While writing a freelance piece about the influx of Japanese players into the American major leagues, I attempted to find out who came first. The first Japanese player most of us can remember is Hideo Nomo, who had a crazy up-and-down career that featured two no-hitters, including the only one ever thrown in the pitcher’s hell known as Coors Field.
But Nomo wasn’t first. He was preceded by another pitcher more than thirty years prior. In the summer of 1964, the Nippon League’s Nankai Hawks sent 20-year-old reliever Masanori “Mashi” Murakami to the American minor leagues (along with two other players) as sort of a combined promotional stunt/training regimen. The goal was to get a young player some experience so that he would be of value to his team back home.
Mashi ended up pitching so well that he got called up, however. He made his major league debut on September 1, 1964. Over the rest of the season, he struck out 15 batters in as many innings and recorded one win with a 1.80 ERA overall.
Well, sports fans, the folks in San Francisco had taken a liking to the “quirky” lefty, who bowed to his teammates and worked hard to learn new ways to strike out opponents. The Giants entered into a negotiation (one step down from an international incident) that resulted in a compromise: The Giants could keep Mashi for the 1965 season, but then they had to give him back to Nankai.
Mashi made the most of his extra year abroad, mastering a major-league screwball and appearing in 45 games. He picked up 4 wins and 8 saves for a Giants team that finished second in the National League in 1965. He worked alongside future Hall of Famers Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, and Warren Spahn. The offense boasted Willie McCovey, Willie Mays, and Orlando Cepeda, amongst others.
When Mashi returned to Japan, he had modest success, winning a league championship in the 80’s, but he never became the superstar his team expected him to be. Since then he has been a coach, a commentator, and an ambassador for the Japanese game. He is keeping a close eye on the current Asian Invasion. In 2001, he had this to say to MLB.com
Seeing Ichiro get the MVP was great, because it showed that Japanese players can come to America and be stars. He showed that he had a lot of talent and that people should pay attention to great players all over the world.
Call me crazy, but I hope the Giants bring Mashi back for a little recognition some time soon. He seems like a great guy with a winning attitude who loves the city of San Francisco.
If not the Giants, then MLB and even Cooperstown should take a look at honoring Masanori Murakami. He was the first to prove that Japanese experience could translate to major-league success in the U.S., and should be honored as a pioneer. Wouldn’t you just love to see that smiling face on your television?