The Yankees and Red Sox play Major League Baseball in the United States, but the U.S. is far from the only country that plays baseball. In fact, Major League Baseball itself exists in two countries, as Toronto’s Blue Jays are in the American League. From 1969 through 2004 there was another Canadian team, too: the Montreal Expos.
But even beyond Major League Baseball’s Canadian footprint, baseball is played all around the world, with organized leagues in a number of countries. Let’s take a look at some of the most notable professional leagues in other countries, and how they intersect with baseball in the United States. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather a look at some of the countries most influenced by, and that have the most influence on, the Majors.
One of the most prominent is Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, a major league that’s divided into two leagues like Major League Baseball -- the Central League and the Pacific League. Founded in 1950, the league has produced many stars -- from Sadaharu Oh, who hit 868 career home runs, 106 more than MLB’s all-time leader -- to Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and numerous others, who came over to the Majors after playing in Japan and put together noteworthy careers in both leagues.
Shohei Ohtani, a two-way player on the Angels -- a pitcher and a hitter -- is one of the active players from Nippon Professional Baseball who is most well-known. Suzuki, noted above, retired in March this year with 3,089 career hits, on top of 1,278 he compiled in Japan prior to his Major League career.
Another major league that has produced a notable active Major Leaguer is South Korea’s KBO League. Founded in 1981, the league’s first games began in March 1982. The Dodgers’ Hyun-Jin Ryu played seven seasons for the Hanwha Eagles before coming to Los Angeles in 2013. He finished fourth in National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2013. In 2018, he had a strong season upon returning from injury, and thus far in 2019, he’s replicated that -- and even been better.
In Cuba, the main professional league is the Cuban National Series. Founded in 1961, the league has boasted many outstanding players, both among those who have gone on to play in the Majors, and those who have not.
More than 15 Cuban-born players have appeared in games in the Majors in 2019. Some notables who played in the Cuban National Series before coming to play Major League Baseball include the Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman, the Mets’ Yoenis Cespedes, the White Sox Jose Abreu and the Reds’ Yasiel Puig.
One of the great Cuban National Series players to never appear in the Majors is Lourdes Gourriel, who is the father of two active Major Leaguers: Lourdes Gurriel Jr. of the Blue Jays and Yuli Gurriel of the Astros.
The Australian Baseball League operates from November through February, and is used as a winter league from the Major League Baseball season, meaning that teams will often send players to compete there during the offseason to work on their skills. Other notable leagues that operate in this format and are utilized by Major League players are in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Often the players who participate in the offseason are players who have recently become big leaguers, or ones who are close to making that next step and want to get in extra competitive experience.
Notable players have participated in these leagues during their offseason at various points in their careers, from Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays to active players like the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera and the Yankees’ Didi Gregorius.
Many of these leagues are also frequent landing spots for Major Leaguers after their MLB careers are done -- or for players trying to plan a comeback. A few notable active such players, among a host of examples, are the Brewers’ Eric Thames, who played for the KBO’s NC Dinos for three years after starting off his Major League career, then returned to the Majors in 2017, and the Cardinals’ Miles Mikolas, who pitched for the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants for three years between Major League stints.
One other form of international worth mentioning is the World Baseball Classic, an international baseball tournament that was founded in 2005 and began play in 2006. The tournament is unique in that it provides a chance for professional players from around the world to compete for their countries. There have been four World Baseball Classics, with the most recent title going to the United States team. The various country teams are populated by professional players from the highest level played in that country and Major League players from those countries alike. Games are held at sites in different countries, with the championship being contested in San Diego, Los Angeles (twice) and San Francisco, all in California.
The WBC brings out pride in Major League players and offers them a chance to play with their countrymen as opposed to their current teammates, and has been an exciting event each time it's been held.
Baseball is truly an international game. Opening Day rosters included 251 international players from 20 different countries, the third straight year that there were more than 250 international players on those rosters. And with baseball being played around the world at a professional level, it’s easy to see how Major League Baseball continues to attract players with such a wide variety of backgrounds.