Masanori Murakami: MLB’s First Japanese Player
Japanese Baseball: A Very Short Primer
Japan is an island country located in the northwest Pacific Ocean. For over two hundred years until 1853, Japan lived in near isolation from the rest of the world. Then came along American Commodore Matthew Perry. Perry decided to visit Japan with four warships and see what the island country was all about.
Japan was essentially forced to open its boarders. Trade quickly followed as well as foreign settlement. After so many years in isolation Japan realized that they had fallen behind many Western countries–specifically the United States–and they decided to take the necessary steps to catch up. They sent students to study in the U.S. and brought over teachers from America to learn the ways of the modern Western world. The Japanese students returned home and brought baseball with them while visiting teachers also introduced the game. By the turn of the century baseball had become the national pastime in Japan.
Coming of Age
Baseball became the national pastime in the U.S. and Japan at roughly the same time. Although professional baseball developed much sooner in America. For the first part of the 20th century baseball was largely a high school and collegiate sport in Japan. The first stable Japanese professional league formed in 1936 nearly 60 years after the formation of the National League in the States. The Japanese Baseball League (JBL) lasted from 1936 until it was reorganized in 1950 as Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB).
From the beginning of professional baseball in Japan, Americans have been playing overseas with much success, starting with Fumito “Jimmy” Horio. Horio was a Japanese-American from Hawaii who toured with the Dai Nippon Tokyo Yakyu Kurabu in 1935. While Americans have always been present in Japanese professional baseball the same is not true of Japanese players in major league baseball. Not until 1964 did a Japanese baseball player appear in a major league game.
But who was this first ball player? Many fans and students of the game have no idea who the first Japanese major leaguer was.
His name was Masanori Murakami and he was born in 1944 in Otsuki, Yamanashi, Japan. He first played Japanese professional baseball while still in high school. The Nankai Hawks signed Murakami in 1962 and sent him on an exchange program along with two other players to the San Francisco Giants single A club in Fresno. Essentially the Hawks forgot about Murakami and never recalled him to Japan, which led to him finishing out the season with the Giants. He remained in Fresno until he was called up to the majors in August of that same year.
Masanori made his official MLB debut on September 1, 1964. The Giants were on an east coast road trip and playing the first of a three game set at the newly opened Shea Stadium. San Francisco was trailing 4-0 going into the bottom of the eighth when Giants manager Alvin Dark decided to give the young rookie a shot. Murakami faced four batters. He struck out Charley Smith looking and then gave up a single to Chris Cannizzaro. Ed Kranepool was up next and Masanori struck him out too and then forced Roy McMillan to ground out to short. The Giants would go on to score one in the ninth, but it was in vain. While the Giants lost, Murakami’s first outing went well, which set him up for future appearances.
He recorded his first win later that month on September 29th, pitching the final three innings against the Houston Colt .45s. Masanori faced ten and let up one hit with zero earned runs. Over the remainder of the season he pitched in seven more games for a total of 15 innings on the season. Murakami allowed just eight hits and three runs while striking out 15.
The Giants were excited about Masanori and the Hawks suddenly remembered their young pitcher that they had sent over seas and ordered him back to Japan. San Francisco, sensing a rising star, refused and the result was a stalemate between the two clubs. The final decision fell on the Japanese baseball commissioner, who decided that Murakami would remain with the Giants for the 1965 season before returning to the Hawks.
The Bigs and Beyond
Over the 1965 season Murakami appear in 45 games and finished with a 4 and 1 record. He had a 3.75 ERA with 85 strikeouts over 74 and 1/3 innings. He had proven that he could pitch at a major league level, but his time was up in the U.S. The Hawks welcomed home their native son, who returned to Japan with a sharp screwball that he had learned with the Giants. Expectations were high, but unfortunately they didn’t pan out. He remained with the Hawks for nine seasons, with a few bright spots. One of these bright spots was an 18 and 4 record in 1968 and another was a championship in 1973.
The Hawks traded Murakami to the Hanshin Tigers for the 1975 season where he appeared in only 18 games and proved a disappointment. The Tigers traded Masanori to the Nippon Ham Fighters in 1976 where he would remain until his retirement in 1982. Over eighteen years in the NPB, Murakami amassed a 103 and 82 record with a lifetime 3.64 ERA.
Following his professional career Murakami returned to the Giants, serving as the 1983 batting practice pitcher for home games. He went on to be a minor league pitching coach for the Nippon Ham Fighters and a pitching coach for the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks and Seibu Lions. He was also a baseball commentator and sports writer for the Daily Sports newspaper. The Giants have honored him twice during Japanese heritage nights giving out promotional Murakami bobbleheads and busts of his likeness. Murakami will forever be remembered as the first Japanese baseball player to play major league baseball.
Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images