Mariners’ Japanese owner dies

Hiroshi Yamauchi, the Japanese billionaire known locally as the owner of the Seattle Mariners and internationally as the man who turned Nintendo into a video game powerhouse, died Thursday in central Japan from complications of pneumonia, per multiple news reports.

Yamauchi was 85. He was preceded in death by his wife, Michiko, who died last July.

Without Yamauchi, the Mariners greatest moments as a franchise — the 1995 American League Championship appearance and the record-setting, 116-win 2001 season — probably do not happen in Seattle.

With the Mariners in financial disarray under then-owner Jeff Smulyan and the franchise on the verge of being relocated to Tampa Bay, Yamauchi was convinced by then-U.S. Senator Slade Gorton to purchase the team, along with a few Seattle-based investors, for $100 million.

Initially, MLB commissioner Fay Vincent, and a four-man owners’ committee opposed the sale. They relented and approved it in 1992 with Yamauchi owning 55 percent of the franchise, becoming the first foreign ownership of a MLB team.

“Hiroshi Yamauchi is the reason that Seattle has the Mariners,” Gorton said Thursday from his home in Bellevue. “When no one else would stand up and purchase them and they were about to leave to go to Florida, he did, simply as a civic gesture.”

In 2004, Yamauchi transferred ownership of the Mariners to Nintendo of America Inc., based in Redmond, for estate planning purposes. Nintendo of America has been operating as the team’s majority ownership since then in conjunction with Howard Lincoln, chief executive officer.

The Mariners released this statement on Yamauchi’s passing:

“The Seattle Mariners organization is deeply saddened by the passing today of Mr. Hiroshi Yamauchi. His leadership of Nintendo is legendary worldwide. His decision in 1992 to purchase the Mariners franchise and keep Major League Baseball in Seattle as a ‘gesture of goodwill to the citizens of the Pacific Northwest’ is legendary in this region. Mr. Yamauchi will be remembered for his role in moving forward the opportunity for Japanese baseball players to play in the United States. He will forever be a significant figure in Mariners Baseball history.”

In 2001, the Mariners signed the star Japanese outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, now with the Yankees, helping to open the door for many more Japanese players to join major league teams in the United States.

Yamauchi never saw the Mariners play live, even when they played a series of exhibition games in Tokyo in March 2012 against the Oakland A’s. But to limit Yamauchi to being a reclusive baseball owner would be to overlook his accomplishments as one of the top businessmen in Japan.

He was the third-generation leader of the family-operated corporation, which was founded in Kyoto in 1889. In 2008, Yamauchi was ranked Japan’s richest man by Forbes Asia with a net worth of $7.8 billion.

He served as president from 1949 to 2002, turning it from a small playing card company into world-wide video game powerhouse.

Yamauchi was credited with employing Shigeru Miyamoto, who was considered a game development genius and created such hits Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong and the Legend of Zelda. Nintendo moved to the forefront of gaming business with the development of the Nintendo Entertainment System video game console, later the handheld Gameboy Console and eventually the Wii gaming system.

All of this was done under the direction of Yamauchi, who dropped out of the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo.

The future of the Mariners ownership is uncertain. The largest minority owner is Chris Larson, who has a 30.6 percent share of the team.

Yamauchi is survived by Katsuhito Yamauchi, his eldest son. A funeral is scheduled for Sunday at Nintendo, following a wake on Saturday.

The Associated Press, The New York Times and The Sports Exchange contributed to this story.

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