- Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanouri Murakami, the First Japanese Baseball Player by Robert K. Fitts
It may not have been Robert Fitts’s intention, but one takeaway from this fine book is that it provides a powerful argument for free agency in professional sports. Mashi is mainly the story of a relatively unsung Japanese pioneer in baseball history, but it is also about how that pioneer, Masanouri Murakami, found himself entrapped by not one, but two major leagues. That is, both the U.S.-based Major League and Japan’s Major League insisted they owned the services of a twenty-year-old young man who happened to be very good at throwing strikes.
Called “Mashi” by his San Francisco Giant teammates, Masanouri Murakami’s professional baseball career began in the early 1960s when he signed a contract out of high school with the Nankai Hawks of Japan’s Pacific League. Murakami pitched a bit for the Hawks in 1963, but he needed seasoning. Thus, in 1964, the Hawks sent him and a couple of other youthful prospects across the Pacific to join the San Francisco Giants’ spring training camp. This was not the first time Japanese professionals had trained with U.S. professional teams. But previously, those professionals were dispatched to Japan after spring training ended. This time, however, the Giants considered Murakami and his Japanese colleagues their property and assigned them to one of their minor league teams. In Murakami’s case, he wound up pitching for the Fresno Giants of the California League.
Murakami pitched capably in the California League, and the Giants rewarded him with an end of the season call-up. During his brief Major League stint in 1964, Murakami impressed the Giants in the nine games he pitched. In the process, moreover, he became the [End Page 415] first Japanese national to perform in the American big leagues. And while Japan’s baseball world was pleased that Murakami had proven that a Japanese pitcher could handle the greatest hitters in the world, the Nankai Hawks wanted him back and believed he was contractually committed to them.
The San Francisco Giants and American Major League baseball disagreed. Here is where Fitts’s narrative gets bogged down in legal and financial details, but these details are necessary in understanding the web in which Murakami’s still youthful baseball career was entangled. Murakami, according to Fitts, enjoyed pitching in the United States and, in particular, enjoyed San Francisco. Yet he also felt an obligation, or giri, to the Hawks and the Hawks’ manager, Kazuto Tsurukoa. After all, they had originally signed him and prepared him to excel as a professional pitcher.
A compromise was worked out. Murakami would remain with the Giants through the 1965 season. He would then be free to return to Japan. Led by offensive fire power supplied by Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Orlando Cepeda, along with the Hall of Fame pitching of Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry, the Giants comprised a National League contender. However, the Giants needed southpaw relievers, and Murakami more often than not fit that need, even though the Giants eventually fell to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Clearly, Murakami was a big league pitcher by American standards, and the Giants wanted him back. However, according to Fitts, Murakami’s sense of giri to the Hawks and the pressure exerted on him by his family, in particular, and Japanese media, in general, compelled him to give up on his American dream and linger in Japan for the rest of a long and solid, but generally unspectacular career with the Hawks and then the Nippon Ham.
Fitts, who has written extensively and well on Japanese baseball, seems surprisingly unsympathetic to the Japanese side of the debate over who owned Murakami’s services. He also seems surprisingly insensitive to the fact that there was a debate in the first place, that any private business should claim ownership of someone’s...