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History of baseball in South Korea

March 15, 2024

Baseball has become an integral part of South Korean culture since its introduction to the area more than a century ago, growing into a beloved pastime with unique customs and a fervent fan base. Philip L. Gillett, an American missionary with the YMCA, is credited with bringing baseball to Seoul in 1905, though there are documented references to the sport being played on the Korean peninsula as early as 1894 or 1896.

Korea was under Japanese rule from 1910-45, a period when baseball began to flourish in Japan. The sport’s popularity also grew gradually in Korea during this time and continued to surge in South Korea after the peninsula was split into two entities after World War II. However, it would still be decades before the first South Korean professional baseball league was established.

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On March 27, 1982, at Dongdaemun Baseball Stadium in Seoul, the MBC Chungyong defeated the Samsung Lions 11-7 in the Korea Baseball Organization’s inaugural game. The KBO is now one of the highest-ranking baseball leagues in the world, and baseball is South Korea’s most popular sport.

Chan Ho Park made his MLB debut for the Dodgers in 1994, becoming the first South Korean-born Major Leaguer and blazing a trail that has been followed by dozens more. Meanwhile, the South Korean national team has become a global baseball power, winning multiple Olympic medals -- bronze at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney and gold at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing -- and placing among the top three in each of the first two World Baseball Classics.

Here's a guide to Korean baseball as MLB gets ready to open the 2024 season when the Padres face the Dodgers on March 20-21.

Top current Major Leaguers:

Jung Hoo Lee, OF, Giants

A contact-first hitter, Lee signed a six-year, $113 million contract with San Francisco in December 2023. Lee batted .340/.407/.491 in seven seasons in the KBO, walking 383 times and striking out 304 -- a 55-strikeout pace over 162 games. He won the KBO MVP award in 2022 by hitting .349/.421/.575 with 36 doubles, 10 triples, 23 home runs and 113 RBIs in 142 games -- and striking out just 32 times with 66 walks.

Ha-Seong Kim, 2B/SS, Padres

A terrific defender, Kim signed with the Padres after the 2020 season and recorded a 3.7 WAR campaign (per FanGraphs) for San Diego in 2022, taking over as the team’s starting shortstop with Fernando Tatis Jr. sidelined for the entire year. He moved to second base in '23 when the Padres signed free-agent shortstop Xander Bogaerts and won a Gold Glove Award. The two will switch positions in '24 to take advantage of Kim's glove at shortstop.

Woo-Suk Go, RP, Padres

The 25-year-old right-hander signed a two-year deal in January 2024 to help close out games in San Diego. In seven seasons in Korea, he struck out 401 batters in 368 1/3 innings, saving 139 games with a 3.18 ERA. Giants outfielder Jung Hoo Lee is his brother-in-law.

Ji-Man Choi, 1B, Mets

Although he was born in Incheon, South Korea, Choi never played professional baseball in the country, signing with Seattle prior to the 2010 season. After spending time in the Mariners, Orioles, Angels, Yankees and Brewers organizations, Choi found a home with the Rays from 2018-22. The first baseman produced 52 homers, 203 RBIs and a .783 OPS over 414 games for Tampa Bay before being traded to Pittsburgh. He's in camp with the Mets in '24.

Famous former Korean players

Hyun Jin Ryu, LHP, Blue Jays

After seven years in the KBO, during which he made seven All-Star teams and became the first player to win KBO MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season, Ryu made the jump to Major League Baseball as a member of the Dodgers. The left-hander appeared in parts of 10 MLB seasons for Los Angeles and Toronto, posting a lifetime 3.27 ERA. In 2019, Ryu led the NL in ERA (2.32) and became the first Korean-born pitcher to start an All-Star Game. Ryu returned to the KBO after the 2023 season.

Lee Seung-yuop, 1B

One of the best players in KBO history, Lee holds league records for homers, RBIs, runs and total bases. He won five KBO MVP Awards and four Korean Series championships during his career, and he earned a gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics. Lee also spent time playing in Japan and tallied 646 career homers between the KBO and NPB. He was named manager of the Doosan Bears in 2022.

Chan Ho Park, RHP


The first Korean-born player in Major League Baseball history, Park logged multiple 200-strikeout seasons and made an All-Star team in 2001 as a member of the Dodgers before signing a five-year, $65 million deal with the Rangers in free agency. He bounced around later in his career, playing for the Padres, Mets, Dodgers, Phillies, Yankees and Pirates. Park is also known for being on the wrong side of some historic moments, allowing two grand slams in one inning to Fernando Tatis in 1999, giving up Barry Bonds’ record-breaking 71st home run (as well as his 72nd homer) in 2001 and tossing up Cal Ripken Jr.'s final All-Star Game dinger. The right-hander finished his MLB career with a 4.36 ERA and 1,715 K’s over 1,993 innings.

Shin-Soo Choo, OF

Choo, who announced that the 2024 season will be his last as an active player in the KBO, spent 16 years in the Majors from 2005-20, making appearances for Seattle, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Texas. A multidimensional offensive player with a career .275/.377/.447 slash, Choo tallied seven 20-homer seasons and reached the 20-steal plateau four times. He made the All-Star team with the Rangers in 2018, becoming the first Korean-born position player to earn an All-Star nod.

