BY Art Thiel 09:51AM 09/19/2013

Mariners owner Hiroshi Yamauchi dies at 85

One of Japan’s richest men, Yamauchi bought the Mariners in 1992 and ushered in decade of success and a new ballpark. But the last decade been largely a failure.

Hiroshi Yamauchi. / Seattle Mariners

Hiroshi Yamauchi, founder of Japan’s Nintendo video-game empire who in 1991 stepped up to buy the Mariners and keep them from moving from Seattle, died Thursday at 85. Kyoto-based Nintendo said Yamauchi died Thursday of pneumonia at a hospital in central Japan.

Yamauchi never saw the Mariners play in person, but he was the only one that took the call of former Sen. Slade Gorton, who in 1991 led a search for new ownership, but could not find a majority owner among Seattle’s emerging class of wealthy tech entrepreneurs.

Yamauchi bought the team for $125 million from owner Jeff Smulyan, who was preparing to move the team to Tampa before Yamauchi and a group of American minority investors, led by Microsoft’s Chris Larson, surprised him and all of Major League Baseball with the purchase. It took six months of public and private pressure, but owners voteed to approve in the summer of 1992 the first ownership group led by a foreign investor.

“The Seattle Mariners organization is deeply saddened by the passing today of Mr. Hiroshi Yamauchi,” the club said in a press release. “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.” 

Yamauchi ran Nintendo for more than 50 years and led the Japanese company’s transition from traditional playing-card maker to video game giant. He was Nintendo president from 1949 to 2002, and directed Nintendo’s global growth, including developing the early Family Computer consoles and Game Boy portables.

Nintendo, which makes Super Mario and Pokemon games as well as the Wii U home console, was founded in 1889. It made traditional playing cards before venturing into video games.

He sent his son-in-law, Minoru Arakawa, to the U.S. in the mid-1980s to create Nintendo of America, which began its ascent from a Kent warehouse. The building’s landlord, Mario Segale, was the image used for the hugely popular Mario figure in Nintendo’s first big success.

A dropout of the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo, Yamauchi’s raspy voice and tendency to speak informally in his native Kyoto dialect offered a kind of disarming spontaneity rare among Japanese executives, according to an Associated Press report.

In 2004, Yamauchi placed his share of the Mariners ownership, for estate purposes, in a trust controlled by Nintendo of America, which upon his passing is now the 55 percent owner of the team. But major decisions in the Mariners operation remained in Yamauchi’s hands. He communicated almost exclusively with CEO Howard Lincoln, a former Nintendo lawyer who took control of of operations from John Ellis in 1999.

Yamauchi’s resources helped the Mariners stabilize and reach the playoffs four times in seven years, momentum that helped create Safeco Field in 1999. In 2001, Yamauchi was influential in the move of Ichiro Suzuki from Japan to the Mariners, where he became the first Japanese position player to succeed in MLB.

But the last decade has seen the club founder, with eight losing seasons in the past 10, including this year. Calls have been frequent and loud from fans and media for a change to a more engaged ownership. But Lincoln has steadfastly insisted the club was not for sale.

NOA has never indicated publicly whether it had a desire to keep or sell its share of the club. But the two companies have done little cross-promotion, and the Mariners appear to have been independent of NOA’s business decisions.

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


YourThoughts

  • jafabian

    RIP Mr. Yamauchi. If it wasn’t for him it’s be the Tampa Bay Rays with 116 wins and players likke Edgar, Junior and Randy would be better known as Rays than Mariners. Pitcher Jay Buhner pitching speedboats instead of trucks. And Nintendo of America would be contributing to another state’s economy.

    • art thiel

      Newcomers to Seattle will be a little mystified at his absentee ownership, but you’re right, he came through in ’92.

      • jafabian

        I don’t think he was indifferent about the club. He probably just hated travel. John Madden is like that. I think people are too critical towards him for that.

  • Manny

    Thank you for buying the team in 1992 Mr. Yamauchi and saving it from Florida. Thank you for putting together a largely successful decade where the Mariners reached the postseason and ALCS twice.

    Can’t thank you for attending a single game. Can’t thank you for keeping Lincoln and Armstrong on. Can’t thank you for selling the team to new, engaged owners, although I greatly hope to be able to extend that thanks to Nintendo shortly.

    • art thiel

      Well put Manny.

  • Orin

    RIP Yamauchi-san. But this is the opportunity for a passionate baseball fan who wants to win to buy the Mariners. Nintendo would just run them into the ground, as it has its own business.

    • art thiel

      My guess is Nintendo does not want the headache of payng Chone Figgins $8 million to do nothing.

  • RadioGuy

    With all due respect to Ken Griffey Junior and other former Mariner players, Hiroshi Yamauchi is truly the man who saved baseball in Seattle. If not for him, the Mariners would’ve moved and we’d have been left without pro baseball AGAIN. It was bad enough the first time.

    Domo arigato gozaimashita, Horiuchi-san.

    • art thiel

      Well. You are a utility man, radio. Able to go east and west.

  • maqman

    Satoru Iwata is now the Global President, Representative Director, and CEO of Nintendo of America and not a member of the founding Yamauchi family. Nintendo of America is the trustee of a trust which controls the Mariners equity. Who the beneficiaries of the trust are is not known, members of his personal family are most likely but not certain to be. Whomever that or those parties are will ultimately decide if, when and to who that controlling interest might be transferred or sold to.

    • Trygvesture

      Just for the fun of speculating, what do you imagine for the fate of the trust, the subsequent fate of the ownership and management structure of the Mariners? When the trust is distributed to the beneficiaries, the ownership consortium may discover itself with a new majority owner, right? Not necessarily one of the beneficiaries, where it is concievable none receive more than a 30% stake in the franchise, but maybe Larson, perhaps to be superceded by whomever buys the majority shares– or enough to become the majority owner ( assuming the trustee beneficiaries don’t act as a bloc to retain their shares and vote as a block, or sell a controlling interest to one of the other beneficiaries).
      Interesting possibilities, no?

      • art thiel

        There is a provision in the ownership bylaws that provides minority owners with the right of first refusal. That must be honored before any disbursement of asset sale to beneficiaries.

        • maqman

          Such a clause is not unusual. The Yamauchi holding probably has a market value in excess of $500MM. How much more would depend on whether or not the sale included the team’s majority ownership of ROOT Sports NW. It could end being worth closer to $1 billion as it brings team control with it. It’s doubtful that any of the minority stockholders can come up with that type of sum on their own. They would have to acquire additional backers to make the buy. I believe John W Stanton is the wealthiest now, Forbes says he’s worth about $1 billion. Minoru Arakawa, Yamauchi’s son-in-law, who is now 67-years old, is, I believe, on the Mariner’s board and depending upon the trust arrangement might have the desire and means to assume control. He reportedly divides his time between Seattle and Hawaii.

        • Trygvesture

          yes, but it seems the trust could be distributed– x gets y%, z gets w%, etc., without any sale of the percentage shares. 30%–the Larson holdings– could be the highest percentage held by any of the owners–yes?