What follows is an expanded version of the story told in the video above, going into far more detail.
There are many curses in sports, but none of them as amazing or entertaining as the Hanshin Tiger’s Curse of the Colonel.
It’s 1985 in Japan: The economy is doing great, the bubble won’t pop for another year, new and innovative consumer electronics are constantly being developed. Sony just came out with the first portable CD player. The Nintendo Entertainment System had just been released in North America. Back to the Future, The Terminator AND Star Wars are in theaters. Japan’s global presence is possibly the highest it has been in the country’s entire 2,000+ year history.
Domestically, by far the biggest buzz is in baseball. Baseball is the sports obsession of the country. People are going especially nuts in the Kansai metropolis, the second most populous region in Japan, made up of Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and their surrounding areas. Their beloved baseball team, the Hanshin Tigers, are having the most electric season of their 50-year history.
The Tigers are the perennial underdogs of Japanese baseball. They constantly get close to winning a championship, only to lose it all. Tokyo’s premier team The Giants, on the other hand, have always been the juggernauts in the Nippon Pro League. Their original lineup in in 1934 was actually a team of Japanese all-stars meant to take Americans Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and more (they lost really bad to the Americans though). They have tons of money and tons of wins. The Giants have gone to the Japan Series, the Nippon Pro League’s championship series, 36 times and have won 22 times. In contrast, the Tigers had been to the Japan Series twice in their first 50 years and failed to win both times. All this while being one of the oldest pro-baseball teams in Japan.
But this doesn’t stop the Tigers from unquestionably having the most passionate fan base in all of Japan. Tigers fans show their support loud and proud both in and out of the stadium. It’s hard to get a bite to eat or go out for a drink in Kansai and not see a Tigers game playing in the background, live or off a home video, with a Tigers calendar on the wall and some player action figures nearby. Tigers fans travel to away games in droves, their presence and volume often surpasses the home team’s crowd. The fans have a tradition of releasing whistling balloons during the seventh inning stretch, filling stadiums with a neon colored mass of rubber. The Giants even put a rule into place in their home stadium that banned such activities, obviously aimed directly at Tigers fans. And all this despite the fact that the Tigers simply don’t win championships.
In 1984 the Tiger’s signed Oklahoma-native Randy Bass, who had been bouncing around the MLB for years, never truly given a chance to shine. Turns out he would shine bright in Japan, with his heavy-hitting style of play enabling him to succeed to great heights. In 1985, he has one of the greatest seasons in Tigers franchise history. He achieves the Triple Crown, leading the league in batting average, homeruns and RBIs. He ties Japanese League record for most home-runs in a season, held by Sadaharu Oh in ’64 for the Giants. Bass was on track to break the record, except that he was intentionally walked each time he went up to bat during the last two games of the season. Both of games were played against the Giants, who were then being managed Sadaharu Oh himself, who has a track record of using the same tactic against any foreign-born player set to break his records. Oh even threatened his pitchers with a $1,000 fine for any strike thrown towards Bass. Despite this, the Tigers advance to the playoffs. Fans were so excited during the Tigers wins during the pennant race that they kept rushing the field after wins. To stop this, Hanshin installed barbed wire fences within the stadium.
The Tigers victory against the Yakult Swallows brought them to the Japan Series for the first time in 21 years. 21 years of struggle for the team and for their fans. Streets all over Kansai were flooded with people parading in happiness for the victory. The team bathed each other in the locker room with beer and sake.
Even though the Tigers had an amazing season in ’85 and a phenomenal team, winning was not guaranteed. The Tigers were pitted against the Lions of Saitama. The team’s manager, Tatsuro Hirooka, required all Lions players to adhere to a strict diet consisting mostly of vegetables and soy, banning white rice, sugar and meat intake, claiming that “animal foods” increased the likelihood of injury. In ’82, they played for the Pacific League pennant against the Nippon Ham Fighters, a team sponsored by a meat packing conglomerate. The press called it the “Vegetable Vs. Meat War.” The Lions not only beat the Ham Fighters, but went on to win the Japan Series. They would win two back-to-back championships, in ’82 and ’83. This time period in the Lions’ history would later be referred to as their Golden Age. This would be no easy win for the Tigers.
There’s a constant back and forth between the Lions and Tigers. The Tigers win the first two games and the Lions win the second two. Randy Bass hits home runs in each of the first 3 games. But games 5 and 6 come easy for the Tigers and they win it all. Best of all, Randy Bass makes the winning out.
This time Kansai truly explodes. The Tigers have won their first championship in franchise history. Tigers fans in the stands are crying. People again take to the streets of Kansai. There was already a crowd watching the game on a big screen at Dotonbori, a canal in central Osaka. The fans danced and sang the team's fight songs from the afternoon late into the night.
Bass was named MVP of the Central League as well as the Japan Series, for which he was given a brand new Toyota after the final game of the series, on field itself. He was also given the Japan Professional Sports Grand Prize, essentially an award for best sportsmen in Japan. Apparently, according to market research, he had the most recognizable beard in Japan.
There’s a tradition in Tigers baseball that is quintessentially Kansai. Whenever the Tigers win, fans who resemble Tigers players slap on that player’s jersey and jump into the Dotonbori canal while the crowd sings the player’s trademark fight song. With such a massive crowd, there were no shortage of people happy to jump into the filthy water. One by one, they go through the roster. There’s no trouble finding an Ikeda, Matumi or Okada in the crowd. But when it comes to Randy Bass, a burly 6’2” American with blond hair and a black beard, they simple couldn’t find anyone. But there was no skipping over Bass. He was the biggest star on the team, the MVP of the entire series, he had a record setting season. It would be a disgrace to forget Bass. Some creative fans found a solution in a statue standing outside a nearby chain restaurant, in Colonel Sanders. The fans steal the statue and joyously toss him off the bridge into the canal with the rest of the swimming fans. It was the perfect ending to such a great journey that was the 1985 Japan Series victory.
