MASHI: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major Leaguer
By Robert Fitts (Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 2015, 256 pp., $28.95, hardcover)
The San Francisco Giants’ Japanese Heritage Night at AT&T Park in late May of this year honored Norichika Aoki and Travis Ishikawa, two Japanese and Japanese American baseball players who at the time played in the Giants’ organization. Although Ishikawa now suits up for the Pittsburgh Pirates, these two individuals are closely tied to the historical legacy of a shared baseball relationship between Japan and the United States. Through the analysis of newspapers in the Bay Area, archival materials from the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown, New York, and interviews, Robert K. Fitts’ “Mashi” chronicles the history of Masanori “Mashi” Murakami, who in the 1960s became the first player of Japanese descent in the major leagues and experienced much success as a southpaw relief pitcher for the San Francisco Giants.
Fitts details Murakami’s time with the Nankai Hawks in Japan’s Pacific League under the tutelage of manager Kazuto Tsuruoka, his opportunity in the San Francisco Giants’ organization from the minor to the major leagues, and his ultimate contract controversy, which led to a cessation of Japanese baseball players coming to the States until the emergence of baseball star pitcher Hideo Nomo in the mid-1990s on the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Although the book reads more like a historical narrative of Japanese baseball in the United States through the story of Murakami, Fitts is able to weave together the desires, disappointments, and debates surrounding Murakami’s meteoric rise in both Japan and the United States in the mid-20th century.
For Japanese Americans in the Bay Area, Fitts treats the history and experiences of Murakami as an entry point in thinking about the tenuous relationship between Japan and Japanese America. Even though on Aug. 15, 1965 the Nichi Bei Times and Hokubei Mainichi organized a Japanese heritage night for the San Francisco Giants to honor Murakami, who was the starting pitcher, Fitts explains that, Murakami “had no desire to be a Japanese Jackie Robinson — a symbol for an ethnic group. ‘I never worried about things like that,’ he confides. ‘I was just here to play baseball and concentrate on my pitching’” (p. 149). However, Fitts demonstrates that Mashi became the pride of San Francisco’s Japanese American community and many local Japanese Americans treated him like a celebrity and hometown hero (p. 154).
This relationship is an important one in thinking not only about the shared baseball history between Japan and the U.S., but also the relationship between Japanese America and Japan. When young Japanese Americans rarely have athletic role models that look like them who have excelled at the highest levels of sports coupled with a distancing of Japanese players from Japanese America, how does this book put into historical perspective the disconnections and attempted re-connections? How does the continuation of Japanese (American) Heritage Night illuminate and obfuscate these issues? When most Japanese Americans cannot speak Japanese and many Japanese major league players have a difficult time speaking in English, how does this “lost in translation” evoke memories of Murakami? Finally, how can we read Murakami as Japanese American or should we treat his phenomenal success as a Japanese one in an American context?