Hee-Seop Choi, 1B

Six Korean-born pitchers appeared in the Majors before Choi became the first position player from Korea to play for an MLB team in 2002. The first baseman played for the Cubs, Marlins and Dodgers and produced 40 homers, 120 RBIs and a .786 OPS over 363 games. Although he only played in MLB for four seasons, Choi was involved in two high-profile trades, going from the Cubs to the Marlins with Mike Nannini for Derrek Lee in November 2003, and from the Marlins to the Dodgers along with Brad Penny and Bill Murphy for Paul Lo Duca, Juan Encarnacion and Guillermo Mota in July 2004.

Seunghwan Oh, RHP

Oh 's professional career has spanned 19 seasons and three leagues. After recording his 500th professional save in 2023, he enters '24 in the KBO with 522 in his career. The all-time KBO leader with 400 saves, and a five-time Korean Series champion, Oh also spent some time in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball before playing four seasons in the Majors for the Cardinals, Blue Jays and Rockies. He returned to the KBO in 2020 and signed a two-year deal in January 2024, entering his age-41 season.

6 Korean trailblazers in MLB

Major moments in Korean Baseball History

2000: Olympic bronze medalist

South Korea didn’t qualify when baseball debuted as a medal sport at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, and the country finished eighth at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. But the South Korean team announced itself as a major player on the global stage four years later in Sydney, medaling in baseball for the first time with a win over Japan in the bronze medal game.

2008: Olympic gold medalist

Eight years after earning bronze at the 2000 Summer Olympics and two years after placing third at the inaugural World Baseball Classic, South Korean baseball reached a new pinnacle with a gold medal win at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. After edging Japan with a late rally in the semifinals, the South Korean team defeated Cuba 3-2 in the gold medal game behind a gem from Hyun Jin Ryu.

2009: Runner-up at the World Baseball Classic

The South Korean team nearly pulled off an Olympic gold medal and a World Baseball Classic championship in consecutive years, but it came up just short against the defending WBC champion, Japan, in the final round, falling in extras after Ichiro Suzuki delivered a tiebreaking two-run single with two outs in the top of the 10th inning.


Korea’s professional league: Korea Baseball Organization

The Korea Baseball Organization is technically a governing body that oversees the KBO League and the KBO Futures League, but the top-level KBO League is commonly referred to as the KBO. Founded in 1982 with six charter teams, the KBO currently consists of these 10 clubs:

Doosan Bears, Hanwha Eagles, Kia Tigers, Kiwoom Heroes, KT Wiz, LG Twins, Lotte Giants, NC Dinos, Samsung Lions, SSG Landers

Each team plays a 144-game regular season, and the club that finishes in first place at the end of the regular season receives an automatic bye to the best-of-seven Korean Series.

Meanwhile, the fourth- and fifth-place teams play a Wild Card matchup (the fourth-place team starts with a 1-0 series lead, so the fifth-place team must win twice to advance) for the opportunity to advance to the semi-playoff round, a best-of-five series against the third-place team. The winner of the semi-playoff round advances to the playoff round to play the second-place team in a best-of-five series, with the winner of the playoff advancing to the Korean Series to play the first-place team.

The Kia Tigers are the most successful team in KBO history, winning all 11 Korean Series in which they’ve participated. However, nine of their championships came prior to 2000. The Samsung Lions (eight total championships) have dominated the 21st century with seven titles, including four straight from 2011-14.

Korea’s famous ballparks

Jamsil Baseball Stadium

The home of both the LG Twins and Doosan Bears, Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul has a capacity of 25,000 -- the largest of any ballpark in the KBO. It is part of the Seoul Sports Complex, which was constructed for the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Summer Olympics.


Gocheok Sky Dome

Gocheok Sky Dome opened in 2015, serving as a replacement for Dongdaemun Baseball Stadium (demolished in 2017) in Seoul. It is the current home of the Kiwoom Heroes and hosted Pool A games in the first round of the 2017 World Baseball Classic. It is where the Dodgers and Padres will play exhibition games against Korean teams before meeting in the 2024 Seoul Series.

Dongdaemun Baseball Stadium

This was a multi-purpose stadium in Seoul that opened in 1959 and hosted the first professional baseball game in the country’s history. The inaugural KBO game saw the MBC Chungyong defeat the Samsung Lions 11-7 on March 27, 1982. The stadium was demolished in 2007 and replaced by the Gocheok Sky Dome.

Unique food/activities at games

South Korea’s passionate “cheering culture” is a big part of the baseball experience, often making games seem more like a rock concert than a sporting event. Though each fan base puts its own spin on cheering, sections packed with fans wearing team uniform shirts and wielding noise-making balloon sticks are common across the KBO, while cheerleaders hype up the crowd. Fans also sing fight songs, creating personal tunes for each batter.

Food plays an important part in cheer culture, too, with games offering a wide range of choices to enhance the experience. Fans can usually order food right from their seats. Chimaek, a pairing of fried chicken and beer, is a typical option, and every ballpark also has unique selections that represent the local cuisine.

A version of this story originally ran in March 2023.