Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major Leaguer

Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major Leaguer

by Robert K. Fitts

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803255210
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska
Publication date: 04/01/2015
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 474,861
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Robert K. Fitts is the author of Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan (Nebraska, 2012), winner of the Society of American Baseball Research’s 2013 Seymour Medal for the best baseball book, and Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Baseball (Nebraska, 2008).

Read an Excerpt

Mashi

The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major Leaguer


By Robert K. Fitts

UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS

Copyright © 2014 Robert K. Fitts
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-6981-1


CHAPTER 1

Masanori Murakami saw his father for the first time a few days after his fourth birthday. Cowering behind his mother's legs, he peeked through the living room's sliding paper doors. His grandparents sat on the tatami floor beside a scary-looking man. He was slight, with a narrow face accentuated by hardship, his expression severe despite the joyous occasion. Even at first glance, you knew that he rarely laughed. Instead, anger boiled just below the surface. Masanori shrank back behind his mother.

World War II had been over for two and a half years, but Kiyoshi Murakami was only now returning. Drafted by the Japanese Imperial Army in late 1943, Murakami left behind his pregnant wife Tomiko and two daughters to fight the Soviets in Manchuria. An accident while building fortifications at the front sent him to the hospital. The injury probably saved his life but left him with a lifetime of guilt. As he convalesced, his regiment rushed to defend the Philippines from American invasion. Doctors gave Murakami a choice: stay in the hospital to recover or join his comrades. He chose to remain. In the ensuing battle the regiment was decimated. Murakami recovered from the wound but not from the guilt of surviving while his braver brothers in arms died.

At the end of the war, over a half million Japanese soldiers, including those stationed in Manchuria, surrendered to Soviet forces. Kiyoshi Murakami and his countrymen were transported to forty-nine labor camps within the Soviet Union and forced to work on large-scale construction projects. During his three-year imprisonment, Murakami was moved from camp to camp. Conditions were harsh, with malnutrition, disease, and physical abuse common. The Russian winters were nearly unbearable—almost 10 percent of the prisoners died during the first winter of captivity (1945–46). Kiyoshi used to joke, "When I peed, I had to break it with a hammer because it would freeze." Unlike the other Allies, who released most of their prisoners of war in 1946, the Soviets detained the captives for several years. In 1948, Kiyoshi and 175,000 of his countrymen were returned to Japan.

The hardships of war and the prison camps, as well as the guilt of not joining his regiment in the Philippines, altered Murakami's personality. He returned home a quiet, sullen man with a quick, violent temper. Today he would probably be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He would lash out at family members and punish young Masanori with his fists or swift kicks for even the slightest offenses. The boy soon grew to fear his father.

Kiyoshi Murakami returned to a country in ruins. Allied bombing had destroyed sixty-seven Japanese cities, killed approximately a half million civilians, and left 5 million homeless. Many urban areas became vast plains of flattened, burned rubble. Survivors, dressed in rags, built lean-to dwellings from scrap to protect their families from the elements. Basic infrastructure, such as electricity, telephones, railways, sewers, and municipal water, no longer existed in most cities. Starvation raced through the devastated cities as most of the food and medical supplies had been consumed or destroyed during the final months of the war.

Under the Allied Occupation, Japan began to rebuild in 1946 and 1947, but poor harvests and inadequate transportation kept food and building materials scarce in urban areas. Black markets sprang up across Japan and soon became a mainstay of the economy. Even in 1949, former middle-class urbanites would take third-class trains to the countryside to trade family treasures to farmers for food.

Luckily for the Murakamis, their hometown of Otsuki was too small to be a significant target of Allied bombing. Located in the mountains fifty miles west of Tokyo, Otsuki contained under twenty thousand people in 1945 and escaped harm until August 8, 1945. An atomic bomb had obliterated Hiroshima two days earlier, and Nagasaki would be bombed a day later. The war would be over in a week. Still a squadron of bombers, probably finding no significant targets left in the urban areas to the east, dropped their payloads on the quiet town center. The Murakamis' home, located in the village of Saruhashi, about a mile and a half east of the town center, was undamaged.

Despite the deprivation in Japan's urban areas, the Murakamis lived comfortably. Masanori's paternal grandfather was the town's postmaster—a prestigious position at the time—while his maternal grandfather had graduated from Keio University and was a wealthy businessman producing soy sauce and sake. His mother's family were local landlords and had been samurai before the class was officially disbanded in the 1870s. As a child, Masanori would play with his cousins at his grandfather's house, decorated with ancient armor and swords. When the adults were not watching, the boys would grab the weapons and pretend to be samurai warriors.

