Inside the Wide World of Pro Baseball in South Korea
Baseball might be America's pastime, but it's a global game. When the world shut down at the beginning of 2020, one of the first signs that people were trying to get back to normal came from a baseball league in Asia.
The first live sports games to air in the United States (and the world) came in May 2020, when ESPN began to televise professional baseball games from South Korea's ultra-popular Korean Baseball Organization League.
The baseball being played in the KBO League looked a lot like the highest levels of baseball in the U.S. But that's not the only reason baseball fans love South Korea's unique, eccentric and sometimes wild KBO League.
The First Season of the KBO League Was Played in 1982
The first season of the Korean Baseball Organization League, then called the Korean Baseball Championship, was played in 1982 with six teams — the Haitai Tigers, Lotte Giants, MBC Chungyong, OB Bears, Sammi Superstars and Samsung Lion.
The first game was played on March 27, 1982, between the Samsung Lions and MBC Chungyong in Seoul, and the first pitch was thrown out by South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan.
The OB Bears won the first Korean Series championship, led by pitcher Park Chul-soon, the league MVP.
Baseball and Politics in South Korea Mixed From the Start
South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan was one of the driving forces behind creating the KBO League. He did so as a direct response to an unstable political climate in his country created by his regime, known as the Fifth Republic, which was essentially a dictatorship operating under the guise of democracy.
Doo-hwan's idea was to create regional loyalty around the baseball teams, which he believed would distract from politics. It backfired in the best way. Citizens became fiercely loyal to their regional teams, and victories were looked at as more than just baseball wins, but wins over Doo-hwan's regime, which crumbled in 1987.
President Chun was sentenced to death for crimes of corruption in 1996 but later received a pardon.
KBO League Has a Unique Postseason Format
Currently, the league's postseason features five teams — the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds play a wild-card game, and the winner of that game plays the No. 3 team in a best-of-five series. That series is called the KBO semi-playoffs.
The winner of the KBO semi-playoffs faces the No. 2 seed in the KBO playoffs in a best-of-five series to determine who will play the No. 1 seed in the KBO Korean Series, which is best-of-seven.
Here's the thing. Playoff games have a 15-inning limit, and if they end in a tie, the entire game is replayed. Which means a series could actually last more than the allocated five or seven games, and in 2004, the Korean Series ended up at 10 games after three ties.
How Is the KBO League Different From MLB?
The KBO League's rules are very similar to those of Major League Baseball. In some cases, the KBO League might even have things figured out a little better, actually.
For example, the KBO League employs a universal designated hitter, meaning that pitchers never have to hit. They also have innings limits before games are declared a tie — 12 innings during the regular season and 15 innings in the postseason.
KBO League Finds Out What Works and What Doesn't
The KBO League started off with a split season between the spring and the fall in its first few years, culminating in the Korean Series that pitted the winner of the spring pennant against the fall pennant.
The league started with 80 regular-season games and small rosters — sometimes just 14 players. That meant plenty of players had to pitch and play another position.
By the end of the 1980s, the KBO League consolidated to one, 120-game season and expanded to seven teams with the addition of the Binggrae Eagles.
Dynasty of the 1980s: Haitai Tigers
The Haitai Tigers, based in Gwangju, were the KBO League's dynasty of the 1980s, winning the Korean Series five times in the decade, first in 1983 and then four consecutive championships from 1986 to 1989.
Stars of that era for Haitai were infielders Kim Seong-han and Han Daw-hwa, along with pitcher Sun Dong-yol.
In 1984, Haitai's Bang Soo-won pitched the first no-hitter in KBO League history.
KBO League Continues to Expand
The 1990s saw the KBO League continue to grow in popularity, and an eighth team was added in 1990 with the Ssangbangwool Raiders.
Two teams won their first and only Korean Series championships in the 1990s — the Lotte Giants in 1992 and Hanwha Eagles in 1999.
By the end of the decade, the KBO League was beginning to round into its current form and divided into two separate, four-team leagues — the Magic League and Dream League — and expanded its regular season to 132 games.
Dynasty of the 1990s: Haitai Tigers (Again)
The KBO League dynasty of the 1990s was the same as the 1980s. The Haitai Tigers won four Korean Series championships in the decade in 1991, 1993, 1996 and 1997.
The Tigers were led by shortstop Lee Jong-beom during this period. Known as the "Korean Ichiro" and "Son of the Wind," he was the premiere KBO League player of the 1990s.
The Tigers fell on hard times after winning the 1997 Korean Series. They didn't win another championship for 20 years.
South Korea and Major League Baseball Collide
The influence of the KBO League on baseball in South Korea, particularly on youth baseball, was there for all to see when 21-year-old pitcher Chan Ho Park became the first Korean-born player to make it to the majors in 1994 when he debuted with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Park pitched 17 seasons in the majors and was an All-Star in 2001. He pitched his final season as a pro in the KBO League with the Hanwha Eagles.
