The History of Olympic Baseball: (1956-1988)
This October, the IOC announced baseball will return to the 2028 LA Olympics. This week I'll be looking at Olympic baseball history!
The History of Olympic Baseball:
While the modern Olympic games have featured baseball just 6 times as an official (or medal-able) sport, of the 28 summer games that have been held, baseball has been a part of the Olympics 14 total times. The first instance of baseball being included in Olympic pageantry was during the 1904 games in St. Louis, and the most recent being the 2020 Olympics that were delayed until 2021 and held Tokyo.
The Late Demonstration Years (1956-1988)
Though baseball was still longing for recognition as an official Olympic sport, the 1952 games in Sydney was first time in Olympic programming history that baseball was featured as a sport in back-to-back games. (Though, this could be debated as the 1952 Olympics technically featured Pesäpallo.)
During the 1956 Olympics, for another first in Olympic Baseball history, the exhibition match featured two full teams from two different nations as Australia played against the United States. this was helped in large part to Australia having a history with baseball that extends into the 1880's- much longer than most histories The field was placed in the middle of the Olympic track (which put the right field fences just 225 feet away) and due to scheduled track and field events, the game was shortened to just 6 innings. The Americans walked away with an 11-5 victory while in front of a final crowd of 100,000...who were there to watch the upcoming finals of the marathon, 1500 meter, and 4x400 relay.
Though the 1956 baseball game did end with a crowd of 100,000, baseball took another brief pause from Olympic play until being returned in 1964 during the Tokyo games. This was the last Olympic games to feature baseball as a sport (in any capacity) to only have one exhibition game be played.
That game was played between a team of random United States college players (meaning they came from multiple leagues and teams) against a Japanese amateur all-star team by a score of 6-2. For the United States team, 8 of their players would go on to make the MLB: Alan Closter (pitched 16 games with the Yankees from 1971-1972), Chuck Dobson, Mike Epstein, Shaun Fitzmaurice, Dick Joyce, Jim Hibbs, Ken Suarez, and Gary Sutherland.
Baseball would have to take a 20 year hiatus between selections as an Olympic exhibition sport, before finally coming back with the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Eight teams qualified (or were invited) to take place in the Olympic tournament, including the US, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Chinese Taipei, Italy, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic (replacing Cuba, who dropped out of solidarity with the USSR in a Olympic boycott).
In the tournament were two preliminary rounds where the United States (3-0) and Chinese Taipei (2-1) advanced over Italy and the Dominican Republic in the White Division, and Japan (2-1) and South Korea (2-1) advanced over Canada and Nicaragua in the Blue Division. Japan would go on to beat Chinese Taipei and the US would beat South Korea to both advance to the finals. Chinese Taipei would beat South Korea by a score of 3-0 to take home third place, while Japan would be the US by a score of 6-3.
On the United States team were a number of players who would go on to have notable careers in the MLB including: Will Clark, Barry Larkin, and Mark McGwire. Scott Bankhead was the only player on the team to ever play with the New York Yankees (20 games in 1995).
The 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea was a collection of "seconds" for the sport of baseball. It was the second time that baseball was an included sport in back-to-back programs. It was also the second time that the games would include more than 1 game. Most of the teams from 1984 would qualify again for the 8 spots, though Australia, the Netherlands, and Puerto Rico would replace Italy, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic.
In the first round of the tournament, the winners of the White Division were Japan (3-0) and Puerto Rico (2-1) over the Netherlands and Chinese Taipei. The winners of the Blue Division were the United States (2-1) and South Korea (2-1) over Canada and Australia. Japan would beat South Korea by a score of 3-1 to advance to the finals, as the US would beat Puerto Rico by a score of 7-2. Puerto Rico would win beat South Korea by a score of 7-0 to finish 3rd, while the United States would beat Japan by a score of 5-3 to win the whole thing.
The names of the 1988 United States team did not go on to produce any future Hall of Famers, but would feature 4 future New York Yankees including: Jim Abbott, Tino Martinez, Dave Silvestri, and Robin Ventura.
On the Japanese team, one player would make it to the MLB, Hideo Nomo.