On January 11, 1994, Peter O’Malley (right) introduces pitcher Chan Ho Park at a press conference held in the Oxford Palace Hotel, Koreatown, Los Angeles. Park became the first South Korea-born player to play Major League Baseball and holds the MLB record for most wins – 124 – by a pitcher born in Asia.

South Korea: Baseball Firsts and Park’s Place in History

By Brent Shyer

The signing of right-handed pitcher Chan Ho Park, who became Major League Baseball’s first South Korea-born player, was the crowning achievement of a long-term friendship between Dodger President Peter O’Malley and baseball leaders in that country.

Dodger President Peter O’Malley was invited to throw the ceremonial first pitch during the Korea Series championship between the professional OB Bears and Samsung Lions at Seoul Stadium during his October 9-12, 1982 visit to Seoul, South Korea.

O’Malley traveled twice to Seoul, South Korea in 1982, when he met with the first Korean Baseball Commissioner Gen. Jyong-Chul Suh and team owners for the historic beginning of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) in March. In July, 1982, Commissioner Suh visited O’Malley at Dodger Stadium to continue the friendly discussions. O’Malley returned to attend games of the Korea Series in October and look at baseball stadiums for the newly-founded KBO.

In the spring of 1983, O’Malley returned to Seoul with Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for meetings with Commissioner Suh, as well as Korea Olympic leaders, to advocate gold medal status for the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. O’Malley met with Won-Kyung Lee, the Minister of Sports and the highest-ranking governmental sports officer in South Korea. Later that year, Lee was named Minister of Foreign Affairs for the country.    

During this period, O’Malley was introduced to Heo Koo-Youn, a former athlete and Korean broadcaster who assisted the KBO in its initial stages. In 1984, O’Malley invited Heo to Spring Training at Dodgertown, Vero Beach, Florida and gave him carte blanche to observe and learn more about the Dodger way of playing baseball through their training techniques. Heo said of that experience, “That, in the big picture, changed and influenced my life. It also influenced Korean baseball a lot. I would say that it was the turning point of our nation’s baseball.” Song Min Kim, Blogs.fangraphs.com, “How One Man Changed Korean Baseball,” June 14, 2019

Upon his return to South Korea, Heo used his power as a commentator on television to share insights ranging from how pitchers should ice their arms and not take hot baths after throwing (a tradition in Korea), as well as the way infielders should approach ground balls by using a back-handed catch which is quicker than taking the ball on their chest with both hands. His advice started to make a difference.

Annette O’Malley, wife of Dodger President Peter O’Malley, was invited to throw the ceremonial first pitch on October 7, 1984 at the Korea Series at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul. The Lotte Giants defeated the Samsung Lions in seven games.

O’Malley attended games of the 1984 Korea Series and his wife Annette was invited to throw the ceremonial first pitch on October 7 between the Samsung Lions and Lotte Giants at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul.

In 1985, O’Malley joined International Baseball Association President Dr. Bob Smith and former Baseball Commissioner Kuhn in Seoul to encourage South Korean President Doo-hwan Chun to support advancing baseball’s status in the Olympic Games and Kuhn personally brought a letter from U.S. President Ronald Reagan to hand deliver asking the same. That group met with South Korea’s Minister of Sports Lee Young-Ho, who was also President of the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee.

A bronze plaque was installed on the Holman Stadium, Dodgertown, Vero Beach, Florida press box west wall commemorating the historic March 9, 1985 game between the professional Samsung Lions of the Korea Baseball Organization and the Dodgers. It was the first exhibition game of a professional baseball team from South Korea against a MLB team in the United States.

On March 12, 1985, Dodger President Peter O’Malley shakes hands with Korean Baseball Commissioner Gen. Jyong-Chul Suh at Dodgertown, Vero Beach, Florida with members of the professional Samsung Lions of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) behind them. The Lions trained at Dodgertown from February 27-March 14, 1985. The Lions played an exhibition game against the Dodgers on March 9, 1985 marking the first Korean team to play an exhibition against a U.S. major league team. Commissioner Suh was in attendance along with Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, as well as former Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

On March 12, 1985, the professional Samsung Lions of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) received specially-engraved commemorative bats from Dodger President Peter O’Malley, shown in the back row to the right of center next to Gen. Jyong-Chul Suh, Korean Baseball Commissioner. O’Malley invited the Lions to visit Dodgertown, Vero Beach, Florida for training purposes from February 27-March 14, 1985. The Lions had 25 players led by Manager Kim Young Duck and five coaches, plus front office personnel and five reporters.

