Reader Jim Gallagher from New Jersey wrote, “I was watching on TV (Kenji) Johjima catching for the Seattle Mariners and wondered if there has ever been a gaikokujin catcher to play in Japan. I can’t think of one. Is this the last barrier to be broken?”
There was an American catcher who played in Japan prior to World War II named “Bucky” Harris McGalliard and a few foreign catchers in the 1950s and ’60s after Japanese baseball was revived following World War II and the two-league system formed.
Among them were Charlie Hood, who caught 25 games for the 1953 Mainichi Orions, Charlie Lewis in 265 games with the Orions in 1954-55, and Sal Recca behind the plate in 200 games for the Tombow Unions in 1954-55.
Nick Testa was listed as a catcher when he played 57 games for Mainichi in 1962, but I cannot find any other foreigners after that specifically brought to Japan to play the position.
I have seen with my own eyes two Americans put on the mask, chest protector and shin guards and crouch behind the plate in official Japanese games: Adrian “Smokey” Garrett with the Hiroshima Carp in the late 1978 and Mike “Rambo” Diaz of the Lotte Orions in 1990.
Garrett played mostly left field and first base with the Carp but was called on to catch eight games, and things did not go so smoothly in communicating with the Japanese pitchers.
“I kept getting crossed up,” he had said, and he did not know why.
“The language barrier was tough but, though my interpreter, I thought we had everything worked out with the pitchers. However, I would call for a breaking ball, and a fastball came whizzing in. Or I would signal for the fastball, and the pitcher would throw a slider. I finally gave up.”
Diaz’s work behind the plate was also limited to a handful of games with Lotte after he, too, was crossed up too often and he was unable to verbally communicate important strategy with the Japanese pitchers.
A utility man who played first base, third base and left field with the Orions, Diaz had done some catching in his days in the United States in the organizations of the Cubs and Pirates prior to joining Lotte in 1989.
The Orions actually scheduled a “Mike Diaz Day” in March of 1991 at the old bandbox Kawasaki Stadium, Lotte’s home ballpark at the time. During a pre-season exhibition game, Diaz was to have played one inning at each position, including pitcher and catcher.
The Japanese sports papers, as well as this column, publicized the planned stunt, but it was inexplicably canceled at the last minute, and the short-lived catching career of Mike Diaz in Japan came to an end.
And then there was Dingo.
Dave Nilsson was an All-Star catcher with the Milwaukee Brewers throughout most of the 1990s, and he became a free agent following the 1999 season.
An Australian, Nilsson wanted to play for his country which would be hosting the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, but major leaguers were not permitted to leave their teams in midseason to go to the Olympics.
His agent, Alan Nero, came up with the idea to get his client a one-year contract in Japan, and the deal would give an interested team a bona fide major league star in his prime at a moderate salary, with the stipulation he would be allowed to leave for three weeks in August to prepare for, and participate in, the Olympics.
Nero contacted teams in the Pacific League, figuring Nilsson could serve as a designated hitter because Japanese teams might be hesitant to hire a foreign catcher.
There were no takers, but Nero was successful in getting Nilsson a contract with the Central League Chunichi Dragons. The pact included the Olympic Games permission clause.
The guy reported to the Dragons spring camp and was told he would play left field exclusively, as the CL has no DH system.
He was registered under the name “Dingo.” The exhibition season began, and Dingo was making the smooth adjustment to Japanese baseball
Then one day at Tokyo Dome, about two weeks before the regular season was to begin, Chunichi was playing against the Nippon Ham Fighters. Dingo started in left as usual but, midway through the game, his interpreter, Toyoharu Kunimitsu, approached Nilsson and, completely out of the blue, said, “Skipper wants you to catch from the bottom of the sixth until the end of the game.”
Not having put on the catcher’s gear since the previous September and, with no preparation whatsoever, Dingo followed manager Senichi Hoshino’s instructions and went out to catch. He was totally lost.
He had no idea what pitches to call for because he did not even know what was in the pitcher’s repertoire. The experience proved to be a disaster, and he never caught again for the Dragons.
In fact, Dingo became so confused and disoriented, he got off to a poor start at the plate and was sent in April to Chunichi’s Western League farm team. His final statistics with the Dragons varsity include a .180 batting average with one home run and eight RBIs in just 18 games.
He did catch for the Aussie team in the Olympics, though.
Current Hiroshima manger Marty Brown said prior to the 2007 season the Carp might consider signing an American catcher “if the right guy were available,” especially one with experience catching a knuckleballer, because Brown’s club had signed butterfly pitcher Jared Fernandez.
It did not happen, though, and it is doubtful any Japanese teams will sign a foreign catcher any time soon — especially when you consider the experiences of Smokey, Rambo and Dingo.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com