Hiroshi Yamauchi, the Japanese billionaire known locally as the owner of the Seattle Mariners and internationally as the man who turned Nintendo into video game powerhouse, died Thursday in central Japan from complications of pneumonia, per multiple news reports.
Yamauchi was 85, and was preceded in death by his wife, Michiko, who died last July.
Without Yamauchi, the Seattle Mariners greatest moments as a franchise – the 1995 American League Championship appearance and the record-setting, 116-win 2001 season – probably do not happen.
With the Mariners in financial disarray under then-owner Jeff Smulyan and the franchise on the verge of being relocated to TampaBay, Yamauchi was convinced by then-U.S. Senator Slade Gorton to purchase the team, along with a few Seattle-based investors, for $100 million.
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The sale was approved in 1992 with Yamauchi owning 55 percent of the franchise. It became the first foreign ownership of a major league baseball team.
"Hiroshi Yamauchi is the reason that Seattle has the Mariners," then-Sen. Slade 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 Chief Executive Officer Howard Lincoln.
At this time, any speculation as to how his passing would affect the current state of ownership with of the Mariners is premature.
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.”
But to limit Yamauchi to being a reclusive baseball owner would be a dishonor to one of the top businessmen in Japan and his accomplishments with Nintendo.
He was the third-generation leader of the family-operated corporation, which was founded in Kyoto in 1889.
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 WasedaUniversity in Tokyo.
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 contributed to this story