed On, Nintendo Reaped A Few Rewards From The Acquisition:

Years began to pass and restrictions began to loosen for Nintendo. After testing the waters, the people of Seattle couldn’t sight any malicious intent.

Nintendo branded advertisements hit the stadium for two decades, but that was just the icing on the cake.

Nintendo gained licensing rights to four baseball games featuring the name and face of American all-star Ken Griffey Jr. Two games for the SNES and two for the N64.

In 2007, Nintendo released a limited edition DS Lite featuring the Mariners team logo. Two thousand models were made available exclusively within the stadium gates.

Nintendo of America developed free DS software called the “Nintendo Fan Network” that would integrate the handheld consoles with ongoing baseball games. Players could check game stats, order food from their seats, take quizzes about players, and even get some grainy DS-resolution live footage from the ongoing game.

limited edition mariners nintendo ds box and console

The Seattle Mariners Became The Most Diverse Team in Major League Baseball

Most notably, Nintendo recruited Ichiro Suzuki. A total of 10 MLB teams were eyeballing him. We can confirm – at minimum – bids from the Mets, Dodgers, and Angels, but his agent claims he likely ran off the others by telling teams in locations without a prominent Japanese community to save their breath.

Yamauchi caught wind of Ichiro’s interest in moving from Japanese Leagues for a new competitive environment.

MLB teams had to place bids to even speak about contracts. Our boys at Nintendo put in a 13-million-dollar bid for that conversation, and they won a contract. Just like that, an American All-Star was plucked straight from the leaderboards of Nippon Professional Baseball.

A legend was born!

Ichiro built a monumental success story in America. He became the second player in MLB history to win American League MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season. He also tied the world record for most hits in a season – an impressive 262 hits.

He continued to bat 200 hit seasons for ten seasons straight. No other player in history has matched such a marathon streak.

Anyway, 2001 marked the Seattle Mariners’ best season in franchise history. They boasted an impressive 116 wins. That was when Seattle really developed an appreciation for their overseas leadership.

Ichiro helped bring the Mariners their first profitable season since long before the 1992 acquisition.

Ichiro wasn’t alone. The Seattle Mariners picked up a handful of Japanese players. They earned the title of most diverse team in Major League Baseball. A title to take pride in!

  • Mac Suzuki – 1996
  • Shigetoshi Hasegawa – 2002
  • Masao Kida – 2004
  • Kazuhiro Sasaki – 2000
  • Ichiro Suzuki – 2001
  • Kenji Johjima -2006
  • Munenori Kawasaki – 2012
  • Hisashi Iwakuma – 2012
  • Yoshihisa Hirano – 2020*

Ichiro Suzuki… Programmer And MLB Legend?

To those of you who pay close attention to rolling credits: Ichiro Suzuki is also a Nintendo EAD developer. We see the same name roll across exquisite games such as Mario Kart: Double Dash, Splatoon 1 and 2, as well as a few Animal Crossing titles. For 2020’s smash hit, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, he’s credited for system planning.

There’s some press revolving around our baseball legend Ichiro Suzuki that seems to add fuel to the fire. Most notably, Hiroshi Yamauchi gifted him 5,000 Nintendo stocks despite his disinterest in baseball.

Coincidence? Absolutely.

Ichiro Suzuki is an incredibly popular name in Japan. My favorite comment on the internet was from an 8-year-old Reddit post:

“Ichiro (usually spelled as ‘first son’ but for the baseball player spelled as ‘brightest/most cheerful’) is the 17th most common given name, and Suzuki is the 2nd most common family name in Japan. Using those ranks, in America, he’d be Ken Johnson.”

Today Nintendo Still Owns A 10% Stake In One of The Unluckiest MLB Teams In History:

Nintendo of America sold all but 10% of their shares for the Seattle Mariners in 2016, shortly after the death of Satoru Iwata. They cleared a sale of $661 million – allegedly to help fund a venture into film-making during a financial drought. Although, the Nintendo Switch was still in its NX prototype days. Success sat idle on the horizon; but, you know the saying, hindsight is 20/20.

Nintendo of America still holds their 10% stake to this day.

Throughout the entirety of Nintendo’s two-and-a-half-decade dynasty with the Seattle Mariners, they managed to sustain a position in the top 5 payrolls throughout the sport. 

Athletes were well-paid. The team became stable enough for fans to warrant interest in a brand-new Safeco stadium. It was later renamed, but it’s still in use today. (The ceiling holds up much better than the previous model.)

Hiroshi Yamauchi honestly went above and beyond anyone’s expectations. Even after he retired from his job in 2002, he nurtured his baseball team with consistent funding and lent his support, despite never stepping foot within Seattle city limits.

It’s bewildering to reflect on a 1992 Seattle that scrambled around to meet a $100 million price tag. Today, Seattle is home to two of the world’s richest men: Bill Gates – The founder of Microsoft, and Jeff Bezos – the formidable CEO of Amazon.

Still, Yamauchi is a legend among Mariners fans. They continue to praise his act of goodwill. Sure, he slid in intentions to market within his flashy new stadium. Wouldn’t you do the same?

The man upheld his promise to help keep the Mariners in their hometown. Offers swooped in from across the country, and he responded by holding true to the community who welcomed his business with open arms.

To all you Mariners fans who tuned in, here’s to hoping those stock shares land in the lap of an owner that’ll take home your first World Series championship, you guys have suffered a rigid ride.