One of the Oldest Teams in Japanese Baseball
Established in 1935, the Tigers were originally called the Osaka Tigers, but they changed their name five years later to simply Hanshin. In 1946, they changed their name back to the Osaka Tigers; and then finally to the Hanshin Tigers in 1960. Hanshin is both the railway company that owns the team as well as way to describe both Kobe and Osaka. In this regard, the Tigers truly represent the Kansai area. That being the case, you'd be hard-pressed to find more devoted fans in Japan.
Curse of the Colonel
Tigers fans are quite famous for being, well, fanatics. Capturing the Kansai spirit, Tigers fans threw a statue of Colonel Sanders (yes, that Colonel Sanders from KFC) into a canal simply because it resembled a famous player in that time.
In the 1980s, after a losing streak, the Tigers started winning again and fans were overjoyed. In 1985, after winning the Japan Series, look-alikes of the Tigers team members jumped in the Dotonbori Canal (a popular pastime when the Tigers win). But they couldn't find anyone who looked like their first baseman, a bearded American named Randy Bass. Some fans thought that KFC mascot looked enough like the star player, so they threw the statue into the river as well. Unfortunately, the statue was lost, and some fans say that with the disappearance of the Colonel, the Tigers were cursed.
The statue was missing for over twenty years, and fans blame the "Curse of the Colonel" for the Tigers losing streak after its disappearance. However, in 2009, a very bedraggled statue emerged in the river, giving people in the region hope that the Tigers will resume their domination in the future.
At first, the Tigers were incredible against the Giants, another team in the league in the mid-1930s. For the first few years, the Tigers could not be beat. But then, the Giants beat them in 1939 and have consistently emerged victorious. Furthermore, add in the famous 1985 curse, which saw the Tigers losing for the next 18 years. No doubt, this would have made the fans so much more passionate with each passing game, and the rivalry has since grown to gigantic proportions.
One great story that perhaps epitomizes this rivalry was in 1959, when Emperor Hirohito began. This was to be the first game he attended, and it was the Giants against the Tigers. The Tigers fought hard in the beginning and were in the lead, but in the end, the Giants were able to overtake them in extra innings to the victory. The Emperor bowed to the victors, and left the stadium.
It also doesn't help that Yomiura, the newspaper that owns the Giants, often calls the Giants "Japan's Team."
No story of the Hanshin Tigers is complete without remarking about their home stadium, Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya. The oldest stadium in Japan, built in 1924 as Koshien Large Sports Field, this stadium is so revered that every team that enters bows and stands in silence.
Beyond being the home of the Tigers, they have a museum dedicated to the team. But Koshien Stadium is also famous for two major events, the Koshien Bowl and the National Japanese High School Baseball Championship.
The Koshien Bowl is the collegiate American football final, between four universities: two from East Japan and two from West Japan. Currently, Kwansei Gakuin University in Osaka is the reigning champion of the bowl with 25 victories.
The National High School Baseball Championship is even bigger. This takes place over the summer, so the trains are usually crowded on those days as people from all over Japan come to the stadium. Consisting of a single elimination tournament of 49 teams around Japan, this is the biggest amateur athletic competition in Japan, even including soccer. For many seniors at the universities, a loss at this tournament signifies the end of their baseball career.
Getting to this stadium is very easy. From either Sannomiya Station (Kobe) or Osaka, change to the Hanshin Line and go to Koshien. As soon as you exit the train, you can see the stadium about two minutes away. Note that there's no parking at the stadium, so you're better off taking the train to get there.