The book: “Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major Leaguer”
The author: Robert K. Fitts
The vital statistics: University of Nebraska Publishing, 256 pages, $28.95
Find it: At Amazon.com, at BarnesandNoble.com, at Powells.com
The pitch: Maybe you noticed in Tuesday’s Dodgers-Giants game, Nori Aoki went 2-for-5 with a stolen base out of the San Francisco lead off spot, raising his average to .344 and messing with Dodgers pitcher Brian Anderson in all kinds of ways.
The 33-year-old left fielder, all of 5-foot-9, was part of the Kansas City Royals’ AL champion team last season. He played for the Japanese League’s Yakult Swallows from 2004-09 before the team posted him to Major League baseball after the 2011 season. The Milwaukee Brewers won the posting and signed him to a two-year-deal, making Aoki the first Japanese player to be acquired through this process.
“First name is Norichika, but they cut it down to Nori,” Vin Scully noted on the SportsNet LA broadcast. “Aoki … leading the club with ‘A’.”
Scully also noted his father is an insurance salesman, his mom is a piano teacher and he actually started his young as a pitcher but moved to the outfield when he attended Waseda University, where he majored in “human science.”
The Giants’ free-agent signing last off season of Aoki, who swings the bat from the left side with as much deft precision as former Japanese star and future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki, was pretty much under the radar.
So now flash back 50 years ago, when the Giants really made some news with a Japanese player signing of Masanori Murakami.
On page 97, author Fitts writes about how “Murakami mania swept through San Francisco” in the week after his 1964 debut for the Giants – something of a fluke, actually, as the 19-year-old was just there with a couple of his teammates from the Japanese League to play for San Francisco’s Fresno farm team on loan and ended up being good enough to promote.
For five straight days, the San Francisco Chronicle chronicled his promotion, as did the Pacific Stars and Stripes, Oakland Tribune and Sporting News – right at the height of the 1964 Summer Olympics taking place in Tokyo.
Timing is everything.
The timing of Fitts’ book about why Mashi lasted just through the last half of ’64 and then stuck around for the 1965 season but didn’t come back – it was a sense of obligation, or giri, to his former Japanese League manager and team, which caused him to turn down a lucurative $30,000 deal from the Giants, who couldn’t guarantee that he’d be in their starting rotation – makes for a stunning “what if?” mystery that nicely plays into the Dodgers-Giants rivalry as well and into the context of how Japanese players have made their marks in the “big leagues” since.
Mashi’s MLB career consisted of just nine games in ’64, and 45 more in ’65. His only starting assignment was on Aug. 15 – Murakamai Day, as celebrated by the Giants, just four days after the Watts Riots erupted in L.A.
Mashi and the Dodgers intersected a few times in his brief career. Fitts notes when Mashi made his first pitch in his first appearance as a pro in Candlestick Park, against the Dodgers who held an 8-0 lead in the sixth inning, Wes Parker lined the ball just past Mashi’s ear into centerfield for a single.
“Asked what he was thinking after the hit, Masanori laughed and told the reporter, ‘Something unprintable than didn’t require any translation.’”
Mashi ended his stint with four strike outs – getting Nate Oliver, Don Drysdale, Dick Tracewski and Tommy Davis.
A pitcher who relied on a curveball and occasional screwball, Murakami also got the save against the Dodgers in an infamous Sunday afternoon game on Aug. 22, 1965 – the Juan Marichal-Johnny Roseboro incident. The Dodgers trailed late by a run and had runners on first and second with one out when Murakami got Maury Wills on a foul popup to third and struck out Jim Gilliam looking to end the game.
In five of the six times he faced the Dodgers in ’65 after Aug. 1, he gave up just one hit and no runs in five innings, striking out seven of the 18 batters he faced.
Now flash back to 20 years ago: Murakami was asked by the Giants to escort Hideo Nomo to the United States to meet with their management.
“The trip and subsequent meeting went well,” Fitts writes, “but ultimately Nomo signed with the rival Los Angeles Dodgers.”
And then went on to win the NL Rookie of the Year award and start for the league in the All-Star Game, and Nomomania was born.
Fitts, who also did the 2012 book “Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan” and the 2008 “Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Baseball,” gives an intriguing portrait of Mashi growing up in Japan, focusing on his relationship with a father who was a WWII prison of war and suffered from what would have been called PTSD. There’s no confusion as to why Mashi returned to Japan after the ’65 season, based on his cultural upbringing, despite the fact that several newspapers saw his arrival in the U.S. as a watershed moment. The Hokubei Mainichi had a story with the headline: “Jackie Robinson Did It For Negros, Murakami May Do It For Japenese.”
“I’m sure some of the players (in Japan) could make it here in the United States,” he said at the time. “If I can, I don’t see why they can’t.”
Murakami, who actually tried to make a comeback with the Giants in 1983 after his Japanese days were over but couldn’t get out of spring training, gave Fitts several recent extended interviews for the book to frame his story in modern time circumstances. More recently, he said he had no desire to be a Japanese Jackie Robinson – a symbol for an ethnic group.
“I never worried about things like that,” he said. “I was just here to play baseball and concentrate on my pitching.”
His 1985 Japanese biography, “The Only Major League,” also helped in getting the facts into fresh print.
When you consider how far we have come as a game – and, from a media covering his performance by using ethnic stereotypes passed off as humor in some regards – this is a very telling tale.
Fitts notes that after a game in which Mashi was upset with an umpire’s strike call and threw a rosin bag, it “inspire the predictable comments that passed for wit in the 1960s mainstream media. The Los Angeles Times proclaimed: ‘Murakami was anything but an inscrutable Oriental when (umpire Lee) Weyer made a call he didn’t like.’”
Would that get past the politically correct editors today?
More to know:
== In 2007 a book called “Baseball Haiku: The Best Haiku Ever Written about the Game,” edited by Nanae Tamura and Cor van den Heuvel came out. One of the contributors was Jack Kerouac.
Such as this one:
How cold! — late
September baseball —