Masanori's home was a large, two-story farmhouse built in the traditional style during the early 1940s. Ornate clay tiles covered the arched roof, and the floors were covered with tatami. Like most Japanese families of the time, the Murakami household was multigenerational, with Masanori's paternal grandparents and aunts also living in the home. The family grew rice, daikon radish, potatoes, and vegetables in the fields surrounding the house. They also produced silk and employed two silk weavers, as well as seasonal farmer laborers. As a boy, Masanori helped with farm chores—weeding, carrying tools and supplies, doing whatever needed to be done. The produce from the farm allowed the family to avoid the food shortages common throughout Japan.

Masanori's childhood was similar to that of many Japanese country boys in the early 1950s. After school he gathered with the neighborhood gang, climbed nearby mountains, and played various forms of tag and ball. The boys particularly enjoyed gambling games such as marbles, menko, and Kana kuji u chi. Marbles, of course, are known throughout Western culture, but menko and Kana kuji u chi are traditional Japanese games. Menko were similar to American trading cards or pogs. They were round or rectangular pieces of cardboard with an image on one side (the reverse side could be blank or contain writing or patterns). The pictures often showed popular actors, baseball players, sumo wrestlers, or historical figures. One could judge a celebrity's popularity by the number of menko he or she adorned. Menko were tossed much as mid-century American boys flipped their baseball cards. The exact rules of the game varied, but generally boys tried to capture opponents' menko by flipping or covering them with their own toss.

Kana kuji u chi was similar. The boys tossed five-inch nails, attempting to land them upright in the earth. A successful toss entitled the player to keep all of the horizontal nails (unsuccessful tosses) on the playing field. One could only defeat an upright nail by knocking it over with another successfully tossed nail. Masanori often emerged victorious and soon acquired extensive collections of all these boyhood treasures.

When not playing with friends or doing farm chores, Masanori cared for his two dozen pigeons or worked at carpentry, once building a large birdhouse for his flock. When hammering, Masanori favored his left hand. He had learned to use chopsticks and write right-handed by mimicking others, but he found that when he needed power, his left hand responded better. He also found it more comfortable to throw left-handed.

In those days before a true world economy, Masanori's life was vastly different from that of most American boys. At breakfast he sat on the tatami floor and dined on a small table raised about a foot off the ground. A typical American breakfast of cereal, pancakes, or bacon and eggs was rare in rural Japan. Even fresh cow's milk was a luxury that Masanori rarely tasted. Instead breakfast would usually consist of rice, an egg, miso soup, and pickles. Other meals and treats were also traditional Japanese fare, although he had a fondness for manufactured caramels and would often scrounge the neighborhood for recyclables to earn candy money. Of course Masanori slept on a futon laid on the floor each night rather than on a bed.

Most Japanese boys were avid baseball fans. Introduced by American teachers in the early 1870s, the game spread quickly, with thousands watching collegiate games by the first decade of the twentieth century. Japanese university teams traveled to the United States to improve their skills, and American professional and amateur squads visited the Land of the Rising Sun almost every year from 1906 to 1935. After Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and the All-Americans crossed the Pacific in 1934, the Japanese created the Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB). The league flourished and continued until August 1944, when Allied bombing made it too dangerous to hold games. Realizing the importance of baseball to Japanese morale, the Allied Occupation forces restarted professional baseball only months after the war. On November 23, 1945, the NPB held the first of four all-star games played that fall, and the league restarted its full schedule in the spring of 1946. Despite the country's poor economy, the league's popularity spread and the stars became Japan's newest heroes.

Yet young Masanori had no interest in the sport. His father disliked baseball, so the family did not listen to games on the radio, nor did they follow the league in the newspapers. The Murakamis did not own a television, but Masanori would occasionally watch shows at a neighbor's home. They rarely, if ever, watched baseball. Even years later as Masanori considered signing a professional contract, he could not name all of the teams in the NPB.

In elementary school Masanori began playing softball and immediately fell in love with the sport. He had no equipment, but a neighbor gave him an old cracked bat that he repaired with nails and rubber tape. He began to practice. As Masanori was large for his age and naturally athletic, he soon became the neighborhood's top player. His career, however, was nearly cut short.

Kiyoshi Murakami had little tolerance for his son's passion. He did not object to the softball playing when Masanori was just in elementary school, but that changed when Masanori graduated. Kiyoshi wanted Masanori to become a doctor. He had seen the carnage of war and the difference a good doctor could make in the world. When Masanori enrolled in middle school, Kiyoshi forbade him from joining the baseball team. Instead he sent his son to cram school and persuaded him to sign up for the judo club.

