Japan’s Baseball Trail Blazer

Sports - March 8th, 2012

Interview with Masanori Murakami

Imagine being the first Japanese pitcher to play in the Major League in post-war America:

Masanori Murakami (center) fought prejudice from day one at the San Francisco Giants and helped pave the way for the likes of Ichiro and Darvish today.

Weekender caught up with the man affectionately known as ‘Mashi’, to hear about his time in the United States.

What was it like being the first Japanese player in the Major League?

It was tough at the beginning, the young players were often immature and would make jokes about me. I couldn’t understand what they were saying but I used to get angry.

One time I turned away from the American flag during the national anthem. My team-mates made me realize though, that it wasn’t the flag or the country I should be annoyed with, just certain individuals.

Once, we were just ahead of the Mets in the League and the FBI intercepted a letter from one of their fans, threatening to kill our coach Herman Franks and myself. I didn’t find out about it until a month later. If I’d known, I would have been too scared to pitch.

Despite the difficulties you had some wonderful times there. How did it feel making your debut in the Major League?

One day I was playing in front of 400 people, the next 40,000 but I just tried to treat it as another game.

I walked on to pitch humming the Sukiyaki song and pitched a scoreless eight innings. I was a little emotional after the game and it was only after I read the newspapers that I thought ‘I’m a Major League player’.

Masanori Murakami

What were the big differences between Japanese and American baseball?

In Japan we thought one game at a time, in American they planned for games well in advance. Also, physical strength was much more important in America.

Did you find it difficult to adjust when you came back to Japan?

Yes I did and there was a lot of pressure on me having played in the Major League. My pitching style was criticized by a Japanese journalist, so I tried to change my game and I struggled in the first couple of years.

I was actually disappointed to leave America but I’d made a promise to the Nankai Hawks.

Who was the best player you ever played with?

Willy Mays. He’s an amazing all-round player.

One time Roberto Clemente came up to me and asked who I thought was better out of himself and Mays. I said ‘Mays,’ with a smile of course!

I think he was a bit annoyed, but Clemente was another player I had huge respect for.

He sadly died on a plane while delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. This inspired me to do as much as I can for charities like UNHCR.

Do you envy modern day players like Darvish and Ichiro?

I envy their money!! The difference is huge. I also think it is much easier for players today.

Back then it was normal for a starting pitcher to pitch 300 innings in a season, now it is only around 220.

Finally Mashi, any predictions for the coming season?

I think the Yankees will do well, Kuroda is a very good pitcher. In Japan I have to say the Giants—they have a lot of money and many good players.

Interview by Matthew Hernon