Joe Stanka’s Pacific League MVP trophy was missing for over 30 years.
He won the award with the Nankai Hawks during the 1964 season. Pitching to catcher Katsuya Nomura, “Big Thunder” went 26-7 with a 2.40 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 277⅔ innings. He was the first American pitcher of non-Japanese decent to win an MVP award in NPB.
There were plenty of baseball reasons to want to track down the trophy, but for Stanka’s grandson Josh, it became personal as he watched his grandfather’s health begin to fade. Joe Stanka died in October of 2018.
“We could kind of tell he was going, and they (Joe Stanka and his wife Jean) have so many memories here (in Japan),” Josh Stanka told The Japan Times in Tokyo last week after coming to retrieve the trophy. “They lived here eight years, they had two kids born here and buried one kid here. That’s emotional stuff. I wanted to find that for him.”
The problem was, no one knew where it was.
Sometime after winning the trophy, Stanka and his wife donated it to a Canadian academy in Kobe. They’d replaced the nameplate on the front to honor their late son, Joe Daryl Stanka, who passed away in a tragic accident at their home.
Then it gets murky. The academy eventually left the area and the Hawks also relocated. In addition to moving from Osaka to Fukuoka, the baseball team also changed hands a few times, going from Nankai to Daiei to (currently) SoftBank. At some point during all that, everyone lost track of Stanka’s trophy.
Josh was aware he was essentially looking for a needle in a haystack. But his grandparents raised him. They’re part of him — he joked that he looks like his grandfather but was thankful to have gotten his grandmother’s brains — and also part of NPB history. So the younger Stanka searched on undeterred.
He enlisted the help of Marty Kuehnert, the former GM of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Kuehnert, who lives in Sendai, hit the ground running and made some calls and got in touch with the academy and the Hawks.
Josh also reached out to the other MVP from the 1964 season, Sadaharu Oh, who won the Central League award with the Yomiuri Giants.
Oh and the fiery Stanka had maintained a cordial, friendly relationship through the years.
Oh, the current Hawks chairman, said he’d do what he could. Just like during his playing days, Oh hit it out of the park and tracked down the trophy, which sat in a Hawks storeroom in Fukuoka (to the surprise of everyone), late last year, news the family greeted with elation.
Unfortunately, Joe Stanka passed before Josh was able to retrieve it. Jean Stanka is currently living with Josh.
“It was lucky Oh-san was with the Hawks, because Marty Kuehnert got in touch with the Canadian academy, which is the last my grandmother had ever heard or seen of it 30 years ago,” Josh Stanka said. “They had sold the building and moved. The Hawks had also moved, and not across the street. So everybody kind of went, ‘I don’t know.’
“I just wanted to find that for them (his grandparents). They raised me. I was supposed to come get it in November and he passed in October. Sadaharu Oh tracked it down.”
When Josh Stanka came to Japan, in addition to meeting with Oh to retrieve that piece of NPB history, he visited Nomura to leave different memento behind.
In 1964, Stanka and the Hawks reached the Japan Series against the Hanshin Tigers and Gene Bacque, who became the first non-Japanese Sawamura Award winner that season.
Stanka threw a 96-pitch shutout in Game 1, lost in Game 3 and then returned to throw a 99-pitch shutout in Game 6 and a 110-pitch shutout the next day in Game 7, all with Nomura behind the plate.
Stanka had the ball from final out of that ’64 series, and he wanted his old friend to have it.
“I was with him when he died,” Josh said. “Two or three days before he had said . . . there were very few things he kept that he knew where they were, but he knew he had that ball and he said ‘take this to Katsuya Nomura.’ ”
Despite not speaking the same language, the pair formed a bond that endured. If anything it grew, with Josh and Nomura’s son Don close friends to this day.
“I said Nomura-san, you did speak the same language,” Josh Stanka said. “You spoke yakyuu (baseball). You can’t go 18 innings, back-to-back days, of shutout baseball if you’re not communicating with each other somehow.”
Josh Stanka said the memories came flooding back to Nomura when he saw the ball.
Like Stanka’s trophy, that ball represents a point in history, in both baseball and life, that Josh Stanka hopes isn’t forgotten with fewer and fewer players from that era still around.
Tracking down the trophy is a one way to help Stanka’s memory live on for future generations of fans who see it or hear about it. It’s a legacy that brings a smile to the younger Stanka’s face.
“Tracking that thing down, that was Oh,” he said. “It’s lucky that he’s with the Hawks.”