When bespectacled catcher Atsuya Furuta was ready to set out on a professional baseball career, he was told by many that pro ballplayers don’t wear glasses.
Those glasses ended up becoming Furuta’s trademark throughout an 18-year career with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. Pretty soon, Furuta and his specs will be immortalized on a plaque in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
The Yakult legend was revealed as one of the three new members of the Hall of Fame during a news conference on Friday, with Kazuo Hayashi and Ryohei Murayama joining him in the 2015 class.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be here,” Furuta said on Friday. “There are many people I want to thank.”
Furuta was the lone candidate chosen by the Players Selection Committee garnering 76.8 percent of the vote (he received 255 votes, up from 165 in 2014) to surpass the 75 percent threshold for induction.
Furuta was a two-time Central League MVP (1993, 1997), 10-time Golden Glove award winner, and 17-time All-Star during his time with the Swallows. He helped guide the team to five Central League pennants (1992, ’93, ’95, ’97, 2001) and four Japan Series titles (1992, ’93, ’95, ’97, 2001). He was the title series’ MVP in 1997 and 2001. Furuta won a batting title in 1991 and ended his career with a .294 average and 1,009 RBIs.
Furuta also finished with 2,097 career hits, and is one of 44 players to reach the 2,000-hit milestone. He was the first to reach the mark after playing in both college and the corporate league prior to his NPB debut. His former teammate, Shinya Miyamoto, has since joined him in that club.
Furuta was also a member of Japan’s silver-medal winning team at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.
The former Yakult star said it was hard to pick one thing from of his laundry list of achievements as his favorite.
“I don’t know what’s No. 1,” he said. “I was just working hard every day, and the accomplishments were just the result. At that time, people said you can’t play baseball with weak eyesight or wearing glasses. I have been told by many since then, including high school players, that they were able to continue playing baseball by wearing glasses just as I did. It makes me happy to hear that, and because of that I can be proud of what I accomplished.
“When it comes to records, reaching 2,000 hits meant a lot to me, because it was the result of the work put in every day. Especially since I played in the industrial league before turning pro. Miyamoto did it later, by going the same path as me.”
Furuta was passed over by the pros after his collegiate career at Ritsumeikan University. He then played for Toyota in the corporate league before finally getting his NPB shot with the Swallows in 1990, where he was managed for nine seasons by Katsuya Nomura, a legendary catcher in his own right who might easily be considered the greatest ever (and many consider him the greatest) if not for Furuta.
Nomura was among the chorus of naysayers about Furuta’s glasses but still molded the young catcher into one of Japan’s most celebrated players.
“I received really strict guidance from Nomura-kantoku and I was able to grow,” Furuta said before posing for photos beside Nomura’s Hall of Fame plaque. “I also became stronger mentally.”
In 2006, Furuta was named player-manager of the Swallows, becoming Japan’s first player-manager since Nomura’s final year in the role for Nankai in 1977. Furuta didn’t see much success in the dugout, going 130-157-3 in two seasons, but many fans got a kick out of seeing Furuta enter games and point at himself, to let the umpires know he was pinch hitting, with “daida ore” (I’m the pinch hitter) becoming a popular term and sparking the Swallows to create a line of T-shirts bearing the phrase.
Furuta also led the first work stoppage in Japan as head of the Japan Professional Baseball Players’ Association in 2004, which was essential in keeping NPB at 12 teams following the merger of the Kintetsu Buffaloes and Orix BlueWave.
Hayashi and Murayama were each elected by the Special Selection Committee.
Hayashi is the founder of Japan Little League, establishing the body in 1964. In 1967, he led West Tokyo Little League, a team of players from Chofu, to the title in the first All-Japan championship. He then managed the team at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where West Tokyo defeated North Roseland Little League, from Chicago, Illinois, in the final to become the first Japanese LLWS champion.
Murayama was president of the Asahi Shimbun in 1915, when the paper helped established the National Middle School Baseball Championship, the tournament that eventually became Japan’s famed National High School Baseball Championship or “natsu no koshien” (Summer Koshien). Muryama served as chairman of the inaugural tournament and threw out the ceremonial first pitch on August 18, 1915.
The Expert Selection Committee didn’t vote in any players this year.
Among those missing the cut on the players’ ballot were former Yomiuri Giants pitcher Masaaki Saito and ex-Giants infielder, and the team’s current manager, Tatsunori Hara. Saito just missed out with 74.1 percent of the vote, while Hara received 73.2 percent.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5