New book on ‘Mashi’ Murakami, 1st Japanese major leaguer

NEW YORK — Nobody expected much from Masanori Murakami when the Nankai Hawks sent him and two other young pitchers to America to train with San Francisco Giants minor leaguers in the spring of 1964. But after five impressive months with single-A Fresno, the 20-year-old lefty got his chance in the majors as a September call-up, icing the New York Mets for an inning in relief to secure both a bullpen spot and a place in history.

The story of Murakami’s trailblazing experience in America — which led to a bitter contractual dispute and eventually forced him to choose between his home country and a big-league career — is the basis of author Robert Fitts’ latest book, “Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major Leaguer.”

“I felt Mashi was very important and his story is so different from other players of his era,” Fitts told Kyodo News, referring to Murakami by a longstanding nickname given by American teammates who struggled with his first name. “He was the only Japanese player at the time who could offer perspective on American baseball.”

Now an occasional commentator for major league games broadcast in Japan, Murakami, 71, spoke to Kyodo News while traveling with Fitts on a nine-city book tour that started June 26 in Chicago and wraps up in San Jose on July 11.

“It was enjoyable to go back and revisit my memories for the book,” Murakami said. “So many things came up, from times with (teammate) Willie Mays to facing Roberto Clemente and Pete Rose.”

“I really think it was a golden era in baseball, with the number of great players and the concentration of talent (in 20 teams compared to 30 today). The level of play (in the 1960s and ‘70s) was perhaps higher than at any other time in major league history, including Babe Ruth’s era. It was an amazing time to have gotten to pitch.”

The book details Murakami’s experiences, without a translator and often fending for himself, at a time when the racial integration of baseball was still fairly new. Even as a popular and successful member of the team, the Japanese reliever occasioned at least one death threat against Giants’ manager Herman Franks, and was often the butt of “lame ethnic jokes” and the “predictable comments that passed for wit” in contemporary media, as Fitts writes.

“Some of the most famous stories about Mashi in books are pure fabrication,” Fitts said. “Reporters made up (misunderstandings and gaffes) because it was 1964 and they were making fun of the Japanese guy.”

The author, who had previously interviewed Murakami when compiling oral histories for his first book, “Remembering Japanese Baseball” (2005), delved deeper into the pitcher’s childhood for the current project. Early chapters show how a young Murakami defied his strict father to play baseball in secret and how the chance to go to America inspired him to turn pro despite his own initial resistance.

“I planned to go to college, and said as much to all the scouts who contacted me in my last year of high school,” Murakami recalled.

Nothing changed until Kazuto Tsuruoka, former star player and then-manager of the Nankai Hawks, made the two-hour drive to Murakami’s family home in rural Yamanashi Prefecture. “My parents and I kept telling him the same thing, that I was determined to go to college. But just before leaving, he said he would send me to study baseball and train in America if I signed with Nankai.”

“In those days, even a full year’s salary for an office worker might not amount to the price of a plane ticket to America, so the chance to go for free was almost more exciting to me than the opportunity to play baseball,” Murakami said. “If Tsuruoka hadn’t made that offer, I would have gone to college instead of turning pro. His promise is what changed my mind.”

When Murakami was called up by the Giants at the end of the 1964 season, the club purchased his contract through a technicality in the minor league deal under which he had played with Fresno. But the Hawks, who had no intention of letting him play in America indefinitely, did not realize what had happened until after the deal was done.

The fallout was severe. Murakami went back to Japan and, under intense pressure, also signed for 1965 with the Hawks, sparking an international incident that threatened to derail baseball relations between the two countries as the commissioners of both pro leagues took up opposite sides of the dispute.

“When Tsuruoka promised to send me to America, nothing was in writing. He kept his word. And so when it was my turn, I kept my promise to come back,” Murakami said. Though a compromise eventually brought him back to pitch in America in 1965, the reliever’s big-league career amounted to only 54 games over two seasons before he returned to play in Japan from 1966 until his retirement after the 1982 campaign.

“I think it’s a good thing that I honored my commitment,” Murakami said. “But it meant a huge loss for my baseball career.”

It would be almost three full decades before another Japanese player came to the major leagues, when Hideo Nomo took advantage of a loophole to “retire” from Japanese pro baseball and pitch for 12 seasons in America, mostly with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“Mashi,” published in April, is Fitts’ fourth book, following “Banzai Babe Ruth” (2012) about the 1934 goodwill baseball tour in Japan by Ruth and a team of American All-Stars, and a 2008 biography of the late Wally Yonamine, the first American to play pro baseball in Japan after World War II.
Fitts’ next project will focus on a team of Japanese baseball players who barnstormed in America in the early 1900s.

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