As friendships continued to grow, O’Malley invited the professional Samsung Lions of the KBO to train at Dodgertown, Vero Beach, Florida (under the supervision of MLB now called the Jackie Robinson Training Complex) in 1985, marking the first time a team from South Korea would conduct Spring Training in the United States and it was alongside the major league Dodgers. The Dodgers also opened their spring exhibition schedule on March 9 with a game against the Samsung Lions at Dodgertown, which was historic. Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth attended along with his Korean counterpart Gen. Suh, as well as former Baseball Commissioner Kuhn. A bronze plaque commemorating that historic event was located at Holman Stadium at the former Dodgertown. Two of the Lions (infielder Kim Yeong Kook and outfielder Lee Jong Doo) were on the 1984 South Korea Olympic baseball team that played at Dodger Stadium in an eight-team exhibition tournament during Games of the XXIII Olympiad in Los Angeles.

The Lions appreciated the opportunity to train at Dodgertown and upon O’Malley’s invitation, they would return in the springs of 1992, 1993, 1995 and 1997 for that purpose. In 1986, the Dodgers sent batting instructor Leo Posada and infield instructor Chico Fernandez to Samsung Lions spring training camp in Masan, South Korea.

On March 8, 1988, Dodger President Peter O’Malley welcomes and meets with Jong Nak Kim, President, Baseball Federation of Asia/Korea, at Dodgertown, Vero Beach, Florida during Spring Training. Kim participated in important baseball meetings in South Korea and elsewhere and is a notable figure in the country’s baseball history.

In 1990, Samsung Lions President Song Eon Pyeon of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) presented this award to Dodger President Peter O’Malley. The Lions trained at Dodgertown, Vero Beach, Florida in 1985, becoming the first team from South Korea to train in the United States and also play an exhibition game against a major league team. In 1990, the Dodgers celebrated their 100th Anniversary in MLB.

On February 5, 1992, the professional Samsung Lions of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) visit Peter O’Malley’s Dodger Stadium office as they are en route from Seoul, South Korea to Dodgertown, Vero Beach, Florida for Spring Training. It was the second of five springs that the Lions traveled to Dodgertown to train and prepare for their upcoming season.

At President Reagan’s urging, baseball did become one of the two demonstration sports selected for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, bringing it another step closer to official gold medal status.

On May 18, 1990, in the Dodger Stadium office of Dodger President Peter O’Malley, the Presidents of the Korea Baseball Organization teams meet. (L-R): In-Hyun Chun, President, Binggrai Eagles; Ki-Yong Nam, President, Ssang Bang Wool Raiders; Dong-Kwan Shin, President, Pacific Dolphins; Nam-Hyung Kang, Haitai Tigers; O’Malley; Jong-Jung Kim, Lucky Goldstar Twins; Yong-Min Park, OB Bears; Song Eon Pyeon, Samsung Lions.

(L-R): Jong-Hwan Park, executive to the Korean Baseball Commissioner; Ki-Yong Nam, President, Ssang Bang Wool Raiders; Song Eon Pyeon, President, Samsung Lions; Unidentified; Yong-Min Park, President, OB Bears; Unidentified; Nam-Hyung Kang, President, Haitai Tigers; Peter O’Malley, President, Dodgers; and Yong Il Lee, Secretary General, Korea Baseball Organization. On May 13, 1990, the Korea executives enjoyed a round of golf at the Bel-Air Country Club, Los Angeles.

On May 19, 1990 the team presidents from the Korea Baseball Organization are welcomed to Dodger Stadium. (L-R): Jong-Jung Kim, President, Lucky Goldstar Twins; Nam-Hyung Kang, President, Haitai Tigers; Yong Il Lee, Secretary General, Korea Baseball Organization; Hall of Fame Dodger catcher Roy Campanella; Peter O’Malley, Dodger President; Yong-Min Park, President, OB Bears; Dong-Kwan Shin, President, Pacific Dolphins.

O’Malley continued helping the South Korean baseball community, inviting Jong-Hwan Park, a key executive to the Korean Baseball Commissioner to spend a one-year fellowship with the Dodger organization in 1990, learning all aspects of Major League Baseball. Also in 1990, two Samsung Lions coaches spent two weeks observing at Dodgertown and O’Malley hosted the eight team presidents of the KBO in Los Angeles for a detailed seminar encompassing all business aspects of baseball from a wide-range of Dodger executives. O’Malley arranged for the team presidents to relax and play golf at the Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles.

