TOKYO - Hiroshi Yamauchi, who ran Nintendo for more than 50 years and led the Japanese company's transition from traditional playing-card maker to video game giant, has died. He was 85.
Kyoto-based Nintendo said Yamauchi, who was also known for owning the Seattle Mariners major league baseball club, died Thursday of pneumonia at a hospital in central Japan.
Yamauchi was Nintendo president from 1949 to 2002, and engineered the company'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.
Reputed as a visionary and among the richest men in Japan, Yamauchi made key moves such as employing the talents of Shigeru Miyamoto, a global star of game design and the brainchild of Nintendo hits such as Super Mario and Donkey Kong.
A dropout of the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo, Yamauchi's raspy voice and tendency to speak informally in his native Kyoto dialect was a kind of disarming spontaneity rare among Japanese executives.
Yamauchi had little interest in baseball, but was approached to buy the Mariners, who may have had to move to Florida without a new backer. The acquisition in 1992 made the Seattle club the first in the major leagues to have foreign ownership.
"Hiroshi Yamauchi is the reason that Seattle has the Mariners," then-Sen. Slade Gorton said Thursday from his home in Bellevue, Wash. "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."
The Mariners issued a statement on his death saying his gesture of goodwill to the citizens of the Pacific Northwest is legendary, and he also promoted Japanese players.
"Mr. Yamauchi will be remembered for his role in moving forward the opportunity for Japanese baseball players to play in the United States," the team said. "He will forever be a significant figure in Mariners baseball history."
Yamauchi never watched his baseball team play in person and transferred his majority shares to Nintendo of America in 2004.
After being succeeded at the helm of Nintendo by Satoru Iwata, Yamauchi stayed on as adviser, but his role increasingly diminished with the years.
"We will continue to treasure the values Yamauchi taught us - that what makes you unique lies at the core of entertainment. And we at Nintendo will continue to change the company flexibly to adapt to the times, as Yamauchi did, to carry on his spirit," Iwata said in a statement.
The company has floundered in the past couple of years, hurt by a strong yen and competition from games on smartphones and tablets.
Yamauchi is survived by Katsuhito Yamauchi, his eldest son. A funeral is scheduled for Sunday at Nintendo, following a wake on Saturday.