The following day, after the dust has settled, a couple of Tigers fans go back to that KFC and apologize for stealing their statue and attempt to recover the statue, but unfortunately can’t find it. The Colonel was lost.
From this moment on, the Tigers begin to lose, very consistently. In the 17 years that follow, they were in the bottom half of the league 15 times, 10 of which they were dead last. The team begins to look like they don’t really know what they are doing. The Japanese media jokingly began to refer to this losing streak as the “Curse of the Colonel,” that Colonel Sanders himself is responsible for the teams failures and the thought sticks with the general public. Variety shows begin to openly mock the team. Many say that the curse would remain in place so long as the Colonel’s remains stayed at the bottom of Dotonbori canal. Multiple attempts are made to retrieve the statue, with zero success.
Randy Bass achieved another Triple Crown in 1986. However, the Tigers unceremoniously terminate his contract in 1988 over a dispute concerning a leave of absence Bass took to be with his son, who had been diagnosed with brain cancer. At this same time, third baseman and pivotal team member Masayuki Kakefu was poised to retire due to mounting injuries. Blame for this and tons of pressure from fans and the press fell entirely on the general manager, Shinto Furuya, who got the job by raising through the ranks of the Hanshin Electric Railway Company, the Tigers’ parent company. After being on the job for only 40 days, he leapt to his death from his hotel room.
Even though Randy Bass’ departure was under far from ideal circumstances, he remains an icon and one of the most well known foreign ball players in Japan to this day. Bass had his name on a candy bar. He was paid 30 million yen (about $385,000 in 2016 US dollars) to shave his beard in a Gillette commercial. Also, his son made a full recovery. Today, Bass is a state senator in his native Oklahoma, spending most of his free time tending to his family farm, and also occasionally teaching baseball to his grandkids.
The Tigers return to the Japan Series in 2002. Under orders from company HQ, many KFC restaurants throughout Kansai decided to move their Colonel Sanders indoors for safe keeping until the games were over, with the Dotonbori branch bolting the plastic man into the ground, ensuring he wouldn't be making any future swims. Unfortunately, the Colonel’s plastic hands kept grasp on his curse, the Tigers lost the national championship to the Fukuoka Hawks in the 7th game of the series.
Many attempts were made over the years to retrieve the Colonel, many of which were televised, but all were failures. That is, until 2009. A construction crew building a new walkway on Dotonbori canal found something while dredging, originally thinking might be a barrel, maybe even a dead body. But it turns out it’s none other than the very Sanders statue that had been thrown in 24 years prior.
"He was apparently found standing upright,” said KFC Japan spokeswoman Sumeo Yokakawa, “which is fitting, because although he was a nice man, he could also be very strict and demanding.” The recovery is headline news throughout Japan and even made a bit of a stir internationally. After being removed from the river, the statue is briefly kept in police custody, just to be safe.
Despite still missing his left hand, the repaired statue was honored in a traditional Shinto ceremony at the Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine. Though the KFC locations where he once stood has since closed, the Colonel has found a home at the KFC nearest to the Tigers’ legendary Koshien Stadium, behind protective glass. A KFC Japan press officer said, "Truly, Sanders is a 'gentleman'. The 'curse' must end, and he must back Hanshin up to be a Japan Series Champion."
KFC even sent a letter to the owners of the curse stricken Chicago Cubs:
"Dear new owners of the 100-plus year championship drought, Seeing as your 'recent acquisition' is in the midst of the longest championship drought in U.S. professional sports history ... we – at Kentucky Fried Chicken – want to help. "We are working desperately with our Japanese colleagues to bring the curse-breaking Colonel Sanders statue to your field by opening day. While we can’t promise the statue will snap curses of billy goats, black cats or even a foul-ball-interfering fan, we figure it can’t hurt."
Many now believe the curse to be lifted. The Tigers have not yet returned to the Japan Series, but they haven’t been last in the league since the Colonel was retrieved and they are consistently making it to the playoffs.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 1984
Sports Illustrated, March 1987
The New York Times, July 1988
USA Today, August 2003
NBC News, March 2009
The Japan Times, March 2009
The Japan Times, June 2009
NPR, March 12, 2009
The Best Supporter, Bass
Randy Bass Retrospective
Randy Bass 1985 Homeruns 40 & 41
1985: Bass' 51 Victorious Home-runs
NEWS STATION, October 7, 1985 (Inaugural Broadcast)
Hanshin Tigers 1985 Pennant Race Trajectory: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Hanshin Tigers Moment of Victory, October 1985
Hanshin Tigers League Victory
1985 Japan Series, Game 6
Pro Baseball: Glorious '85 Tigers, Complete Season Highlights: Part 3, Part 6, Part 7
(all other parts seem to have been taken off the Internet)
Pro Baseball PV: 1985 Hanshin Tigers
Fans watch the Tigers win the Japan Series on TV (home video), November 1985
1987 Pro Baseball
Detective Night Scoop! Find the Colonel Who Sank Into Dotonbori, March 1988
Randy Bass Gillette Commercial, 1986
Randy Bass' Suntory Malts Commercials: 1995 & 1996
Fuji News Network, March 2009: Part 1, Part 2
Asahi News, Sanders "discharged from the hospital", congratulations!, March 2009
All-Nippon News Network, March 2009
Japan News Network, March 2009
Sankei News, The Colonel Sanders statue settles, March 2009
SORAxNIWA Randy Bass Interview, April 2013
Kyodo News, Mr. Bass's introduction as Santa at Dotonbori in Osaka, December 2014
Sankei News, [Japan Series Victory] 30th Anniversary Press Conference, April 2015