The legacy of Warren Cromartie has endured in Japanese baseball even though it’s been decades since the former Yomiuri Giants star laced up his cleats in Japan.
Cromartie played his last game for the Giants in 1990, before a one-year final act with the Kansas City Royals closed the book on a career that began with the Montreal Expos in the early ’70s. He was a bona-fide star with the Giants, which made him a celebrity all over Japan. Even now, Cromartie is still called back to the country for appearances and commercials, a testament to the equity he still has with the generation of fans who watched him play.
“It’s wonderful,” Cromartie told The Japan Times during his latest visit. “It’s my home, my backyard. I’m still surprised people still recognize me even to this day. I’m very blessed. I don’t take it for granted. Because apparently, I still have value here. Randy Bass (the former Hanshin Tigers legend) and I still have that value after all these years. We left our mark.”
Cromartie was in Tokyo last week to help open the “Pacific Pitch: U.S-Japan Baseball Diplomacy” baseball photo exhibition at Tokyo Metropolitan Central Library. Dale G. Kreisler, a cultural affairs officer for the U.S. Embassy, called Cromartie the “perfect ambassador” for the exhibition.
There certainly aren’t many bigger names in terms of foreign NPB stars.
“I would say that in the pantheon of foreign players, after Randy Bass — Randy Bass was idolized, he could probably be mayor of Kobe if he wanted to be — I would say Warren Cromartie is the most famous Giants player,” said acclaimed author Robert Whiting. “Even now, you go around with him . . . get in a cab and the cab driver turns around, ‘Oh! Cromartie!’ People stop him on the street. He’s still quite a hero.”
Cromartie was a larger-than-life personality on a team packed with stars such as infielders Tatsunori Hara and Kiyoshi Nakahata, and pitcher Masaki Saito, and managed from 1984-88 by legendary home run king Sadaharu Oh. The Kyojin were on national television nightly, and in Cromartie’s fifth year, 1988, would move into the brand new Tokyo Dome.
“They were rock stars,” Cromartie says of his teammates. “Everywhere we went. We had 25,000, 35,000 for spring training games. You couldn’t go anywhere. We had to rush to get on the subway trains and the shinkansen. It was a madhouse. We were like The Beatles.
“For me, we were on TV every night, so people saw my face every night. So it was hard for me to go anywhere. When I did go somewhere, it was like a magnet. But me, I’m a people person. I like people, I’m approachable. I think that stood out with the Japanese fans because they put me on this pedestal and thought I was all this and that. But when they found out I was just a person, putting the ego aside, I think I got more accepted that way.”
Cromartie first came to Japan as an 18-year old, one of two junior college players selected to the U.S. squad for the USA-Japan International Collegiate Series in 1972.
He was 30 when he returned to play for the Giants. He spent seven seasons with the team and hit at least .300 every year except his first and final seasons. He was the Central League MVP in 1989, and won the batting title that year with a .378 average. That same season, Cromartie helped lead Yomiuri to the CL and Japan Series titles.
Cromartie also forged a connection with the fans, who showered him with adoration. He would later chronicle the ups and downs of his time in Japan in his book, “Slugging It Out in Japan,” which was written with Whiting.
“He was extremely popular,” Whiting said. “He had a rocky start, but he played for the Yomiuri Giants in an era when they were on national television every single night, every game, from 7-9, prime time.”
Some hitting tips from Oh got Cromartie going in the second half of his first season. He likely began to win people over with his play after that, and more jumped on board following the famous incident when he returned the next day after a beaning sent him to the hospital during the 1986 pennant race.
“He checked himself out of the hospital, against the doctor’s wishes,” Whiting said. “Went to the ballpark and said ‘I’m ready to play.’ So they put him in as a pinch hitter with the bases loaded. They were down, and he hit a grand slam home run and they won the game. He said that moment was when he really felt accepted by the Giants players. He was really one of the team and not just some gaijin who’s over here for a year or two to make some money.”
Cromartie embraced Japan as well, and he still hasn’t let go all these years later.
“I guess it’s a part of me,” he said. “I didn’t know when I was 18 that I was going to be coming back here and playing for a world-famous team and playing for one of the most famous players of all time.
“I had an opportunity to play a sport, I got better at it and it showed me the world, and I made new friends for life. Baseball’s been very, very good to me.”