The respect for Park was so great in his native country that batters bowed before they faced him.
Parity Rules KBO League in the 2000s
After the Haitai Tigers were the clear-cut KBO League dynasty in both of its first two decades, things began to change in the 2000s.
One of the big changes was with the Tigers' name, when they became the Kia Tigers via a sponsorship deal in 2001 — the same year the league returned to a single-division format.
The Hyundai Unicorns and Samsung Lions each won three championships in the decade, and the newly formed SK Wyverns won two championships.
KBO League Expands to 10 Teams
The 2010s saw the KBO League expand to its current size of 10 teams with the addition of the NC Dinos in 2013 and the KT Wiz in 2015, which was also the year the league increased its regular-season schedule to 144 games.
The KBO also added a fifth team to the playoffs in 2015, which necessitated the wild-card game.
Dynasty of the 2010s, Part I: Samsung Lions
The Samsung Lions ruled the first half of the 2010s in the KBO League, winning four Korean Series championships during six straight Korean Series appearances from 2010 to 2015.
The Lions were the first KBO League to win four consecutive Korean Series championships, doing so from 2011 to 2014.
Dynasty of the 2010s, Part II: Doosan Bears
The Doosan Bears dominated the second half of the 2010s in the KBO League. They won three Korean Series championships and appeared in the Korean Series five consecutive years from 2015 to 2019.
In all, the Bears appeared in the Korean Series six times in the decade. The Bears, who won the first KBO League championship in 1982, have won a Korean Series in each decade of the league's existence so far.
Ryu Hyun-jin makes KBO and MLB History
Pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin made history when he became the first KBO League star to come directly to MLB in 2012, when the Los Angeles Dodgers set records by paying $25.7 million to the Hanwha Eagles for Ryu's negotiating rights, then signing him to a six-year, $36 million contract.
Ryu won 14 games in 2013 and 2014, but missed most of 2015 and 2016 with injuries. He was the first Korean-born pitcher to start a World Series game in 2018, finished as runner-up for the NL Cy Young Award in 2019 and signed a five-year, $80 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays before the 2020 season.
KBO League Has Some Nice Ballparks
Here's a look at the nine ballparks in the KBO League, from biggest to smallest. For comparison, four KBO League stadiums have a larger capacity than MLB's smallest stadium, Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, which holds 25,000.
- Kia Tigers, Gwangju-Kia Champions Field (cap. 27,000)
- Lotte Giants, Busan Sajik Baseball Stadium (cap. 26,800)
- SSG Landers, Munhak Baseball Stadium (cap., 26,000)
- Doosan Bears and LG Twins, Jamsil Baseball Stadium (cap. 25,553)
- Samsung Lions, Daegu Samsung Lions Park (cap. 24,000)
- KT Wiz, Suwon kt wiz park (cap. 22,800)
- NC Dinos, Changwon NC Park (cap. 22,011)
- Kiwoom Heroes, Gocheok Sky Dome (cap. 16,813)
- Hanwha Eagles, Hanwha Life Eagles Park (cap. 13,000)
Foreign-Born Players in the KBO League
The KBO League has strict roster limits when it comes to foreign players. Teams are permitted three foreign-born players, and they weren't permitted to play in the league until 1998.
Only two of the three foreign-born players are permitted to be pitchers, and position players are expected to hit for power.
Foreign-born players can only sign one-year contracts capped at $1 million per season. Five non-Asian players have been named KBO Most Valuable Player, including Tyrone Woods and former MLB pitcher Danny Rios in 2007 for the Doosan Bears.
Who Was the KBO League's Greatest Import?
Over the history of the KBO League, over 200 American players have played for its teams. None of those made a bigger impact than the original, Tyrone Woods, who earned KBO League Most Valuable Player honors in 1998, the first year foreign players were permitted.
Woods set a then-KBO record with 42 home runs, was the first foreign-born player to hit a home run in the KBO League, and was also the first foreign-born player to be ejected from a game.
Woods, who played in 1997 with the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox, played five years in the KBO League and won a Korean Series championship in 2001 with the Doosan Bears, when he was also named Korean Series MVP.
KBO League Attendance Has Gone Through the Roof
Before 2020, attendance to KBO League games had been on a steady incline beginning in 2016, when it made a leap from 7 million to 8 million fans.
That record was shattered again in 2017, when attendance made a leap to 8.4 million with four teams drawing over 1 million fans each in consecutive seasons.
Who Is the Greatest Player in KBO League History?
There is one player that stands above the rest when it comes to the history of the KBO League — five-time Most Valuable Player Lee Seung-yuop.
