The First of Many

Part of the SHORT STOPS series

Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese player in the big leagues

At first, it seemed like nothing more than a cultural exchange when the San Francisco Giants invited three Japanese players to Spring Training in 1964.

Nobody knew if the young Nankai Hawks’ prospects would make much of an impact on the big leagues.

Relief pitcher Masanori Murakami can roughly be described as "the Jackie Robinson of Japanese baseball." Murakami, from Otsuki, Japan, was the first player from that nation to appear on a major league roster, albeit briefly. Though Murakami only appeared in 54 games for the San Francisco Giants from 1964 to 1965, his legacy as a baseball pioneer cannot be denied. Murakami's abbreviated appearance in the States, and his eventual return to Japanese baseball, is a story shrouded in mystery and international intrigue. Ironically, after Murakami, the U.S. would not see another Japanese player in its major leagues for another thirty years.

San Francisco is, and has been, a city with a large Japanese population, a population that would increase with the passing of the Immigration Act in 1965, legislation that removed quotas from immigration into the States. Many of these newly-arriving Japanese would naturally settle with family and friends, in many cases in the San Francisco Bay area. Many were baseball-crazy, the game being immensely popular there. Those who settled in northern California longed for a fellow ex-patriot to represent them and don the uniform of the local San Francisco Giants.

Businessman Tsuneo "Cappy" Harada was a great friend and champion of Japanese baseball. Harada, an American living in Japan, noticed this influx of Japanese immigration into the U.S. Recently, Harada had begun doing some scouting in Japan for the Giants. Both Harada and Giants' owner Horace Stoneham agreed that the time was right for ushering in Japanese players to play in the States; the move would be both a financial and aesthetic bonanza for both sides.

Eventually, on February 23 1964, three players from Japan, all recommended by Harada, were signed to Giants minor-league contracts: catcher Hiroshi Takahashi, third baseman Tatsuhiko Tanaka, both 18-years old; and pitcher Masanori Murakami, 19. They would all report to the Giants' minor-league spring training camp at Casa Grande, Arizona, and probably be assigned to their Rookie League team.

Almost immediately, Murakami stood out as the best of the trio. His "control is amazing," raved Fresno Suns skipper Bill Werle. "He's probably the only pitcher on my staff who can be depended on to throw the ball where the catcher wants it." While Tanaka and Takahashi were assigned to the all-rookie Twin Falls club of the Pioneer League, the left-handed relief pitcher was placed a level above, on the roster of the Class A Fresno club of the California League. Fresno, like San Francisco, boasted a large Japanese population at the time. Murakami quickly became a local legend.

At the time, the news made little more than a ripple in the US press, though the San Francisco media outlets recognized it as the history-making event it was. The three players instantly became heroes in baseball-crazed Japan, which hosted American tours of stars before and after World War II.

“Some day, Japan will have many of its sons playing Major League Baseball in America,” said Lefty O’Doul, who helped establish baseball in Japan via goodwill tours.

The three players in the minor leagues were a low-risk move for the Giants, and the Hawks believed they would get back three players whose time in America would accelerate their development.

Glove used by Masanori Murakami when he played with the San Francisco Giants in 1964 and 1965 - detail from B-3-98 (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

The initial evaluation of the trio was quickly proven to be correct. Takahashi and Tanaka struggled, batting .267 and .250, respectively, with the Cowboys, while Murakami posted an 11-7, 1.78 mark with Fresno (including five hitless innings in his American professional debut). Most impressive was the control that Werle raved about. In 108 innings pitched, Murakami yielded a 159-34 strikeouts-to-walks ratio. Though blessed with a tenacious, late-breaking curve ball, the lefty preferred using his fast ball as his "out" pitch, reasoning that he had better control of the heater.

With the Giants on the fringes of a tight National League pennant race in '64, Murakami's contract was purchased by the parent Giants on August 31. "This fellow is quite a pitcher and we want to see how he does in the major leagues," opined Giants veep, Chub Feeney. "Mashi" would not disappoint.

Today, the debut of an Asian-born Major League Baseball player occurs regularly in the big leagues. But decades ago, Murakami opened new doors with his first appearance for the Giants. But first, he had to travel another 3,000 miles to take his U.S. major league bow.

A New York crowd of 40,524 gave Murakami a standing ovation as he walked to the Shea Stadium pitcher’s mound on September 1, 1964, becoming the first Japanese player to appear in a big league game, with San Francisco trailing, 4-1. As Shea Stadium's "Queen of Melody," organist Jane Jarvis, performed "Japanese Sandman" in tribute to the lefty, Murakami proceeded to strike out the first batter he faced, Charley Smith, on a called third strike. After catcher Chris Cannizzaro became the first American major leaguer to get a hit off a Japanese on U.S. soil in a regular-season game, a single to center, Mashi fanned Ed Kranepool and retired Roy McMillan on a ground ball. The lefty bounded off the hill to a standing ovation by 41,000 partisan Mets fans.

Murakami appeared in eight more games in 1964 following his debut for the big league club, going 1-0 with a 1.80 ERA. In fifteen innings, the curveballer allowed eight hits and three runs while striking out 15, issuing only one walk. He said he noticed a difference in pitching between the United States and Japan.

