Victor Starffin was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 1960. Wally Yonamine was enshrined in 1994.
Despite the long and rich history of foreign players in Japan, it only takes those two sentences to sum up the non-Japanese wing of the Hall of Fame — and if you really want to be picky, Starffin, an ethnic Russian, was for most intents and purposes Japanese, while Yonamine was an ethnic Japanese who hailed from Hawaii.
Granted, both players are highly regarded in Japanese history. Starffin spent much of his career (1936-1955) pitching for the Tokyo Kyojin alongside Eiji Sawamura and is remembered as one of the best pitchers in Japanese history. His old team, since renamed the Yomiuri Giants, still occasionally plays one or two “home” games at Starffin Stadium in Asahikawa, Hokkaido.
Yonamine played for the Giants and Chunichi Dragons from 1951-1962 and weathered the storm from fans and opponents alike as the first American to play in Japan after World War II, overcoming it all to work his way into the hearts of a reluctant populace.
Still, the gatekeepers of Japanese baseball history could do much better when it comes to recognizing the contributions of foreign players.
For whatever reason, no foreigners have followed Yonamine into the Hall, as if they didn’t play alongside their Japanese contemporaries on the same fields, in front of the same crowds, and with the added difficultly of adapting to a new culture and language.
Imagine the outcry a few decades down the road, if after a few years of eligibility, Ichiro Suzuki still isn’t in Cooperstown.
The majority of foreigners to have played in Japan didn’t have either the impact or longevity to really be considered Hall of Famers — it’s supposed to be an exclusive club, after all — but there have definitely been more than two.
Randy Bass, for one, put his stamp on the game during the six years he was with the Hanshin Tigers.
Bass, beloved to this day by the Koshien faithful, hit 202 home runs and drove in 486 runs during his career, batting .337 with a .418 on-base percentage and .660 slugging percentage.
He hit .350, with 54 home runs and 134 RBIs to win the Triple Crown in 1985, when he led the Tigers to their only Japan Series title and was named Central League MVP.
Bass followed that with another Triple Crown campaign in 1986, hitting .389, still the single-season record, with 47 home runs and 109 RBIs while also setting a single-season mark with a .777 slugging percentage.
Boomer Wells wasn’t quite as prolific as Bass, but spent 10 years in Japan and managed a career line of .317/.372/.555, with 277 home runs and 901 RBIs. Like Bass, Wells won a Triple Crown, hitting .355 with 37 home runs and 130 RBIs while garnering Pacific League MVP honors for the Hankyu Braves in 1984.
There apparently isn’t any room for a plaque of Leron Lee either.
After all, Lee is only NPB’s all-time batting leader with a .320 career average across 11 seasons, during which he also recorded 1,579 hits, connected on 283 home runs and drove in 912 runs for the Lotte Orions. His brother Leon wasn’t too shabby either, hitting .308 with 268 homers, 884 RBIs and a .902 on-base plus slugging percentage over 10 seasons for the Orions, Taiyo Whales and Yakult Swallows.
That’s just four players who have strong cases, but there are others, including pitcher Gene Bacque, a 100-game winner who spent seven seasons with the Tigers and one with the Kintetsu Buffaloes and is the only foreign recipient of the Sawamura Award.
Perhaps the brevity of Bass’ career worked against him, but Wells and the Lee brothers each spent at least a decade in Japan.
The next test for the Hall will be Tuffy Rhodes, who will be eligible for induction from 2014.
Rhodes spent 13 seasons in Japan, hitting 464 home runs (13th most all-time) and ended his NPB career with 1,269 RBIs, 1,792 hits, a .286 average and .940 OPS.
In 2001 Rhodes tied Sadaharu Oh’s single-season home run record of 55, and may have claimed the mark for himself if not for a concerted effort by some to keep the record out of foreign hands.
Even if Rhodes somehow slips through the cracks, Starffin and Yonamine shouldn’t wait much longer for company, with Alex Ramirez, still playing and seven hits shy of the 2,000th hit of his NPB career, looming on the horizon.
Fact is, it shouldn’t have taken this long for another foreign player to gain induction.
While it may be too late for Bass, Wells and the Lee brothers — Bass and Wells may yet defy the odds — it’s not a stretch to suggest the voters start doing a better job when it comes to the legacy of the few great foreigners to have played in Japan.
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