By CHRIS KOMAI, Special to the Rafu
As Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese baseball player to pitch in the American Major Leagues for the San Francisco Giants over 50 years ago, engages in his nationwide book tour this summer, he is accompanied by an urban archaeologist who wasn’t even born when Mashi threw his historic first pitch in 1964.
Robert Fitts is the author of “Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major Leaguer” and how he ended as an American expert on Japanese baseball is its own story.
Fitts, who will partner with Murakami to recount the events that led to Mashi’s brief but groundbreaking U.S. baseball career at both the Japan Foundation Los Angeles on Monday, July 6, at 7 p.m., and at Whittier College on Tuesday, July 7, at 7:30 p.m., was unaware of the cultural characteristics of Japanese baseball when he joined his wife Sarah in Japan in 1993. Sarah, a lawyer who majored in Japanese in college, was sent to Tokyo for work. Fitts, who was born in Philadelphia, was completing on his Ph.D. in anthropology on slavery in the 18th century in New England and New York City and realized that with his research at Brown complete, he could write his dissertation anywhere.
“My first day in Japan, my wife takes me to a baseball game,” Fitts explained. A Phillies fan, Fitts found Japanese baseball wonderfully different, with the organized cheering and style of play. “I was hooked,” he recalled. When Major League Baseball players went on strike in 1994, Fitts began to devote more time to following Japanese baseball. But it was his passion for baseball cards that put him over the top.
“I’ve always been a collector,” Fitts revealed.
After reading two classic Robert Whiting Japanese baseball books, “You Gotta Have Wa” and “The Chrysanthemum and the Bat,” Fitts made a list of the 30 greatest living Japanese baseball players, active and retired, and sent them each a letter with their baseball card and requested signatures. “Everyone but one signed,” Robert remembered. “Some even sent other things that they had signed.” Tetsuhara Kawakami, known in Japan as “The God of Batting,” wrote Fitts a letter to express his appreciation that an American would be interested in him.
Returning to America, Fitts worked as an urban archaeologist in New York City until his firm fortuitously moved out of the World Trade Center in 2000 to Connecticut. Fitts made a major decision not to go with them and began concentrating on buying, selling and trading baseball cards. But Fitts also used his research and writing skills to submit articles on Japanese baseball to respected outlets such as The National Pastime, Baseball Research Journal and MLB.com, among others. Interestingly, it was a Japanese baseball card connection that led to Fitts’ first book.
Wally Yonamine, a Japanese American from Hawaii who played briefly with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, became a Hall of Fame player in Japanese baseball in the 1950s. Fitts noticed that every time he put one of Wally’s cards up for sale, the same person bought it. It turned out the buyer was Wally’s son Paul, and through Paul, Robert got to meet Wally in Tokyo. “He was so charming,” Fitts said.
Inspired by the stories of Japanese baseball told by Yonamine, Fitts contacted and interviewed over 30 other Japanese players. Those interviews evolved into his book “Remembering Japanese Baseball” (Southern Illinois University Press, 2005).
One of the players he interviewed for the book was Masanori Murakami. “He was really different,” Robert underscored. A quick review of Murakami’s career history reveals why he was so different from the other players.
In 1964, 19-year-old Murakami was sent by the Nankai Hawks to improve his skills through an exchange program with American baseball. He and two other players joined the Class A Fresno Giants, but only Murakami excelled. The San Francisco Giants, in the midst of a September pennant race, called up Masanori, who proved to be an effective reliever.
Fitts, who believes that every baseball book needs a story, thought Mashi’s life should be shared. Murakami dutifully returned to Japan in 1966 to play for the Hawks, but Fitts uncovered Mashi’s personal misgivings for having to leave the Giants and America. It was, Fitts said, the regret of what might have been.
In terms of professional baseball, Fitts thinks that Mashi’s stint with the Giants simultaneously opened and closed the door for Japanese players to come to America. On one hand, it would be 30 years until pitcher Hideo Nomo signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Fitts attributed the three-decade gap to economics. Japanese baseball did not want to lose their best players to America, while Major League Baseball was making extra money by selling the contracts of veteran players near the end of their careers or of minor leaguers who were not expected to advance to Japanese teams. Both sides were against free agency.
On the other hand, Murakami helped to open the door by making it clear that Japanese players could compete in American baseball. Mashi, after all, was only a minor league player in Japan, yet he excelled in his short career in San Francisco. He made nine appearances in September of 1964 and his ERA was 1.80. In 1965, he appeared in 45 games, including one start, and had eight saves with an ERA of 3.75 (Fitts said Mashi’s one start, where he gave up a couple of home runs, ballooned his ERA).
The standard thinking in the 1960s was that the average Japanese player was not good enough to play in America. Fitts said Murakami’s performance plus a 1966 exhibition series where the Yomiuri Giants managed to win eight of the 18 games from the Dodgers began to change the minds of the Japanese. Their confidence in their ability to compete internationally grew. Fitts said this also laid the foundation for the World Baseball Classic that would finally emerge several decades later, an event the Japanese endorsed.
The story of Masanori Murakami and his historic career will be shared by Murakami and Fitts at a program co-hosted by the Japan Foundation Los Angeles and the Japan America Society of Southern California on July 6 at 7 p.m. at The Japan Foundation Los Angeles, 5700 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 100 in Los Angeles. Info/RSVP: (323) 761-7510, www.jflalc.org/.
The following day, Fitts and Murakami will be at Whittier College’s Institute for Baseball Studies, located in Villalobos Hall, at 7:30 p.m. The address is 13507 Earlham Dr. in Whittier. Info: Joseph Price, (562) 907-4803, firstname.lastname@example.org
Both programs are free and open to the public. The book will be on sale for $25 (retails $28.95). Filmmaker Yuriko Gamo Romer will share a short video clip of her latest project, “Diamond Diplomacy.”
The book tour includes the following stops in Northern and Central California:
Wednesday, July 8, at 6 p.m. at Fresno Family Dharma Center, 2690 E. Alluvial Ave., Fresno.
Thursday, July 9, at 6 p.m. at San Francisco Main Library, Koret Auditorium, 100 Larkin St., San Francisco.
Friday, July 10, at 10:30 a.m. at Kinokuniya, 1581 Webster St. (second floor) in San Francisco Japantown.
Saturday, July 11, at 1 p.m. at San Jose Public Library, 150 E. San Fernando St., San Jose; 5 p.m. at Nikkei Traditions, 219 Jackson St. in San Jose Japantown (coincides with San Jose Buddhist Church’s Obon Festival).
For a full schedule, go www.robfitts.com/mashi/.