“I throw a fastball and curve, but no change,” Murakami told The Sporting News. “The changeup is no good. Relief pitcher comes in, men are on base. If you throw a change… Boom! Long ball.”

His position on the San Francisco pitching staff seemed secure for 1965. Yet the question remained; would Mashi return to the States?

Masonori himself was vague as to whether or not he'd be back. "I would like to stay with the Giants, but I do not know yet if I will. My mother and father tell me they miss me very much. I know they are waiting for me to return to Japan," he told the San Francisco Chronicle in late September. But still, Murakami signed a Giants' contract for the 1965 season. His Japanese team, the Nankai Hawks, received a check for $10,000 from the Giants, assumedly payment for the lefty's contract. The check was duly cashed.

After Murakami’s strong September, San Francisco invoked a clause in his contract that gave the team the right to buy the contract of any of the three Japanese players who made the big league team. Following the season, however, Murakami wrote to the Giants to inform them he no longer intended to return for the 1965 campaign.

However, on February 8 1965, upon returning to Japan, Murakami wrote to Horace Stoneham, "I am writing you to let you know that I will not be returning to the San Francisco Giants this year or any other year. I am the only son in our family and I feel that my place is here in Japan with my family….I did not realize until my return how much I missed Japan and its ways, and the thought of returning to the United States makes me homesick."

Murakami also allegedly signed a contract to play for Nankai in 1965, a contract for $40,000, far more than the Giants were willing to pay. Clearly, the Hawks had second thoughts about releasing Murakami. Club officials realized they had underestimated Mashi's potential. They would claim that the release papers were forged and the $10,000 represented payment for the 1964 season only. Harada's role was also question during this incident. "Is Harada the same character, who…did a term in Japanese prison for being a black market money operator?" asked Dodgers president Walter O'Malley in a confidential correspondence to Commissioner Ford C. Frick. Harada, for his part, claimed to Chub Feeney that he himself was being duped by both Hawks officials and Murakami.

Meanwhile, back in the States, Frick, in a bulletin dated February 16 1965, stated "Pending answer from the [Japanese] Commissioner [Yushi Uchimura], this office must hold that Pitcher Murakami has violated his contract. He is placed on the Disqualified List insofar as American baseball is concerned and the Nankai Hawks are estopped [sic] from negotiations with any members of Organized Baseball Leagues in the United States." At the time, Commissioner Uchimura was hospitalized with a bladder infection, and an international baseball incident was brewing, awaiting his return. For the moment, Japanese-American relations became very strained, at least as far as baseball was concerned.

Eventually, a compromise was reached, brokered by Uchimura upon his return to health. Murakami would play for San Francisco in 1965, provided that "the Giants will agree to give him a definite and positive promise…that the boy will be sent back to Japan at the close of the 1965 baseball season." After that, "he would be free to play baseball in Japan, but he would not be free to return to American baseball with any other club than the Giants."

Mashi returned to San Francisco on May 4 and was activated on the eighth. The southpaw reliever again pitched well for the Giants, appearing in 45 games and posting a 85-22 strikeouts-to-walks ratio over 74 1/3 innings. August 15 was "Masonori Murakami Day" at Candlestick Park. The hurler was honored in a pre-game ceremony before nearly 27,000 fans. Between the ceremony and a dinner banquet in his honor, Murakami made his lone U.S. big-league start. Sad to say, Murakami was battered around by the Phillies that day, not making it past the third inning, in a game the Giants eventually won, 15-9. On December 14, he wired Stoneham, informing the Giants' boss that he would not be returning to the States in 1966.

But the story doesn't end there. Mashi had only moderate success after returning to Japan. American staples like chewing gum and brush back pitches were anathema there, and Murakami found it difficult to readjust to Japanese ways. He also injured his shoulder when altering his delivery from sidearm to overhand.

Murakami was able to adjust and played 17 more seasons in Japan for the Hawks, Hanshin Tigers and Nippon Ham Fighters. He had his best year in 1968 when he went 18-4 with a 2.38 ERA for Nankai. From 1968-1970, rumors of Masonori's imminent return to the Giants occasionally appeared in print. Yet he remained in Japan.

At the end of his career in Japan, Murakami attempted a comeback with San Francisco in 1983 when he was 38 years. Murakami appeared at the Giants' Scottsdale Arizona spring training site. "Gaylord Perry was a teammate when I left the Giants in 1965. He's still pitching at 44. So why can't I when I'm only 38?" he reasoned. But he couldn't quite prove his worth to the Giants, and skipper Tom Haller made Mashi one of his final cuts that spring.

Despite Murakami’s early success with the Giants, his legacy was unclear. No other Japan native played in the major leagues again until Hideo Nomo debuted for the Los Angeles Dodgers on May 2, 1995.

After Nomo's debut, a wave of Japanese players has arrived in the big leagues. Kazuhiro Sasaki of the Seattle Mariners won the American League Rookie of the Year in 2000; Ichiro Suzuki won AL Rookie of the Year and MVP the next season; and many Japanese-born players have appeared in All-Star Games.

"I had a so-so career," the pioneering pitcher understated during a 1998 Hall of Fame appearance. But Masanori Murakami will forever be remembered as the first of many Japanese players in Major League Baseball.

Based on contributions from Chris Blake and Russell Wolinsky

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Part of the SHORT STOPS series