On September 9, 1990, the Dodgers made history as the first Major League Baseball team to have a regular season radio broadcast in Korean language in the United States.

In 1991, the Dodgers sent former Vero Beach Dodgers Manager Joe Alvarez to instruct with the Ssang Bang Wool Raiders.

In September, 1993, Dodger team physician Dr. Frank Jobe and O’Malley made a personal visit to Seoul to meet a talented young college pitcher named Chan Ho Park. It was said from scouting reports that Park’s fastball could touch 99 mph on the radar gun. Dodger Director of Scouting Terry Reynolds and Dodger scout Bobby Darwin had first watched Park pitch in the United States at an international tournament in Long Beach, California when Park was 17. Dodger scouts continued to follow his progress as he attended Hanyang University as a freshman and sophomore. Park pitched in the 1993 Asian Baseball Championship tournament, as well as the 1993 World University Games in Buffalo, New York where Reynolds and Dodger international scout Jim Stoeckel saw Park and they felt he could help the Dodgers, sooner rather than later. 

O’Malley wanted to meet Park and his parents. In addition, he had to discuss with Park the sacrifice he would be making, leaving his family and friends behind in order to pitch in the United States with its vastly different culture. Besides, Park would have to learn English. Dr. Jobe examined the 6-foot-2 Park and determined that he had “a slight overgrowth of bone in his pitching elbow.” Maryann Hudson, Los Angeles Times, March 18, 1994 The legendary doctor, who was first to perform the Tommy John surgery, told reporters that the Dodgers “would need to have him under a good pitching program that doesn’t allow him to hurt his elbow.” Ibid.

With all the reports in order and O’Malley more than pleased with Park’s maturity and communication skills, the Dodgers decided to pursue signing him. They had to resolve the mandatory military requirement that all Korean men face, but an accommodation of deferral was made for Park, as history loomed.    

On January 11, 1994, the Dodgers announced at a press conference attended by more than 200 members of the media at the Oxford Palace Hotel in Koreatown, Los Angeles that they had signed Park as an amateur free agent, although it was not then determined just when he would pitch in the major leagues. Matt McHale, Orange County Register, January 13, 1994

(L-R): Dodger President Peter O’Malley; pitcher Chan Ho Park; Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda. On January 11, 1994, a press conference at the Oxford Palace Hotel in Koreatown, Los Angeles was held to announce the signing of South Korea-born pitcher Chan Ho Park. In 1994, when Park pitched for the Dodgers he became the first South Korean-born player in Major League Baseball. He finished his major league career with 124 wins, more than any other Asian-born pitcher. Park would win in double figures five consecutive seasons and six times overall.

“I’ve been active internationally for a long time,” said O’Malley. “I have a lot of friends in Korea. I’ve never known when we might have a player from there, but I realized that someday this talent would emerge and we wanted to be there when it happened.” Ken Daley, Los Angeles Daily News, April 19, 1994  

Park first pitched at Dodgertown, Vero Beach, Florida in Spring Training. At the same time, he was learning English, getting to know his teammates, dealing with feelings of homesickness and missing his favorite Korean food.

He was determined to prove he could be selected for the 25-man Dodger roster. Park bowed in respect to the home plate umpire prior to throwing his first pitch. Hitters were baffled by his high leg kick with a hesitation in the wind-up. Some teams challenged Park’s pitching style and umpires called seven balks on him. But, Dodger pitching coach Ron Perranoski helped Park to smooth out his wind-up, while Park got constant encouragement from Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda, who would nightly drink tea with him. 

Dodger President Peter O’Malley (right) with Chan Ho Park in March, 1994 at Dodgertown, Vero Beach, Florida. Park had signed with the Dodgers in January, becoming the first South Korean-born player to pursue a career in the majors. O’Malley took Park under his wing at Dodgertown to help him make the groundbreaking transition easier. Pioneer pitcher Park opened the door for more than 25 additional players from South Korea to perform in MLB (as of the 2024 season).

O’Malley, calling it the “most exciting spring for me in many years,” Tim Kawakami, Los Angeles Times, March 30, 1994 was pulling for Park. He did everything in his power to make the baseball pioneer feel comfortable in a new country, frequently meeting with him and driving him around Vero Beach and the Treasure Coast to show him the sights and talk. O’Malley told Park’s parents that he would treat Park like one of his own sons. The friendship was cemented, as O’Malley admired Park’s courage and strength in a very different environment. Park appreciated O’Malley listening to him, helping to patiently answer questions and explain what was going on in camp. 

