Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles General Manager Marty Kuehnert called on the morning of April 14 to give me the sad news that Don Blasingame died of apparent heart failure in his sleep at home in Arizona the previous night. He was 73.
“The Blazer,” as he was affectionately known in Japan, was a baseball fixture in this country from 1967, when he joined the then-Nankai Hawks of Osaka as an infielder, through 1982 when he finished a two-year stint as field manager of the Hawks.
Don was one of those little slap-hitting second basemen so typical in the major leagues in the late 1950s and early ’60s, sharing that description with the likes of Jerry Lumpe, Bobby Richardson, Pete Runnels, Wayne Terwilliger, Johnny Temple and even Sparky Anderson.
Blasingame, born in Corinth, Miss., on March 16, 1932, played for the St. Louis Cardinals (1955-59), San Francisco Giants (1960-61), Cincinnati Reds (1961-63), Washington Senators (1963-65) and Kansas City Athletics (1966), compiling a .258 batting average in 1,444 major league games.
But it was in The Land of the Rising Sun where he would leave a lasting mark on the game, first as a colorful and exciting player and later as a manager who got caught up in some of the inevitable and most bitter controversies in Japanese baseball history.
His playing career with Nankai spanned three seasons, 1967-69, under legendary Hawks manager Kazuo Tsuruoka. Blasingame then retired as an active player but was asked to assume the role of head coach under the next Nankai skipper, player-manager Katsuya “Moose” Nomura.
I recall seeing Don play second base for the Cardinals in a game against the Phillies at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia in 1959, and first saw him in Japan coaching third base for Nomura’s Hawks in a doubleheader against the old Nishitetsu Lions at Heiwadai Stadium in Fukuoka in 1970.
I later got to know him after he left Nankai at the end of the Nomura era in 1977 and became a coach with the Hiroshima Carp the following year.
He resigned from the Carp coaching staff in October of 1978, after only one season with that club, and was shortly thereafter hired as manager of the Hanshin Tigers, then as now one of Japan’s high-profile teams.
He immediately drew criticism for one of his first moves, a blockbuster trade that sent Hanshin’s slugging all-star catcher and Tigers fan fave Koichi Tabuchi to the Seibu Lions for three players; infielders Akinobu Mayumi and Masashi Takenouchi and catcher Yoshiharu Wakana.
Under Blasingame’s guidance, Hanshin finished fourth in the Central League standings during the tumultuous 1979 season marked by the illegal trade of rookie pitcher Suguru Egawa, the Tigers No. 1 draft pick in 1978, to the team for which he preferred to play, the Yomiuri Giants.
Blazer got Giants ace right-hander Shigeru Kobayashi who won 22 games for the Tigers that year.
In 1980, relations between the American manager and his Japanese team’s front office turned sour after Blasingame picked up infielder Dave Hilton who had been released by the Yakult Swallows.
Hilton began the season in a prolonged slump and, when he failed to break out of it by Golden Week, the Hanshin owners told Don to bring up young second baseman Akinobu Okada (the current Tigers manager and No. 1 draft pick in 1979) and put him in the lineup to replace Hilton and get the hometown fans excited about the promising Japanese star of the future.
Also, it was said, the Hanshin front office was supposedly making arrangements behind the manager’s back to acquire a new American player, outfielder Bruce Boisclair, to take Hilton’s place on the roster.
Blazer, complaining his superiors went against their promise to let him run the team as he saw fit and also make decisions on imported help from the U.S., resigned in protest a month into the schedule.
Don got another crack at managing, though, when the Hawks made him their field boss in 1981.
He brought in Barney Schultz, the old Cardinals and Chicago Cubs knuckleballer, as his pitching coach, and he hired ex-Chunichi Dragons manager Wally Yonamine as a batting and base-running instructor with the added bonus of being able to use Wally as an interpreter to help with Schultz and foreign players who included Jim Tyrone and Carlos May.
However, Blazer did not have a lot of talent on the roster and, after a couple of second-division finishes in the standings, his contract was not renewed for 1983 and his Japan baseball career ended.
It was during his two years as Nankai manager that health problems surfaced. I can recall seeing Don during pre-game practice wearing slippers on the field instead of spikes, because the joints of his feet hurt so much from attacks of gout.
Still, he later returned to Japan to play in old-timers games in 1984 (with Daryl Spencer and Gene Bacque, two other gaikokujin stars of the 1960s) as part of Japanese pro baseball’s 50th anniversary celebration activities) and 1991.
He also worked as a scout for the Philadelphia Phillies under another former Nankai Hawks player, general manager Lee Thomas.
Blasingame is survived by his wife Sara, daughters Dawn and Cindy, and sons Greg (a former professional soccer player) and Kent (until last year a Pacific Rim scout for the Colorado Rockies).
Don also leaves behind a plethora of acquaintances and fans, especially in the Kansai area and the city of Osaka where he spent 13 years playing, coaching and managing for the Hawks at the old Osaka Stadium, that hole of a ballpark with the steep stands beneath the expressway in the Namba district.
Despite the problems he had as a manager in Japan, Don will always be remembered fondly by baseball people here who called him “Blazer,” and all of us who knew him have lost a good friend.
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