The baseball legend and author Rob Fitts travel the U.S. to meet fans and speak about a new book about Murakami’s experience in Major League Baseball.
By Connie K. Ho, Contributor
Before Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers and Ichiro Suzuki of the Miami Marlins, there was Masanori “Mashi” Murakami, who became the first Japanese national to play in Major League Baseball. His story has now been documented by New York City-based author Rob Fitts in his new work “Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major Leaguer.” For more than two weeks in June, Murakami and Fitts traveled the U.S. to meet fans and speak about the book.
Fitts, author of books such as “Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Baseball,” first had the idea to write the book in 2003. He had interviewed Murakami for another story and realized that there was a larger narrative at play. He began working on the book in 2012, completing a year of research.
“When I start a project, I read everything possible out there, anything that possibly could be of interest,” Fitts said. “It gives me the background to figure out what’s important.”
Fitts also traveled to Japan, spending a week with Murakami and a translator, as well as interviewed several former San Francisco Giants players who were teammates of Murakami.
“What was surprising about Mashi’s story was when I first thought about writing this book, I thought it was going to be the story of the difficulties a 20-year-old Japanese would encounter — the stereotypes against the Japanese were really strong back then. I thought it would be a book about perseverance, overcoming hardship, but it wasn’t,” Fitts said. “Mashi’s personality is so outgoing, so easygoing — he has a good sense of humor, he embraced American culture and he had very few hardships.”
Murakami and Fitts recently embarked on a nationwide tour to promote the book, and their visit to the U.S. corresponded with the 50th anniversary of the first Japanese baseball player in the major leagues. To raise funds for the tour, Fitts launched a Kickstarter campaign and was able to raise more than $6,000. Some of those who participated in the fundraiser were able to receive rewards, such as signed memorabilia and copies of the book, and the funds helped cover the travel costs of Tokyo-based Murakami. The Kickstarter campaign description listed some of the trials and tribulations Murakami faced as a baseball player.
“In March 1964, the Nankai Hawks of Japan’s Pacific League sent three teenagers to the U.S. to train with the San Francisco Giants’ minor league teams. One of them was Murakami, a 6-foot left-handed pitcher who was sent to the Fresno Giants of the Single A California League. Mashi worked hard to learn American customs and fit in.
“In need of a left-handed relief pitcher for the pennant race, in September, the San Francisco Giants called up Mashi to the big leagues. With an inning of relief against the New York Mets on Sept. 1, Murakami became the first Japanese to appear in a major league game. Mashi went on to become the Giants’ top left-handed reliever and one of the most popular players on the star-studded team.
“Not surprisingly, the Giants offered him a contract for the 1965 season. Murakami signed, announcing that he’d be thrilled to stay in San Francisco. There was just one problem — the Nankai Hawks wanted him to return to Japan.
“The dispute over Murakami’s contract would last all winter and cause Major League Baseball to suspend all ties to Japan. Finally, in May, the two teams reached an agreement. Mashi would pitch for the Giants in 1965 and then would be allowed to decide where he’d wish to finish his career. Murakami pitched well and yearned to remain in the major leagues, but cultural ties and obligations forced him to return to Japan.”
Stops on the book tour included visits to Los Angeles and Whittier, Calif. The visits included remarks by Fitts, a Q & A session with Murakami and a screening of a clip from Yuriko Gamo Romer’s upcoming documentary “Diamond Diplomacy,” which centers on the relationship between U.S. and Japan via baseball.
One of the visits took place at the Japan Foundation, Los Angeles. Murakami spoke about his first pitch in the major leagues against the New York Mets. He described how he walked up to the pitching mound, humming [the] ‘Sukiyaki’ song to become more at ease in front of a crowd of 40,000. He also shared some amusing anecdotes, including his proud moment of making a hit from legendary Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax.
“About 60 people attended. Most of them are local fans of MLB,” said Tatsuya Kawashima, a program officer for arts and culture at the Japan Foundation. “I am surprised local Americans have more interest in Mashi than local Japanese.”
Joseph Price, professor of religious studies and co-director of the Institute for Baseball Studies at Whittier College, enjoyed hearing the presentation at Whittier College and learning more about Murakami’s story. The evening was the first speaker series hosted by the college’s Institute for Baseball Studies.
“I knew that we were in store for a dynamic evening,” said Price.
During the evening presentation in Whittier, Murakami fielded a question from a former umpire and described an experience at Dodger stadium where his pitch had appeared to be a strike but had been called a ball. Murakami gestured to the umpire, asking him what was wrong with the pitch. The umpire wanted Murakami to return to the mound, but Murakami instead took the rosin bag, tossed it in the air and then was ejected from the game by the umpire. For Murakami, the experience was significant in that, a week later, Japanese men approached him to thank him for acting in such a way. To them, it felt like a silent protest against the ways they had been treated at the internment camps in World War II.
Speaking to the crowd of over 100, Murakami also expressed that he would have liked to have pitched more for the Giants and had a longer career in the U.S. major leagues.
Reminiscing on his trip with Murakami, Fitts noted that it was fun to spend time with his subject after completing years of research and writing for the biography.
“It was the trip of a lifetime,” he said.