On St. Patrick’s Day in 1994, Chan Ho Park, the first South Korean-born player to sign a professional baseball contract, wears his green hat for the annual party at Dodgertown, Vero Beach, Florida and takes the name of “Chan O’Park” for one day. Park, from Kong Ju City, pitched for the Dodgers from 1994-2001 and in 2008, winning 84 games.

On March 3, 1994, Dodger President Peter O’Malley (right) welcomes the Kyung Hee University baseball team from Seoul, South Korea, to Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles.

It was announced April 1, 1994 that Park made the Dodger 25-man roster after a fine spring (6 starts, 3-1 record, 6 earned runs in 25 innings with 20 strikeouts). The 20-year-old was elated and emotional, his eyes filled with tears when he learned the good news, and he was one step closer to his dream.

On April 8, 1994, Park made his Dodger debut, pitching in relief against the Atlanta Braves, thus becoming the first South Korea-born player to play Major League Baseball. Although, he was sent to the minor leagues to Double-A San Antonio after two Dodger games for more experience and a chance to refine his pitches, it was still a major achievement and he had the encouragement and support of Koreans at home, as well as Korean Americans in the United States, including the hundreds of thousands in Southern California. O’Malley traveled to San Antonio, Texas to visit Park, reassuring him and watching him pitch a game for the San Antonio Missions on May 7, 1994.   

On May 23, 1994 in the Chairman’s Box at Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles, Dodger President welcomes and meets with YoungHae Kwon, Korean Baseball Commissioner.

That same year, Tai-il Lee of South Korea was invited to attend “Dodger University” by O’Malley and observe Dodger minor league teams, while assisting the front office departments in publicity, marketing and community relations. Lee graduated from Korea University and followed in the footsteps of fellow Koreans Jong-Hwan Park and Rex Song, the Deputy General Manager of the Samsung Lions for 18 years, the opportunity to learn from the Dodgers. Lee would eventually become president of the professional NC Dinos of the KBO. When Lee completed his time with the Dodgers, O’Malley hosted YoungHae Kwon, Korean Baseball Commissioner, for a game at Dodger Stadium and everyone in the Dodger front office said a fond farewell to Lee.

Ki-Choon Kim, Korean Baseball Commissioner, was a Dodger Stadium guest of O’Malley as they met and watched the Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals game from the Chairman’s Box on August 8, 1995. 

The April, 1998 (Vol. 11, No. 1) edition of Dodgers Magazine, official publication of the Los Angeles Dodgers, with Chan Ho Park as the cover story. Park was coming off a 14-8 season in 1997, the first of five consecutive double digit victory seasons for him with the Dodgers. Park struck out 1,775 batters in 1993 innings pitched during his 17-season MLB career.

In 1996, Park had served time in the minor leagues and was with the Dodgers to stay, compiling a 5-5 record, with 119 strikeouts in 108 2/3 innings, a clear indication that he could face major league hitters successfully. On April 6, 1996, Park earned his first win for the Dodgers against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, pitching four scoreless innings in relief. That same spring, O’Malley invited the baseball team from Hanyang University, the same college that Park had played for as a freshman and sophomore, to train at Dodgertown, Vero Beach, Florida. It marked the first time a Korean university baseball team trained in the United States.

Park’s career really took off with the Dodgers, as beginning in 1997 he recorded wins in double figures for five straight seasons, with a high of 18 in 2000. Park was the first South Korea-born player to be named to a major league All-Star Game (2001). He was a hero in South Korea and admired by all. Park wound up as the winningest pitcher from Asia in Major League Baseball at 124 victories. His pioneering career opened the door for more than 25 additional players to follow him (as of the 2024 season) to Major League Baseball.

(L-R): Jae-Hyong Hong, Korean Baseball Commissioner; Dodger President Peter O’Malley; Chan Ho Park. On June 27, 1997, Dodger pioneer pitcher Park shakes hands with Korean Baseball Commissioner Hong with O’Malley looking on in the Chairman’s Box at Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles. In 2001, Park was the first player from South Korea to be named to the National League All-Star team.

Shortly after selling the Dodgers to the Fox Group, Dodger Chairman of the Board O’Malley traveled with Dodger President Bob Graziano in April, 1998 to Seoul so that he could introduce the new president to longtime friends and top baseball leaders in South Korea. Business leader Roy Ryu hosted a reception for O’Malley and Graziano. 

