Gail Hopkins, the first baseman on the 1975 Hiroshima Carp Central League championship team, returned to Japan last month for some business and reminiscing about his days with the team.
Old-timers will remember Hopkins and Richie Scheinblum were recruited to play for the Carp by then-manager American Joe Lutz and, after Lutz resigned a month into the ’75 season, the two American players went on to become fan favorites as they helped Hiroshima win its first Central League pennant.
Hopkins, batting fifth, formed a potent cleanup trio with superstars Koji Yamamoto and Sachio Kinugasa.
In his first year, the former Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals and Los Angeles Dodgers player hit 33 home runs and drove in 91 runs, both team highs that year. He went on to play another year with the Carp, batting .329, and he finished a three-year Japan career playing a season in the Pacific League with the Nankai Hawks in Osaka in 1977.
Kinugasa has always said it was Hopkins who really carried that 1975 team, and Hiroshima would not have won the CL title without him.
While power was one of Hopkins’ main skills as a ballplayer, speed was not. He was a slow runner with heavy thighs, and the Japanese fans affectionately called him “Zo-ashi” or “elephant legs.”
Now 70 and a doctor, Hopkins was back in Japan to attend a series of medical conventions and participated in the first-pitch ceremony at the May 25 Carp game vs. the Rakuten Eagles in Hiroshima; not as the pitcher but as the batter.
Hopkins is a true scholar-athlete. Following retirement from baseball at age 34, he went on to become an orthopedic surgeon, having earned two master’s and a doctorate degree along the way. He currently serves on the board of directors and as a professor at Ohio Valley University in West Virginia.
His appearance last month at Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium marked his first time at the ballpark since its opening in 2009. “The new stadium is really nice,” he said, but he felt sad about also revisiting the site of the old Hiroshima Shimin Kyujo (Municipal Stadium) where he played.
“The scene was melancholy,” he said about the open lot across the street from Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park where Shi-min Kyujo once stood. “There is nothing there now but a big space, except for a piece of the right-field stands remaining,” he noted.
His taking part in the first-pitch ceremony also made him fondly recall his playing days. He took his place in the left-handed batter’s box to serve as the “hitter,” while one of his Japanese medical colleagues took the mound.
“He struck me out,” said Hopkins who took the traditional swing-and-miss expected at such ceremonies. But there was another piece of nostalgia that made him feel at home.
“I was wearing my own batting helmet from my playing days,” he said. Apparently a fan, a collector of memorabilia, had bought it and, when he heard Hopkins was coming and would be at the ballpark, the fan offered to bring the helmet so Hopkins could use it for the opening pitch.
Asked how he thinks Japanese baseball has changed over the years, Hopkins cited the fact all the Central and Pacific League teams can now have several foreign players on their organizational rosters, with four non-Japanese allowed on the varsity list at any given time.
When he played, only two foreigners were allowed per team — period. “Back then, it was just Shane (Scheinblum) and me,” he said.
He also never imagined back then so many Japanese would be playing in the major leagues. “Guys such as Ichiro (Suzuki) and (Hideki) Matsui leaving for the majors have made a big impact on Japanese baseball,” he said.
Hopkins was actually the first player — foreign or Japanese — to whom I spoke when I began covering Japanese baseball. It was March of 1976, and I approached him in the dining hall, at the time shared by players and media members, at the old Korakuen Stadium in Tokyo, prior to an exhibition game between the Carp and Nippon Ham Fighters.
I was young and had the nervousness of a rookie, but he was kind and friendly and made me feel at ease.
The recent visit was one of many Hopkins has made back to Japan since he left, and he said he always enjoys coming back to a country he loves because of its cleanliness and the politeness of the Japanese people.
In Hiroshima, the feeling is mutual.