On September 1, 1964, San Francisco Giants pitcher Masanori “Mashi” Murakami became the first player of Japanese descent to participate in a Major League Baseball game. But a dispute between the pioneer’s Japanese team and the Giants after their historic season effectively shut the door on majors for players from their home country for nearly three decades.
Still, Murakami had a significant impact on the game in just two seasons in the big leagues, says Robert K. Fitts, author of Mashi: The unfulfilled baseball dreams of Masanori Murakami, the first player in the Japanese major league.
“Mashi came in as an exchange student at 19, then went on to the big leagues and was very successful showed the potential of Japanese baseball and how far we’ve come,” he said. “[MLB] the players and GMs respected the game in Japan much more thanks to Mashi. “
Perhaps his most significant achievement, Fitts adds, is that Murakami has become a symbol for Japanese Americans.
Masanori Murakami signs contract at 17
Born in Otsuki, Japan on May 6, 1944, just over a year before the end of World War II, Murakami fell in love with baseball from an early age. He played the sport in high school and in the semester Kōshien, a national tournament similar to March Madness. Murakami dreamed of winning the prestigious Japanese tournament, going to college and becoming a businessman. His parents wanted him to be a doctor.
But the southpaw’s skills in baseball caught the attention of the Nankai Hawks of the Japanese Pacific League, one of the country’s two professional leagues. In 1963, at age 17, Murakami signed a contract with the Hawks.
A year later, Nankai cleared Murakami and two other young Japanese prospects to train in the United States with the Giants. Japanese baseball authorities have given San Francisco the option of keeping players and paying their league $ 10,000 for each or sending players back to Japan.
For the Hawks, the deal was an opportunity for their prospects to learn from American coaches and players. For the Giants, it was good publicity and good business – a large Japanese population lived in the Bay Area – and an opportunity to open up the majors to an influx of Japanese talent.
While his compatriots played in a rookie league, Murakami made his United States debut for the Fresno, Calif., Giants minor league team in a much better league. Although he initially struggled to communicate with his teammates – Murakami took a Japanese / English dictionary wherever he went – he eventually adapted to American baseball and culture.
Off the pitch, Murakami has at times faced racism from his teammates and the media – the Fresno newspaper has called him the “Nipponese Rally Nipper”.
On the mound, Murakami excelled, winning 11 games and registering an impressive 1.78 ERA. The Fresno manager called him a scintillating prospect, and Murakami won the hearts of fans as he sprinted towards a teammate who had a nice catch, removed his cap and bowed several times.
“He threw 80s high, 90s low, but the ball was sort of zooming in on you,” Fitts said.
The Giants, on the sidelines of the fight against the National League pennants, have also noticed. At the end of August, they called Murakami into the big leagues.
Masanori Murakami makes big-league debut against New York Mets
At Shea Stadium in New York against the Mets, the 20-year-old southpaw made his big-league debut as a relief pitcher. “I took the plane during the night and [was] brought to throw in the eighth inning, ”Murakami told the Philadelphia Daily News in 2002. “Suddenly, instead of pitching in front of 200 or 300 people, there were 40,000 people in the stands.
If he was nervous, Murakami didn’t show it. In his one set, he did not allow a run, struck out two strikes and allowed a single. He received a standing ovation from the crowd at Shea Stadium, then was interviewed by Mets broadcaster Ralph Kiner.
Because he pitched so well, San Francisco kept him until the end of the season. A reporter asked Murakami about the possibility of other Japanese players playing in the big leagues. “If I can, I don’t see why they can’t,” he said.
In San Francisco, Murakami was a success. By the end of September, the Giants had received more than 1,000 calls from organizations and fans who wanted him to make a personal appearance.
But the pitcher’s future in the Bay Area was uncertain.
“I would love to stay with the Giants, but I don’t know yet if I will,” he told the Chronicle of San Francisco end of September. “My mom and dad tell me they miss me very much. I know they’re waiting for me to go back to Japan.”
MLB, Japanese leagues deal ends talent pipeline
After the 1964 season, Murakami signed a contract to play for the Giants the following season. Then he flew to Japan to have his tonsils removed. However, as San Francisco prepared for spring training in February 1965, Murakami informed the team that he would remain in Japan. He had signed a $ 40,000 contract with Nankai, far more than San Francisco would pay.
Then a bitter fight began between the Giants, who insisted that Murakami return, and his Japanese team. Legal threats fueled the anger of MLB commissioner Ford Frick. The teams eventually came to a compromise that allowed Murakami to throw one more year for the Giants before becoming a free agent.
In 1965, Murakami pitched 45 games for San Francisco, retiring 85 in just 74.1 innings. He ended his big league career with a 5-1 record and a 3.43 ERA. The following season, he joined the Hawks in Japan, where he played another 17 years.
In 1966, Major League Baseball and the Japanese professional leagues signed an agreement to honor the contracts of the respective players, an agreement that effectively barred Japanese players from playing in the big leagues for nearly 30 years.
After Murakami’s debut, no other Japanese player reached the majors again until Hideki Nomo with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995. In the early 2000s, Ichiro Suzuki (Seattle Mariners), Hideki Matsui (New York) Yankees) and other Japanese have played in the big leagues. Los Angeles Angels designated pitcher and hitter Shohei Ohtani, one of the biggest stars in the big leagues, was born in Japan.
“From a historical point of view, it’s a shame that it’s some kind of footnote [in the history of Major League Baseball]”Said Fitts of Murakami.” He did so well and showed so much promise, and then because he came home and the leagues came to their agreement, you ran out of Japanese players. future.”
In 1983, Murakami attempted a comeback with the Giants, but the 38-year-old was among the last practice cuts of the spring. “I loved being in America,” he told the Daily News years later, “but I was young at the time and under pressure from home to come back.