Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

Batterymates Katsuya Nomura, Joe Stanka shared special bond decades after playing for Hawks

The ball that brought an end to the 1964 Japan Series between the Nankai Hawks and Hanshin Tigers landed, as so many others had over those seven games, in Hawks catcher Katsuya Nomura’s mitt.

That final pitch (a swinging strike) was thrown by Nankai star Joe Stanka, a tall, imposing right-hander from Hammon, Oklahoma, who the Japanese press called “Big Thunder.” Big Thunder had also pitched in the ’61 series against the Yomiuri Giants and helped start a near-riot when he confronted the home plate umpire over a pitch call.

Nomura had been with him on that occasion, just as he was there at Koshien Stadium in 1964, when he helped guide Stanka through consecutive shutouts in Games 6 and 7, on the road no less, to clinch the series.

Those two formed a battery that has gone down in Japan Series history and a bond that outlasted their time on the diamond.

Nomura passed away on Tuesday at age 84, which sparked remembrances from around the Japanese baseball world, from those who played with him to the players, such as New York Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, he later managed.

“The man who changed many lives,” Don Nomura, his son, told The Japan Times Tuesday afternoon.

His legacy won’t just live on among Japanese, but among some outside Japan like Josh Stanka, whose life Nomura impacted through his relationship with Josh’s grandfather, Joe.

That much was evident Tuesday as Josh mourned Nomura’s passing and said his grandmother, Joe’s wife Jean, had been in tears.

Josh had been around Nomura some growing up, but met him for the first time as an adult last year at the New Otani in Tokyo.

“Oh my god, you look like Joe Stanka,” Josh recalled Nomura saying when he walked into the section of the hotel lobby that had been cordoned off for them.

Nomura and Joe Stanka worked shutouts in Games 1, 6 and 7 of the 1964 Japan Series. Stanka would pitch for two more seasons in Japan and Nomura would continue on with one of the greatest careers in NPB history.

“He (Joe Stanka) always said Nomura was the best catcher, not even close, that he ever saw,” Josh Stanka said.

They remained close throughout the years. When Nomura won the Triple Crown in 1965, he made up gold cufflinks and also gave a pair to Stanka. They caught up during Nankai reunions in Japan and Nomura also visited his old pitcher in Texas during the 1980s.

The bond had remained so strong that before Stanka passed away in October of 2018, he entrusted the ball from the final out of the ’64 Series to Josh with instructions to take it to Nomura in Japan.

“He wanted him to have that ball,” Josh said. “Almost literally, I was holding granddad’s hand when he passed, and it was one of his last things he wanted.”

Josh Stanka said his meeting with Nomura last year was “emotional,” as the baseball man’s memories came flooding back.

“I forget what he said but he said lots of memories came back,” Josh said. He also said Nomura joked that “he taught my granddad the split-finger and it paid for my law school education.”

Josh Stanka said Nomura lit up when he saw the ball.

“When we were talking about that game (Game 7), he just started smiling because he said it was just so much fun as a catcher,” he remembered. “He called the perfect game and granddad threw where he called it.”

Nomura and Joe Stanka weren’t so different, both being very competitive. Instead of being a combustible or volatile mix, they formed a partnership that flourished.

“You can imagine there was probably a contingent that was not very welcoming of a 6-foot-6 (198-cm) gaijin coming over,” Josh said. “Granddad was a fierce competitor. He said Nomura was the most welcoming, and a lot of it was, he wanted to win, If this guy can help us win, let’s win.

“Two poor country kids born half a world apart, couldn’t speak the same language. They made it work. It’s a crazy world.”

Nomura leaves behind a legacy as big as any in Japanese baseball. In NPB history, only Sadaharu Oh hit more home runs or had more RBIs. Nomura was the greatest catcher in Japanese history. He was perhaps one of the greatest to ever put on a mask anywhere.

“He was brilliant,” Josh Stanka said.

As a manager, Nomura won the Pacific League pennant as a player-manager with Nankai in 1973. He won Central League pennants and Japan Series titles with the Yakult Swallows in 1993, 1995 and 1997. In 2009, he took the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, who began play in 2005, to their first Climax Series, led by pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma and Tanaka.

Josh, though, also remembers the impact he had on his grandparents and what Nomura meant to his family.

“I think of what my grandmother (Jean) always said about him,” Josh said, “which was that he was one of the hardest-working people she ever saw and kind of embodied the best of Japanese character.”

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