On September 1, 1964, pitcher Masanori Murakami becomes the first Japanese man to play in U.S. baseball’s major leagues. Murakami pitched a scoreless eighth inning for the San Francisco Giants in a 4-1 loss to the New York Mets in front of 39,379 fans at Shea Stadium.
Murakami was a teenage baseball prodigy in Japan. In 1962, he signed with Nippon Professional Baseball’s Nankai Hawks while still in high school. After pitching a year in the minors, Murakami made his major league debut with the Hawks at just 19 years old. In 1964, the Hawks sent Murakami to the United States to pitch in the minor leagues for the San Francisco Giants as part of an exchange program. Murakami’s left-handed sidearm delivery proved an asset in the United States, where deceptive pitching still isn’t as common as in Japan. Murakami began his American career with an 11-7 record as a reliever with Fresno in the Class A California League. On September 1, he was ordered to report to the bigs and handed a plane ticket to New York. After arrival, he quickly signed a contract (explained by an interpreter since he spoke no English) and then headed to the bullpen.
Murakami’s arrival came just as the Giants, including star outfielders Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, was chasing the Philadelphia Phillies for the National League pennant. Meanwhile, the Mets, the Giants’ opponent on September 1, were in the midst of the third losing season in their three-year history. Murakami entered the game in relief in the eighth inning, and began with a strikeout of Met leftfielder Charlie Smith, before yielding a single to Chris Cannizaro. He then settled down, and struck out first baseman Ed Kranepool and shortstop Billy McMillan consecutively to complete his first inning in the major leagues. The Mets, however, proved a difficult opponent: Pitcher Al Jackson pitched a complete game, giving up just six hits and one walk to lead the Mets to a 4-1 victory.
In the end, Murakami’s first year in the majors proved a rousing success, with nine appearances and a 1.80 ERA, good for a 1-0 record with one save. After the 1964 season the Nankai Hawks asked Murakami to return to Japan, but the Giants refused on the grounds they had Murakami under contract. The Japanese baseball commissioner intervened, negotiating a compromise. Murakami spent 1965 with the Giants, going 4-1 with a 3.75 ERA and eight saves in 45 relief appearances. In 1966, he returned to Japan, where he went on to pitch for another 18 seasons.
The next Japanese player to join Major League Baseball was pitcher Hideo Nomo, who made his debut in 1995, more than 30 years after the trailblazing Masanori Murakami.