At first, Masanori obeyed. He soon discovered, however, that he hated judo. His father had no objections to his abandoning the sport as long as he continued to concentrate on his studies. Masanori still longed to play baseball but dared not defy his father. He would spend his lunch hour with the ballplayers as they met in a classroom to discuss the game. As he sat in the bleachers and watched his friends play, the frustration grew.

In his second year of middle school, Masanori could no longer just watch. Without telling his parents, he joined the team in September 1958 and began skipping cram school. His mother soon realized the deceit, but to Masanori's surprise she kept the secret to herself.

In October 1958 Masanori was at practice when he noticed a man trudging across the diamond toward the school. His heart sank as he recognized his father. Once the bills for cram school had stopped coming in the mail, Kiyoshi had figured out that his son was playing ball on the sly. Masanori knew that he was caught and would probably be beaten when he returned home. Had he ventured near the school, he would have heard his father screaming at the coach. At one point, the coach even feared that Kiyoshi would throw a punch.

After practice, Masanori slunk home. His father sat formally on the living room floor between his two uncles. They ordered Masanori to sit. The boy fell to his knees, bowed apologetically, and kept his eyes on the tatami mats. This will be bad, he thought.

Obviously fuming, his father began, "I went to the school today and spoke to your coach." Masanori waited for the explosion, but it did not come. Instead Kiyoshi explained that the coach told him that his son was a talented ballplayer and had promised to mentor the boy both on the diamond and in his studies. If he could keep his grades strong, he would be allowed to play baseball. Masanori blinked with surprise. He realized later that after his father had returned from the school, his grandfather had called his other sons to calm Kiyoshi and convince him to accept the coach's offer.

At the top middle school baseball programs across Japan, hundreds of boys tried out for a spot on the team. Coaches designed grueling practices and encouraged hazing to discourage all but the most serious players. After the first month, teams would be left with a few dozen baseball fanatics. But Saruhashi Middle School was no baseball powerhouse. The team contained only a dozen players, and they had never won even a local championship. Training consisted of running up and down the local mountain but never became too strenuous as the coach feared that boys might quit. Occasionally seniors needed to beg younger players to remain on the team. But now with Masanori on the mound, the team began to improve and even qualified for the regional championship tournament. The team's inexperience would unfortunately prove costly.

The tournament's opening ceremonies began at 8:00 a.m., but Saruhashi was not scheduled to play until 4:00 p.m. The team dutifully attended the pageant and sat in the bleachers watching the morning games. By mid-afternoon the boys were dehydrated from the hot sun. Masanori and his listless teammates took the field at four, only to be routed by an experienced team whose starters had arrived at the ballpark just prior to the game. Despite the loss, Hosei II High School, a baseball powerhouse in Kawasaki, had noticed Murakami.

Left-handed pitchers, like Murakami, are valued throughout the world, as only 10 percent of the population are natural southpaws. In Japan, however, the percentage is even lower. With the importance of stroke order in the writing of kanji, most Japanese lefties born in the mid-twentieth century were converted by their parents into righties through early training. An early twenty-first-century study, for example, found that less than 1 percent of Japanese write with their left hands. A school like Hosei II could easily find a spot for an effective left-handed hurler like Murakami.

Masanori had expected to enter the local high school after graduating from Surihashi Middle, but in January 1960 Hitoshi Tamaru, the coach of Hosei II, invited him to visit the campus and work out with the team. Located just southwest of Tokyo and north of Yokohama, Kawasaki is the ninth largest city in Japan. The three cities form a continuous urban landscape, dominated by factories, ports, transportation routes, and small, densely packed homes. During the 1960s and 1970s, the air quality of Kawasaki became infamous, leading to widespread environmental and health problems.

Murakami took the train to Kawasaki, spent the day touring the school, and then attended baseball practice. Under Tamaru's scrutiny, he ran, played catch, and then threw 20–30 pitches from the mound. After a two-hour train ride, he returned home late that evening to find a message waiting for him. Tamaru had telephoned to offer Masanori a scholarship that included the dormitory fee if he could pass the entrance exam.

At first, Kiyoshi objected to his son's focusing on baseball. He still hoped that Masanori would become a doctor. It was difficult, however, to argue with a scholarship to a major Tokyo-area high school. With Masanori's grandfather advocating for accepting the offer, Kiyoshi agreed with one condition. "If you want to be a ballplayer," he told his son "you will have to be the best in Japan."


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Mashi by Robert K. Fitts. Copyright © 2014 Robert K. Fitts. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Afterword
Appendix of Tables
Note on Sources
Notes
Bibliography
Index

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