As Masanori Murakami walked from the bullpen at Shea Stadium to make his Major League Baseball debut, he sang a famous Japanese song titled ‘Sukiyaki’ by Kyu Sakamoto. The song is about a man who looks to the sky and whistles so a tear does not fall. The lyrics describe his memories, hopes, dreams and feelings. Murakami sang the song to calm his nerves, as he became the first player of Japanese origin to appear in the Major Leagues.
The American baseball exchange program was designed to fulfill multiple purposes. Launched in 1964, it allowed the San Francisco Giants to gain a marketing foothold and talent pathway in Japan, a country that was quickly becoming obsessed with America’s pastime. For Kazuto Tsuruoka and the Nankai Hawks, later called the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, one of the most successful teams in Pacific League history and 11 time Champions of Japan, it offered them a chance to learn about the American game. How teams operated, how training sessions were conducted, how the game was played and what new tactics were gaining popularity. Information wasn’t as readily available in 1964, and travel instead of TV, opened up new horizons.
Had it been up to Murakami’s father, he would have been a doctor. But he was a talented pitcher and after high school he was signed to the Nankai Hawks, and then selected by manager Kazuto Tsuruoka to travel to America on a baseball exchange program.
Murakami left Yokohama, Japan on March 2, 1964 with $400 in his pocket, a basic understanding of English, and a pocket dictionary to communicate. His ship arrived in San Francisco thirteen days later.He didn’t travel alone–he was accompanied on the trip by two teammates, Tatsuhiko Tanaka and Hiroshi Takahashi–but neither player made the impact that Murakami did. And while they offered a cultural comfort during the early period of his time in America, Murakami quickly accelerated through the Giants minor leagues, and when he made the trip to New York to make his Major League debut, he did so alone.
Money would be a constant hurdle for Murakami. He arrived unaware that American baseball players were only paid in-season rather than year-round like in Japan, and his funds quickly dwindled. Many Minor Leaguers took part-time jobs in the off-season to see them through. Had it not been for a chance meeting with a third-generation Japanese-American man named Howard Saiki who offered to let Murakami stay with him, he may have run out of money before he was able to take the mound.
He made his professional debut in the Minor Leagues for the Giants affiliate in Fresno. It was the first chance for an American audience to get a look at Murakami and his sidearm slinging action. Although at this point he was only playing in front of 300-400 spectators, the local papers in Fresno couldn’t get enough. He didn’t throw hard, his fastball was usually around the 82-85mph range, but he had a changeup, curve and later a screwball that befuddled Minor and Major League hitters.
Still, it wasn’t always easy in Fresno. He was often targeted by this teammates for pranks based on his heritage. Resentments from World War II and Japanese internment lingered. Things got so bad that at one point he turned his back on the American flag during a game in protest. (Though he later admitted that kind of protest was a mistake.)
He eventually endeared himself to his teammates in a game against the Santa Barbara Dodgers after his third-baseman made an astounding diving catch, once the play was over Murakami walked halfway to third base and instead of heading straight for the dugout, he paused and thanked Powell for his defensive help, something that wasn’t seen very often on baseball diamond around America. He also made a habit of bowing to his teammates after impressive plays, a mark of respect that you still see on baseball diamonds around Japan today.
Murakami became an instant star in Fresno. He pitched to a 11-7 record, a 2.38 ERA and struck out 159 batters in just 106 innings. He was later named the league's Rookie of the Year. In many ways, Fresno was the perfect location for him to sample the American dream. It was home to California’s largest Japanese population outside of LA County. Many Japanese people came to Fresno at the start of the 20th century to work in agricultural industry and despite a decline over the second World War, the population quickly rebuilt. The team held a Japanese American Day celebration on May 20th, with local Japanese business leaders coming to honor Murakami.
Only 6 months after arriving in the US, Murakami got the news that millions dream of, he was leaving for the Major Leagues. The Giants wanted him in the bullpen within 24 hours, so he hopped on a rickety propeller plane from Fresno to San Francisco, then a Jumbo Jet from San Francisco to New York and then a taxi from the airport to the hotel. He made his Major League debut that night with a scoreless appearance against the Mets. One can only imagine what he was thinking as he entered the game, thousands of faces staring on, but he settled his nerves and delivered. On September 29th he became the first Japanese player to record a Major League win. He finished the season with a 1.80 ERA striking out 15 batters over 8 mound appearances. The Giants, impressed with the way he dominated on the mound, evoked their right to purchase the contract of one Japanese player who had made the trip. They sent $10,000 to the Hawks with the understanding that Murakami would remain in San Francisco.
What followed was a historic strain in international sports relations. The Hawks argued a miscommunication. They’d paid Murakami a $30,000 signing bonus, why would they allow the San Francisco Giants to secure his contract for just 1/3 of the original price? It made no sense. They said the $10,000 was a bonus for Murakami making the Major Leagues and helping the Giants over the final portion of the season.
They demanded that he be sent home immediately.
Murakami reluctantly returned to Japan where months of negotiation took place. Eventually they made a deal, Murakami could return to pitch for the Giants in 1965, but must return to Japan and his original team at the end of the season. It wasn’t perfect, but it allowed Murakami to continue his American adventure.
Murakami’s career in the Majors was short, but the impact is still felt today. He didn’t just break the barrier of Japanese players heading to the Major Leagues, he changed perceptions. Up until that point the Japanese league was seen as inferior, often regarded as no better than the Double-A in the USA. Murakami’s ability on the mound proved that wasn’t the case. The Japanese baseball league was now to be respected.
On August 15th the Giants celebrated Masanori Murakami with a day in his honor, where he was presented with a brand new Datsun from the Kikkoman soy sauce company. As he took the mound he was greeted by a sea of Japanese flags in the stands. Murakami did for Asian children what Jackie Robinson did for the African American population, he made it possible for them to dream of making it to the show. But the hostile contract battle between the Giants and Hawks reverberated for years. It wasn’t until 1995 and Hideo Nomo that another Japanese player set foot on the US diamond, and even that was based on a contract loophole and having to retire from Japanese baseball at the age of 26. Between 1995 and the end of 2005, 24 Japanese players had made their MLB debut, the door was open and it stayed open.
Although this is where Murakami’s Major League story ends, his baseball career was only just starting. He won 103 games and 2 Japanese Championships. He finished his career with a stellar 3.47 ERA. Inspired by Roberto Clemente, Murakami went on to work as the UN refugee goodwill ambassador as well as a charity fundraising coordinator. He served as Japan's national women's baseball team manager to try and raise the profile and encourage inclusivity.
On Friday, May 15, 2014 on the 50th anniversary of his debut, the Giants honored Murakami again, celebrating "Japanese Heritage Night”. Fans in attendance were given a figurine-style bust of Murakami. At 70, he strolled out to to throw the first pitch wearing a coat and tie. Instead of looping up a ball for the cameras, he reared back and threw a perfect strike.
Now at the age of 79 he lives in Otsuki, Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan, located in the foothills of Mount Fuji. Murakami decided early that he would never marry, instead dedicating his life to the game he loves. It takes a certain kind of character, a certain kind of devotion and a certain kind of obsession to choose a game over starting a family, but Murakami never doubted his decision. Otsuki is renowned for its hot springs and picturesque scenery. It’s also renowned for being the home of the first Japanese baseball player to ever appear in the Major Leagues.