On March 1, 1999, Peter O’Malley at the podium microphone to congratulate Radio Korea on its 10th Anniversary in Los Angeles. Radio Korea began carrying Dodger home games in Korean with O’Malley’s encouragement in 1990 and the years following.

On November 10, 2014, the unveiling of the Historic Dodgertown marker as a Florida Heritage Landmark was held during the Los Angeles Dodgers Adult Baseball Camp. (L-R): Historic Dodgertown Chairman Peter O’Malley; Kyung Moon Kim, Manager of South Korea’s professional NC Dinos; Alberto Furlani (Italy); Chan Ho Park, Dodger great and camp instructor from South Korea; and Tai-il Lee, NC Dinos President and CEO.

In 2014, Park was honored during retirement ceremonies prior to the Korean Professional Baseball All-Star Game at Champions Field, Kwangju, South Korea. Later that year, he served as an instructor at the 53rd Los Angeles Dodgers Adult Baseball Camp at Historic Dodgertown, Vero Beach, Florida. O’Malley restored the adult camp to Dodgertown after its absence.

When O’Malley was responsible for Historic Dodgertown, Vero Beach, Florida, the professional SK Wyverns made seven visits to the campus between 2012-2018 for training in preparation for their KBO season. In 2018, the Wyverns won the Korea Series Championship. 

March, 2018, Historic Dodgertown, Vero Beach, Florida, (L-R): J.Y. Yoo, President of the professional SK Wyverns; Manager of the Wyverns Trey Hillman; Historic Dodgertown Chairman Peter O’Malley; General Manger of the Wyverns Yeom Kyung Yup; and Chan Ho Park. Hillman managed the Wyverns in 2017 and 2018. The professional Wyverns of the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) made annual visits to Dodgertown for training purposes beginning in 2012 through 2018, when O’Malley turned over the responsibility of the multi-sports complex to MLB. The 2018 Wyverns defeated the Doosan Bears to win the Korean Series.

O’Malley also met with Korean Baseball Commissioner Chung Un-Chan in Los Angeles, discussing an update about baseball in Korea as they had dinner together at Spago on February 21, 2018. Chung, the former Prime Minister of South Korea from 2009-2010, was returning from Historic Dodgertown where he watched the Wyverns train.

Heo Koo-Youn said in 2019, “From how I see it, because O’Malley was so interested in Asian baseball, it was just right that the first Korean major leaguer ended up being a Dodger. At Park’s introductory press conference, I remember thinking ‘goodness, 10 years after I was first introduced to the majors, we finally have someone going there.’” Song Min Kim, Blogs.fangraphs.com, “How One Man Changed Korean Baseball,” June 14, 2019

On February 13, 2023, Korea Baseball Commissioner Heo Koo-Youn (left) presents a special honor to Peter O’Malley. They are holding a hand-crafted award, a smaller version of the Korea Series Championship trophy in recognition of O’Malley’s longtime support, encouragement and involvement with baseball in South Korea. The trophy reads on one side, “Thank you for your commitment and dedication.”

On March 24, 2022, longtime baseball commentator Heo Koo-Youn was unanimously elected as the new commissioner of the South Korean professional KBO by its 10 club owners. On February 13, 2023, to celebrate the 40 years of the KBO, Commissioner Heo visited Los Angeles and the downtown office of Peter O’Malley to present a special honor to O’Malley for his decades of involvement and support of the KBO since it was inaugurated. Heo presents a hand-crafted award, a smaller version of the Korea Series championship trophy, to O’Malley with inscription on four sides of the base including:  “Peter O’Malley” (with the South Korea and United States flags); “KBO League 40” (for its 40 years in existence); “presented by Korea Baseball Organization Commissioner Heo, Koo Youn”; and “Thank you for your commitment and dedication.” Heo, his baseball operations manager David Han, and O’Malley had dinner at Drago Centro after the presentation.

O’Malley wrote Commissioner Heo the next day, “Looking back to when we first met at Dodgertown, Vero Beach, Florida I am very happy that the owners in Korea have recognized your talents and given you responsibility for the Korea Baseball Organization. No one has been better prepared than you and you have an opportunity to make a big impact. I am impressed with your vision about things such as meaningful MLB games in Korea and meaningful KBO games in the United States…The award you very thoughtfully presented me with is the most special recognition I have ever received. I know you personally designed it and it is absolutely beautiful, thank you.”