Long before Hideo Nomo was making major league hitters look silly with an unorthodox windup and an unhittable forkball, or Ichiro Suzuki began rewriting the record books, pitcher Masanori Murakami was blazing the trail.
Murakami, 65, became the first Japanese to play in the majors when he made his debut for the San Francisco Giants at Shea Stadium in 1964 against the New York Mets.
The left-hander was recently honored for his accomplishment, receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan and the Association for American Baseball Research on Sept. 1, 45 years to the day of his historic debut.
It took 30 years after Murakami’s feat before another Japanese player (Nomo) suited up for an MLB club. The climate has changed drastically since then, with a number of Japanese going to the MLB. So many in fact that some have said the exodus is detrimental to Japanese baseball.
“I don’t think the level of professional baseball in Japan will go down if many Japanese players go to the major leagues,” Murakami said.
Having had an opportunity none of his contemporaries received, Murakami hopes that today’s generation will get the same chance.
“I think the players, each of them, they should choose the best place to play,” Murakami said. “Right now I think the MLB is the best place to play. I hope the professional teams in Japan will be more open to the players who hope to go to the major leagues.”
His belief is why it’s no surprise that, unlike some others in the Japanese baseball world, Murakami seems to be in favor of the posting system for Japanese players. The pioneer says both the players and the teams they play for should use the system to their benefit.
“The player should think about how he can sell himself at a higher price,” Murakami said. “Players should also think about who can pay more for them and find those teams.
“The teams always need to think about when they can sell the players and get a good deal,” Murakami added. “So at least one year before the beginning of free agency, the posting system should be used by the teams.
“Some players like (Hokkaido Nippon Ham pitcher Yu) Darvish can play well in the MLB. I think the exchanging of players is good for baseball.”
“Mashi,” as he was known by teammates in San Francisco, played with a who’s who of baseball greats during his career in the majors and Japan. Some of his former teammates include MLB Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda, Warren Spahn and NPB Hall of Famer Katsuya Nomura.
Murakami, who coached for the Seibu Lions for several years, also counts Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry among his contemporaries with the Giants, and even picked up a few pointers from the pitcher famous for throwing the spitball.
“He told me, ‘Hey Mashi, go like this,’ ” Murakami humorously recalled, miming spitting on a ball for effect.
Murakami also played against many of baseball’s legends such as Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax, whom he recorded a hit against.
“I remember the game against Koufax, when I was the batter,” Murakami said. “On the first ball, I swung and missed. On the second, I bunted toward third base and ran to first. I was satisfied about that play.”
Murakami’s path to the MLB began in 1962 when he joined the Nankai Hawks in the Pacific League.
In 1964, the Hawks sent him and two other players to the Fresno Giants, San Francisco’s Single-A team in Fresno, Calif. It was there that Murakami realized that he had a chance to one day reach the big leagues.
“On Aug. 25, my teammates were chatting and they were saying that some players were going to be called up to the major leagues,” Murakami said. “I was thinking about some other players but not myself, but they were talking about me also. It was then I thought I might also be called up.”
He got the call and a plane ticket just days later and pitched a scoreless inning in his major league debut. Murakami continued to pitch well for the rest of the season for San Francisco.
So well, actually, he caused an international incident.
Pleased with their Japanese import, the Giants signed Murakami to a contract for the 1965 season, invoking a clause in their deal with Nankai allowing them to purchase the contract of any of the three prospects the Hawks loaned them for $10,000.
Caught by surprise that Murakami developed so well, the Hawks demanded that he return to Japan and also signed him to a contract for the ’65 season.
The MLB saw this as a violation and commissioner Ford Frick called for his NPB counterpart, Yushi Ushimura, to demand that Nankai return the player to the Giants.
After relations between the world’s two biggest baseball entities cooled — nearly completely freezing over — a compromise was reached allowing Murakami to pitch for the Giants in 1965.
That season would be his last in the MLB, and he returned to Japan to play with the Hawks and later the Hanshin Tigers and Nippon Ham Fighters.
The difference in styles between the two nations was apparent when Murakami returned to Japan, requiring some adjustments on his part.
“Compared to American players, Japanese batters are better at making contact,” Murakami said. “So it was more difficult to get players to swing than in the States.”
Murakami, who commentates on MLB games on NHK’s satellite channel, has seen a lot during his baseball life and believes that Japanese baseball needs to evolve, in order to sustain the quality of play in Japan.
“The NPB is trying to improve the level of professional baseball in Japan,” Murakami said. “If I were the commissioner, first I would want to make a change in the managerial levels. For example, the NPB should have a more professional managerial system.”
The argument is often made that Japan needs to keep its best players in Japan. Because if the top talent all goes to the MLB, the talent level and overall product in the NPB will decrease.
Having played and worked in both leagues, Murakami is of the opinion that more change is needed at the top of the Japanese baseball structure to maintain the level of the NPB.
“The new commissioner in the NPB, Mr. (Ryozo) Kato, he really knows about the Major League Baseball system,” Murakami said. “So I hope he can change baseball in Japan in a good way. Not only in a technical way, but also in business areas.
“In the case of the MLB, the commissioner really has a lot of power. For example, during the owners’ meetings, of course all the owners will come. In the case of the NPB, most owners don’t show up. Maybe their representatives will come. It shows the power of the commissioner in Japan is really not that big. I think that is also a point that the NPB needs to change.”
Having experienced what so few Japanese players have or will ever experience, Murakami believes that the players should take more control over where they ply their trade.
“If a player wants to go to the major leagues, of course he should go,” Murakami said. “Even if the players play only for the team (and not for himself), when the team doesn’t need the player, the team just cuts him. So the players should not think about working for the team. He should think about playing for himself all the time.”