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Big League Stew

Japan’s Masanori Murakami joined the majors 47 years ago Thursday

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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The first Japanese-born player in the major leagues left American baseball 30 years before the first star from Japan emerged here. Masanori Murakami came over from the Nankai Hawks to the San Francisco Giants in 1964, and pitched his first major league game on Sept. 1 of that season.

He pitched two seasons in the United States and then returned to Japan. He was the last Japanese player to move from Nippon Professional Baseball to the majors until 1995, when Hideo Nomo (who turned 43 Wednesday) came over to the Los Angeles Dodgers —  touching off "Nomo Mania," winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award and finishing fourth in Cy Young voting.

(Nomo wasn't actually the second major leaguer born in Japan. Three players, Bobby Fenwick, Steve Chitren and Jim Bowie — who combined for 111 games played between them — were born in Japan to American parents. Fenwick was the son of an American father and a Japanese-American mother of Okinawan descent.)

[Related: An older post by 'Duk with more details about Murakami]

Murakami was an anomalous early pioneer whose struggles may have decreased, rather than increased, the likelihood of other Japanese players playing in the majors. But he nonetheless was a trailblazer of the Pacific Rim. He began his career as auspiciously as anyone ever could, with a Joba Chamberlain-like 11 scoreless innings before being touched up for three runs in a four-inning long stint in his last appearance of the 1964 season.

But then his life got complicated. {YSP:MORE}

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Murakami had signed with the Nankai Hawks while he was still in high school. (His high school won the prestigious Koshien tournament, which later elevated Daisuke Matsuzaka to superstardom.) After pitching just two innings in the 1963 season, he was viewed as quite raw and relatively unpromising, and so he was swapped to the Giants in the U.S., where the Hawks expected him to train in the low minors and then return (though the contract stipulated that the Giants could buy out his contract from the Hawks for $10,000).

However, he pitched so well in San Francisco's system that he blew through the low minors and earned a call-up in August, when he was just 20 years old. On the season, in Class A Fresno and the majors, he combined to pitch 121 innings with a 12-7 record and a 1.79 ERA — almost entirely in relief. Understandably, the Giants didn't want him to go back to Japan — but his homeland didn't want to lose him, either.

Murakami was born in 1944, raised by an overbearing father who had spent World War II in Manchuria and other parts of what's now China. His father wanted Murakami to study medicine, not baseball. So, he began to play the game in secret, but throughout his career was overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility and guilt.

When the Hawks called him back to Japan after the 1964 season and asked him to sign a contract with them, he signed, even though the Giants had already paid $10,000 to purchase his contract. Now he had run afoul of leagues on both sides of the Pacific, each of which asserted complete authority over where a player played.

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(The reserve clause in American baseball ended in 1975, thanks in large part to the struggles of Curt Flood, whose life was likely shortened by the fight; in Japan, players' freedom to come to America was achieved in the late 1990s, after the struggles of  Nomo (pictured), Alfonso Soriano and —  especially — Hideki Irabu.

Eventually, a compromise was reached: Murakami would return to San Francisco for the '65 season, but thereafter he would pitch in Japan. His 1965 season was good, but nowhere near as transcendent as the past year, as he posted a 3.75 ERA in 74.1 innings. In spacious Candlestick Park at the height of the era of the pitcher, that performance was actually slightly below league average.

He went back to Japan at the end of the season and pitched 17 more seasons, switching between starting and relief, achieving good but not stellar results; his career 3.64 ERA in Japan is slightly higher than his career 3.43 ERA in America.

He also carried around a sense of what might have been in recalling his relationship with Kazuto Tsuruoka, Nankai's manager and an NPB legend.

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"If I had returned to the Major Leagues, I would have realized my dream, but I would have betrayed Mr. Tsuruoka. Yet, because I kept my promise to Mr. Tsuruoka, I forever carry this sense of regret."

Pictured above: On the left, Murakami as a rookie at Shea Stadium in 1964. On the right, Murakami being welcomed at a Giants game in 2008.

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