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Masanori Murakami speaks at #SABR45

This year we have many distinguished speakers at the SABR convention, as usual, but one I did not want to miss was Masanori Murakami. “Mashi” as he is known, was the first Japanese player to appear in the major leagues back in 1964. He is the subject of Rob Fitts’ new biography (Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major Leaguer) and they’re doing a nine-city U.S. tour, starting here, Boston Monday, and several cities in California including Fresno and San Francisco.

The program began first with a quick nine-minute preview of the film Diamond Diplomacy by filmmaker Yumiko Gamo Romer, which will be a documentary about “US-Japanese Relations Through A Shared Love of Baseball.” Tracing that relationship from Horace Wilson, who brought baseball to Japan in 1871 where he was a teacher until 1877. (Here’s an interesting NPR article and story about his descendants being invited to Japan in 2000: National Public Radio). I hope we will get to see the finished film at the SABR convention in 2 years?

Rob Fitts, for those who don’t know him, is a previous winner of the award for best presentation at a SABR convention (if I’m remembering correctly), and the author of Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan, and a book about Wally Yonamine as well. After the film clips were done, Rob got up and narrated Mashi’s story, turning to the man himself to speak at various points to illustrate or explain various parts.

Here are some excerpts from the talk they gave:

Rob: As some of you know, in Japanese baseball the training is very infused with the martial arts. Sometimes to toughen up the players they were not allowed to drink water.

Mashi: We could not drink the water. But sometimes we would very quickly drink some water. You would go to pick up the ball and there would be the little bit of water with the baby moquitoes in it. [Puddles.] Sometimes you would put a towel in that water and (*slurp*).

Rob: As you saw in the film clip, the manager of the Nankai Hawks came to Mashi’s house when he was in high school and asked if he would sign a contract to play with the Hawks. Mashi said no, he wanted to go to college. But just as Manager Shuroka was about to leave, he said if Mashi would sign, that they would send him for training in the United States.

Mashi: My third year [in high school] in the summer time, Hawks manager came to my house. he said hey Mashi, please sign contract for my Hawks. But I said no, I want to go to college. But he said if you sign the contract, we will send you to the United States. So I changed my mind. I had seen Rawhide, Hollywood movies with John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe, and I wanted to come over here.


Rob: So he sighed his professional contract. He’s 18, and in the Japanese minor leagues. Shuroka decides not to board him with the older players, and puts him up in his own home. In 1964 the Hawks are pitching rich and decide to make an agreement with the Giants overseas to send three players over to the minors. The agreement is entirely in English and the Hawks didn’t notice the clause that says for $10,000 the Giants can just buy their contracts if the Giants wanted them. Mashi and two other minor leaguers were sent.

They arrive in Arizona for spring training and they notice American players don’t practice very hard. Mashi is sent to Fresno where his manager Bill Werle could speak a few words of Japanese. Werle gave him some advice about fitting in with his teammates and told him what the bad words were never to say. Werle changed him into a reliever. Mashi is lefthanded and there is always a shortage of lefthanded relievers. Mashi became the leagues top reliever and was third overall in strikeouts. The Giants were in a pennant race and call him from Single A to the big legaues.

Mashi: In August–middle or so–some of the players talk, listen to some guy’s story. I understood a little of English and I was like, what are you guys talking about? And they were saying maybe you too, the call-up on September 1st. And then the manager told me yes, and all the players shook my hand. I flew to New York and sat in first class. At Shea Stadium, in the 8th inning, the manager called the bullpen and said if in the 8th no runs, you’ll go in. And all of a sudden I hear “Now pitching, Masanori Murakami.” So I go through left field and I look back and realize there are 40,000 people there. In the minor leagues there would be maybe 4,000. So to calm myself I start humming a tune, maybe whistling a little (he hums and whistles). And I made myself relax.

Rob: He took just 13 pitched to retire the side.

Mashi: So warming up on the mound, the catcher comes to me and we talk about the signs. The first pitch was an outside corner, fastball, but I didn’t have anything. But the next hitter struck out. And then a ground ball. Then the our guys come up and get two guys on and I’m thinking please don’t hit a home run because I wanted to pitch another inning!

Rob: This was front page in the New York Times and was picked up everywhere in the country. Mashi is their best lefthander in September and best reliever. So the Giants get him to sign a contract for 1965 because they know they can get him for $10,000. But instead of mailing a check and the contract they hand it to a scout from the Hawks. Something is lost in the translation and the scout thinks that the $10,000 is a bonus for him.

Mashi is welcomed home as a conquering hero and is at a big press conference when the manager of the Hawks says “he will pitch in Japan in 1965.” This was a big disappointment for Mashi (they show a photo). The Giants of course disputed it, and there was a long fight about it, but eventually it is decided he will return to San Francisco for one year and then decide for himself after that where he will go.

