Where have you gone, Masanori Murakami?
By Alexander Kleinberg
Before Shinjo, before Ichiro, even before Nomo, there was "Mashi."
Masanori Murakami made a name for himself as a true pioneer, the first Japanese player ever to play in the Major Leagues. Brought to the United States at the ripe old age of 20 as part of a program by his Japanese team, the Nankei Hawks, to send a few young players to gain experience in the American minor leagues, Murakami found himself playing for the Giants' California League affiliate in Fresno in the summer of 1964.
Murakami brought with him a fantastic curveball, sharp control and an endearing personality. What he didn't have was any command of the English language or any Western experience. Imagine, for a minute, what it was like for Murakami to arrive in mid-'60s California for the first time, a Japanese native sent to America to play the national pastime barely two decades after the close of World War II.
As daunting as that might sound, Murakami quickly won fans and teammates over with his endearing quirks (he had a habit of bowing to teammates in the field after great defensive plays) as well as his pitching talent. Murakami won the California League Rookie of the Year Award after compiling an 11-7 mark. The southpaw's success in the Cal League did not go unnoticed by the Giants brass, and on Sept. 1, 1964, "Mashi" was called up to San Francisco for his first day in the Major Leagues.
"I was scared at first, because I didn't know any English and I felt lost," said Murakami, recalling his first big league experience. "But my teammates were very friendly and kind. They accepted me right away."
Murakami said the language barrier was one of the biggest obstacles to his integration with the team.
"I brought two dictionaries with me to Spring Training in Casa Grande, Ariz.," recalled Murakami. "One was written in Japanese and one was in English. It took some time but I slowly learned some English. I was taught English in high school in Japan but I didn't spend too much time studying it. I was too busy playing baseball."
All that practice paid off for Murakami once he set foot in the Majors, as the young lefty dominated American hitters from the start. "Mashi" went 1-0 in nine appearances that September, logging an impressive 1.80 ERA with only one walk and 15 strikeouts.
Murakami's performance impressed San Francisco brass enough that they decided to exercise a clause in their contract which allowed them to sign one of the three Japanese prospects that had been sent. But Japanese baseball officials objected and told the Giants that Murakami was merely on loan for the 1964 season, creating an international stalemate. An agreement was finally reached after the Giants capitulated by agreeing to send Murakami back to Japan after the upcoming 1965 season. "Mashi" went on to pitch strongly the following season, compiling a 4-1 mark with eight saves, and then the young reliever headed back to Japan for good.
Murakami went on to have a lengthy and successful professional career in Japan, pitching for 17 years and logging an overall mark of 103-82. But even after hanging up the cleats for good at age 38, Murakami's fond memories of his time in America prompted him to journey back to San Francisco. After officially retiring from Japanese baseball, "Mashi" attended Spring Training with the 1983 Giants. Though it seemed like a mere publicity stunt at the time, Murakami nearly made the team.
"I always loved it in San Francisco," he said. "I missed the Giants once I returned to Japan."
A celebrity in his home country not only for his exploits on the baseball diamonds of Japan but also for his trailblazing efforts across the Pacific in the U.S., Murakami transitioned into the broadcasting arena. One of the prominent elder statesmen of Japanese baseballl, Murakami currently serves as a national television commentator on American and Japanese professional baseball for the NHK network in Tokyo.
When Murakami returned to Japan in 1965, many believed that he would be the first and only Japanese player to cross the Pacific to play baseball. But in the early '90s, a slow but steady succession of pitchers beginning with Hideo Nomo and Mac Suzuki began to make the transition to American baseball.
"Nomo had a big impact right away because he was Japanese," said Murakami. "He brought a lot of Japanese fans to the ballpark and had a lot of attention on him. But I was unhappy because he was playing for the Dodgers, who are the Giants' biggest rival. It made me mad to see him helping the Dodgers."
Ichiro Suzuki and Tsuyoshi Shinjo became trailblazers in their own right last season, marking the first time that Japanese position players had suited up in the Major Leagues. Murakami was also pleased to see both players, particularly Ichiro, have such a substantial impact on the game.
"Seeing Ichiro get the MVP was great, because it showed that Japanese players can come to America and be stars," explained Murakami. "He showed that he had a lot of talent and that people should pay attention to great players all over the world."
Murakami watched with great interest as the Giants acquired Shinjo as part of a trade with the New York Mets last week.
"I think it's very special because it's been 37 years since I played for the Giants," he said. "I was so happy to see the Giants get a Japanese player, and I'm glad it's Shinjo. The Giants needed help in the outfield, except for Barry Bonds, of course. (laughs) Shinjo is an exciting player and I know the fans will like watching him."
Murakami said he plans to speak with Shinjo shortly to offer him his best wishes and encouragement about the upcoming season. "I'm going to tell him how happy he will be with the Giants, and what a great city San Francisco will be for him," explained Murakami.
Aside from his duties as a television commentator, the one-time baseball pioneer has also had a direct hand in shaping the future of some other trailblazing Japanese youngsters.
"I've been coaching the Japanese Women's Baseball Team for about three years now," explained Murakami. "I was the manager for the last three years but now I am going to be the general manager and pitching coach. We competed in Toronto last year at the Women's World Series and we will be playing Western teams here in Japan next year."
Murakami also finds time to return to the U.S. frequently, either as part of a delegation of Japanese baseball dignitaries or to be an honored guest at American ballparks. "Mashi" was on hand in Seattle last April to see Ichiro's home debut for the Mariners.
"It's really nice to be in American ballparks, because lots of people know me or remember me," he said. "People come up to me and say 'hi' and everyone is always very nice to me."
Murakami also noted that he continues to be gratified by the way he gets treated by his former American teammates and opponents.
"I try to keep in touch with some of them, and they are always great to me when I see them," said Murakami. "Willie McCovey, Frank Robinson, Joe Torre, Willie Mays ... it's great when those guys remember you and stay friends with you after all this time."
Though he only pitched for the Giants for a little over one season, Masanori Murakami forever etched his name into the history books as the first -- and for a long time, the only -- Japanese baseball player ever to play in America. A few seasons ago, "Mashi" donated some of his old Giants gear to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown to commemorate his trailblazing ways. If the current influx of talented players from Japan and other Asian nations is any indication, Murakami's gear may someday have some company from the Far East. Nothing would make "Mashi" more proud.
"For so long, I worried that nobody else would ever try to play in America," he said. "I know I didn't spend much time there, but when I go back to the States and so many people remember me, I think I did something more important than I realized. Maybe I opened the door."
Alexander Kleinberg is the site reporter of sfgiants.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.