Excavating Japan’s buried baseball history with Masanori Murakami


Special To The Japan Times

Sometimes historical analysis can’t compete with a good personal story, as Robert K. Fitts — a baseball expert and former archaeologist — proves with his newest book, “Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major Leaguer.”

Robert K. Fitts, by 221 pages.
University of Nebraska Press, Nonfiction.

Masanori Murakami is the first baseball player from Japan to play for a Major League team in the U.S. — his story takes place 30 years before pitcher Hideo Nomo burst onto the Major League baseball scene in May, 1995.

After debuting in 1964, at 20-years-old, Murakami (aka “Mashi”) enjoyed a year of exciting success during a pennant race as the closing pitcher for the San Francisco Giants until obligations and a series of personal decisions sent him back to Japan forever. Fans can finally read his full story in Fitts’ book, but don’t expect a cross-cultural analysis of baseball. The reverberations of Mashi’s success may have cut connections between the Nippon Professional Baseball league and the Major Leagues in the U.S. for three decades, but that historical context is not as important to Fitts as Murakami’s personal narrative.

“I wanted to focus on the study of a person — one person’s choices,” he says. “So the broader context is not historical so much this time, but more about human choice, regret as we get older and repercussions that may be unexpected.”

It’s a departure from Fitts’ usual work, but it suits Murakami’s tale — a story Fitts says he found “deeply moving.”

His previous books include “Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage & Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan” and “Remembering Japanese Baseball: An Oral History of the Game,” which is a collection of stories from the perspective of a variety of Japanese and foreign players in Japan.

Fitts himself enjoyed a brief stint playing baseball in a Japanese company league when his wife’s job brought him to Tokyo.

“I used baseball as a way to plan adventures in Japan. It taught me how Tokyo worked, helped me get over my fear of exploring a new city with limited language skills, it became a passion for me,” he says.

“My stories aren’t just about baseball. I usually try to put them in the broader historical context — that’s where my background in archaeology really comes through because it is not enough to tell a story about a baseball player or it is not enough to excavate a house and explain what was there, you have to connect it to a bigger picture to make it meaningful to a broad audience.”

With Murakami, however, personal stories became most important. Although Fitts wrote an entire chapter discussing the political reverberations of Mashi’s life dilemma, he decided to end the book without including the broader context.

“I got a strong sense that this was where to end the book — that a historical analysis would take away from the main story.”

“Mashi” is richer without it, as culture and history inevitably emerge through Murakami’s life story.

Fitts met the baseball legend while researching his first book and found him to be “very accessible.”

“I was touched by how open he was about his experiences and his emotions and put the idea of writing more about him someday in the back of my mind,” Fitts says.

When Murakami finally agreed to a full-length book — on New Year’s Day in 2012 — Fitts flew to Japan and spent a week interviewing him. The two corresponded frequently afterward, and there is a sense of oral storytelling that further enlivens Murakami’s story for the reader.

Organized chronologically, the book opens with the 4-year-old Murakami meeting his war-veteran father for the first time and takes us through his involvement with baseball during his youth and his decision to become a professional pitcher in Japan. The main focus of the book is on Murakami’s brief time in the U.S., and ends with an afterword explaining his life after leaving for Japan.

The book naturally reveals aspects of Japanese culture as Mashi brushed up against 1960s America — especially giri or obligation, racial stereotypes and, of course, viewing baseball as a martial art. Also, Murakami’s popularity in the California Bay Area — where there is a large population of Japanese who lived through World War II in U.S. internment camps — casts into relief the pain suffered by Japanese in the U.S. during the war.

Despite its lack of cultural analysis, Fitts stays true to his researcher roots by including footnotes and an extensive biography.

Murakami was honored last May in San Francisco at the San Francisco Giants’ Japanese Heritage Night and later at the 50th anniversary of his debut with the club. Now he is set to join Fitts on a three-week book tour this summer in the U.S. — a tour Fitts hopes to eventually bring to Japan.

“People have been so excited to bring over Mashi, especially in the Bay Area. I really feel very passionate about this story, it is really powerful and personable.”

For more information on the “Mashi” book tour or Robert K. Fitts’ other books, visit www.robfitts.com.