So he returns to San Francisco where he is taken under Willie Mays’ wing. Mashi liked playing practical jokes and was also sometimes the butt of them. Gaylord Perry in particular enjoyed putting rubber snakes in his locker.

(On the screen they show Mashi in an astronaut helmet.) “Oh, the Astrodome.”

Mashi: One day I was warming up in the pen and my catcher was Jack Hiatt. He says when you go to the mound, when the manager comes to the mound, you say “Take a hike, Herman.” I didn’t know the meaning of the words. So I go on the mound, and the manager crossed the line and I yell “Herman, take a hike!” and he looks at the catcher, and goes back to the dugout. We won the game and he was very happy for that, but the headline in the newspaper the next day was “Take a hike, Herman!” [Herman Franks was the manager.]

Rob: Because Mashi was so unusual he could talk to a lot of the opposing players, which wasn’t usually done. One of them was Roberto Clemente.

Mashi: I was in Pittsburgh in the summer time and after the practice it’s very hot over there. So we would change shirts and the towels are over there. And I went outside the clubhouse to get a towel and somebody is walking toward me. Hey Mashi! He says “My name is Clemente!” And I had heard his name and I’m thinking maybe he’s a good player. So I ran back to the clubhouse to get paper and asked his autograph. And then as you know after the Nicaragua earthquake, his plane went down in a crash. On my 30th anniversary I started a golf tournament in Japan to make a charity donation and now 20 years later we still do it.

Rob: Mashi only got two major league hits, but his first hit was off Sandy Koufax.

Mashi: Only one time I face Koufax. He has a very good fastball. Fastball comes. Never can hit it. He never throw the curve ball for me. So next ball I try to bunt to third base. I am really fast. And… Safe! (applause)

Rob: In San Francisco, Mashi was very active in the Japanese community. (shows photo of Wayne Yoshitomi) He was 8 in 1965, and he wrote on our Facebook page: “being Japanese and lefthanded I always pretended I was Mashi. I didn’t realize until later in life that it was so important to me to have someone who looked like me to idolize.”

At the end of the 1965 season, Mashi had to decide whether to stay in San Francisco or return. He really wanted to stay, but he felt he owed a great debt to Shuroka. And he decided to honor that debt rather than stay with San Francisco.

(Mashi speaks in Japanese to Yuriko)
Yuriko: He returned to Japan and felt very strongly that there was an obligation to Shuroka-san. In his soul as a human he felt good about making that decision, but as a baseball player he felt he should have stayed, and to this day he feels he didn’t fulfill a chance that could have been.

Question from the audience about career after that:

Mashi: I played 18 more years in Japan. I did both starting and relief. One time I did four innings in relief on Friday, then started and pitched four inning on Saturday, then on Sunday I hear “hey Mashi, go pitch,” and I pitched the complete game. Then three days later they said start again but I could not go. I went flat.

Question from the audience: Charles Einstiein tells a story about what happened before Mashi’s first start, where he went to the umpire and bowed and told him something obscene, it was on Murakami Day, and his teammates had put him up to saying something?

Mashi: Oh, I can’t say it. When I went to spring training at Casa Grande they were teaching me bad words. And I can’t say it.

Rob: He told me that story couldn’t be true because his teammates had taught him all the bad words. And the umpire who tells that story? You can check Retrosheet and see he was in Chicago on Murakami Day. So that story is not true.

Question from the audience about whether there was discriminiation or incidents:

Mashi: Sometimes trouble, anyway. One time before the game in Bakersfield, sometimes people talked too much. They tell many many jokes, and so I say “shut up! shut up!” That time I get mad. And because I am mad I did not take my cap off for the National Anthem and just [put his head down]. Because I was mad. But my teammates come and explain me that guy is bad and he is not like us, and for the Natioanl Anthem you must do this. Sometimes on the long drive, like eight hours, I would want to sleep and they would wake me up. One time a guy picked up a big spanner (wrench) and they threaten me and say did you do it? And all the other players said “No!” Sometimes they would talk to me and I would say “no good! no good!” and they would leave me alone.

Question: Who was a tough out?

Mashi: My record: Pete Rose was very tough. He had hit like 160 home runs and then in 1999 I went to Florida and met him at his restaurant. He tell people he hit 10 home runs off me. I said no no no I only gave up 12 home runs in my career. But he did hit TWO. The only player to hit two off me.

Q: What did you do after baseball in Japan?

Mashi: I was a pitching coach and now I am a newspaper and TV/Radio commentator. And one time I was a Giants scout for three years. But they said to report in English was too hard for me. My eye was okay, but it was too hard to report.

Masanori "Mashi" Murakami and me. (Yuriko Gano Romer in the background) at SABR 45

Masanori “Mashi” Murakami and me. (Yuriko Gano Romer in the background) at SABR 45

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