Lee, a first baseman for the Samsung Lions, holds KBO career records for home runs, runs, RBIs, total bases, slugging percentage and OPS. He's the youngest player in the history of professional baseball to hit 300 career home runs, getting there at 26 years old.
Lee won four Korean Series titles with the Lions and hit 626 career home runs in 22 seasons playing baseball in South Korea and Japan.
South Korea's Hit King: Park Yong-Taik
The KBO League's version of Pete Rose is Seoul, South Korea, native Park Yong-taik, who is the KBO career leader with 2,504 hits.
Park has played his whole career for his hometown LG Twins, 19 seasons, but said he was going to retire after the 2020 season.
He does have one glaring item missing from his resume. He never won a Korean Series title.
Meet the 'Final Boss': KBO Career Saves Leader Seunghwan Oh
Of all the nicknames we've come across — not just in the KBO League, but anywhere — few have created such a feeling of joy as when we found out the nickname for KBO career saves leader Seunghwan Oh.
Seung's nickname is "Final Boss" for his prowess closing out games. He's been playing professional baseball since 2005 and has 466 career saves spread across the KBO, Nippon Professional Baseball and MLB, where he pitched four seasons from 2016 to 2019. He's also known as "Stone Buddha" for his unshakable and stoic demeanor on the mound.
For comparison, Lee Smith is No. 3 on the MLB career saves list with 478.
Song Jin-Woo. That's 'Mr. President' to KBO Fans
Left-handed pitcher Song Jin-Woo's nickname, "Mr. President," is fitting because he's the greatest starting pitcher to ever take the mound in the KBO League.
Song actually played his entire career for the Hanwha Eagles, 21 seasons from 1989 to 2009, and finished his career as the KBO leader for wins (210), strikeouts (2,048) and innings.
He's the only pitcher in KBO history to reach 200 wins and 2,000 strikeouts, pitched his lone career no-hitter in 2000 and won his only Korean Series title in 1999.
KBO Futures League Is Their Version of the Minor Leagues
One reason that the KBO League has been so successful is how they've copied MLB in one form or another, including with its farm system.
The KBO Futures League was founded in 1990, eight years after the KBO League was founded. It features 10 teams that have the same names and uniforms as their parent clubs and operates in the same cities.
The games are usually played at the team's smaller training facility ballparks.
There's a Hit Television Series Based on the KBO League
"Hot Stove League" is a television show that debuted in 2019 in South Korea about a fictional professional baseball team in South Korea, the Dreams, and their struggle to become a winning team after finishing last in the league.
This show is a massive hit in South Korea as both a critical and ratings darling. It capped off its amazing first season by winning Best Drama at the Baeksang Arts Awards in 2020.
In South Korea, No One Takes Bat Flips Personally
There are a lot of big differences when it comes to the culture surrounding baseball in South Korea as well. One of the biggest things you'll notice is that bat flips have become sort of an art form in the KBO League.
That's a real testament to the fun South Koreans derive from baseball and that no one takes bat flipping personally. In some MLB circles, that will still earn you a fastball in the middle of your back. In South Korea, it's for the fans.
So everybody chill out, OK?
Fan Participation Plays a Major Role in South Korea
One of the things South Korean baseball fans are most known for is their exuberance during games. Which means they cheer a lot. And in unison.
Every club has its own fight song, as does every player, and there are now apps fans can download in order to learn those songs ahead of time.
If you've been to a game in the U.S. anytime in the last 10 years, you've probably noticed the inflatable sticks fans smack together to make noise — thundersticks. That's compliments of South Korean baseball fans.
So What Happened in 2020?
The KBO League runs almost exactly at the same time as MLB, from the spring to the fall, and did not start its season on time due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the KBO League came back and began playing games on May 5, 2020, with no fans in attendance. For a little while, it was the only professional sports league playing in the entire world.
ESPN cut a deal with the KBO to broadcast six games per week and used its own broadcasters, who called the games remotely from their homes.
Will Scandals Ultimately Bring Down the KBO League?
The future of the KBO League, for all its past success, seems like it could still be on shaky ground. Game and match fixing is a major problem in South Korean professional sports, and as the jewel of that country's pro sports scene, the KBO League has taken a few dings recently.
Twice in the last five years, KBO League players have been indicted for allegedly manipulating the outcome of games. The most prominent of those was NC Dinos pitcher Lee Tae Yang, who prosecutors said took almost $20,000 from gamblers in 2016. That same year, KBO Futures League outfielder Moon Woo-ram was also indicted on similar charges.
In January 2021, two players on the Doosan Bears KBO Futures League team, pitcher Jeong Hyun-wook and catcher Kwon Ki-young, were both suspended for engaging in illegal betting activities.