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A half-century later, Murakami's legacy remains strong

Southpaw was baseball's first Japanese player, decades before current influx of talent

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Masahiro Tanaka was the talk of baseball's offseason, the Yankees signing with the Japanese pitching sensation to a seven-year, $155 million contract.

Like with so many of his other countrymen who have signed big league contracts in the past 20 years, a press corps dedicated to Tanaka documents his every move back to the folks in Japan.

"Wasn't that way 50 years ago," said Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry.

No, it wasn't. Fifty years ago this month, the first Japanese baseball players arrived in Arizona at the Giants' Spring Training camp in Casa Grande, Ariz. -- three pitchers, all headed to Single-A Fresno in what was termed an "exchange-student" type of event.

By season's end, one of those three, Masanori Murakami, was in the big leagues, making his debut for the Giants on Sept. 1, 1964, and becoming the first Japanese pitcher in big league history. But it would be another 30 years before Hideo Nomo of the Dodgers would become the second Japanese player in the big leagues.

Murakami was successful with the Giants not only in that final month of 1964 (nine relief appearances, a 1.80 ERA and a save), but also in '65, when he appeared in 45 games -- one of which was a start -- and went 4-1 with eight saves and a 3.75 ERA.

Murakami's time in the big leagues, however, was not as celebrated as the arrival of Tanaka and the 58 other Japanese players who have now played in the Major Leagues.

Times have allowed the relationship between the United States and Japan to grow.

Murakami's big league debut, after all, came one day shy of the 19th anniversary of Japan's surrender to the U.S. in World War II. There were still emotional wounds on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

Giants manager Herman Franks received death threats for pitching Murakami, who needed FBI protection for a period of time.

"It was because I was Japanese," Murakami told The Associated Press five years ago. "The sender might have been someone whose family had suffered because of World War II."

Just the same, Murakami had no complaints with the big leagues, and the Giants had no complaints about the way he pitched. He has said on more than one occasion that he wished he could have finished his career in the big leagues instead of returning to Japan, where he pitched from 1966-82 with the Nankai Hawks, Hanshin Tigers and Nippon Ham Fighters.

"He was a fan favorite," said Perry. "The Giants weren't drawing real well back then, and he was very popular with the Asian population in San Francisco, which was pretty sizable."

However, the Hawks, the team he belonged to when he came to pitch for the Giants, decided they wanted Murakami, 21 at the time, to return to Japan and pitch for them.

"His mom and dad said they didn't know what they had signed [with the Giants]," said Perry. "They said they had been misled. The Giants weren't going to get into a fight with the people in Japan so they let him go."

Perry said as brief as Murakami's big league career was, the six-foot, 180-pounder proved he belonged.

"He had a lot of confidence, and he had reason to have a lot of confidence," said Perry. "He had that 8 a.m.-to-4 p.m. curveball. He got to face the best players in baseball, and he proved he could compete with them. I've seen him a couple times over the years, and he talks about how much he enjoyed pitching over here."

Murakami's success, however, didn't lead to a rush on signing Japanese players. There was, as Murakami said, still an uneasiness because of World War II. And the fans in Japan wanted the best players to stay home and play in the country's fledgling professional leagues.

Three decades later, however, with a growing desire among the top Japanese players to move to the big leagues, Major League Baseball and the professional leagues in Japan reached an agreement that allowed Major League teams to acquire Japanese players.

The Giants even hired Murakami, who is a television commentator in Japan, to be one of their scouts there.

Nomo was the first of the post-Murakami Japanese players, signing with the Dodgers. He made an impact, including pitching the only no-hitters ever at Coors Field (for the Dodgers in 1996) and at Camden Yards (for the Red Sox in 2001). He won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1995 and went on to win 123 games, the most of any Japanese pitcher.

Ichiro Suzuki not only was the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2001 in his debut with the Mariners, he also won the AL Most Valuable Player Award and the league's batting title -- the foundation for a career that continues today with the New York Yankees. The expectation is that he will be the first Japanese player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

"The Japanese players are bigger now," said Perry, "but I don't know if any of them are as strong as Massy, at least not as mentally strong. They didn't have to deal with the political issues he did."

Murakami handled those issues, just like he did big league hitters: without the slightest fear.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for
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