On September 1, 1964, San Francisco Giants pitcher Masanori “Mashi” Murakami became the first Japanese-born player to play in a Major League Baseball game. But a dispute between the trailblazer's Japanese team and the Giants following his historic season effectively shut the door to the majors for players from his home country for nearly three decades.
Still, Murakami made a significant impact on the game in only two seasons in the big leagues, says Robert K. Fitts, author of Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major Leaguer.
"Mashi coming over as an exchange student at 19 years old and then going all the way to the major leagues and doing very well showed what potential Japanese baseball had and how far it had come," he says. "[MLB] players and general managers respected the game in Japan a lot more because of Mashi."
Perhaps his most important achievement, Fitts adds, is Murakami became a symbol for Japanese Americans.
Masanori Murakami Signs Contract at 17
Born in Otsuki, Japan on May 6, 1944, a little more than a year before the end of World War II, Murakami fell in love with baseball at early age. He played the sport in high school and in the twice-yearly Kōshien, a national tournament akin to March Madness. Murakami dreamed of winning the prestigious Japanese tournament, attending college and becoming a businessman. His parents wanted him to be a doctor.
But the lefthander's baseball skills attracted the attention of the Nankai Hawks of the Japanese Pacific League, one of the country's two professional leagues. In 1963, as a 17-year-old, Murakami signed a contract with the Hawks.
A year later, Nankai gave permission for Murakami and two other young Japanese prospects to train in the United States with the Giants. Japanese baseball authorities gave San Francisco the option of keeping the players and paying their league $10,000 for each or sending the players back to Japan.
For the Hawks, the deal was an opportunity for their prospects to learn from American coaches and players. For the Giants, it was good publicity and business—a large Japanese population lived in the Bay Area—and an opportunity to open the majors to an influx of Japanese talent.
While his countrymen played in a rookie league, Murakami debuted in the United States for the Giants' Fresno (California) minor league team in a much better league. Although he initially struggled to communicate with teammates—Murakami carried a Japanese/English dictionary wherever he went—he eventually adapted to American baseball and culture.
Off the field, Murakami sometimes dealt with racism from teammates and media—the Fresno newspaper called him the "Nipponese Rally Nipper."
On the mound, Murakami excelled, winning 11 games and registering an impressive 1.78 ERA. Fresno's manager called him a scintillating prospect, and Murakami endeared himself to fans by sprinting toward a teammate who made a great catch, doffing his cap and bowing several times.
"He threw in the high 80s, low 90s, but the ball would kind of zoom up on you," Fitts says.
The Giants, on the fringes of National League pennant contention, noticed him, too. In late August, they called Murakami up to the big leagues.
Masanori Murakami Debuts in Big Leagues Against New York Mets
At Shea Stadium in New York against the Mets, the 20-year-old lefthander made his big-league debut as a relief pitcher. “I flew overnight and [was] brought in to pitch in the eighth inning,” Murakami told the Philadelphia Daily News in 2002. “Suddenly, instead of pitching in front of 200 or 300 people, there were 40,000 people in the stands."
If he were nervous, Murakami didn’t show it. In his only inning, he didn't allow a run, struck out two and gave up a single. He received a standing ovation from the crowd at Shea Stadium, and afterward, was interviewed by Mets broadcaster Ralph Kiner.
Because he pitched so well, San Francisco kept him through the end of the season. A reporter asked Murakami about the possibility of other players from Japan playing in the big leagues. "If I can, I don't see why they can't," he said.
In San Francisco, Murakami was a hit. By late September, the Giants had received more than 1,000 calls from organizations and fans who wanted him to make a personal appearance.
But the pitcher's future in the Bay Area was uncertain.
"I would like to stay with the Giants, but I do not know yet if I will," he told the San Francisco Chronicle in late September. "My mother and father tell me they miss me very much. I know they are waiting for me to return to Japan."
MLB Deal With Japan Leagues Shuts Talent Pipeline
After the 1964 season, Murakami signed a contract to play for the Giants the following season. Then he flew to Japan to have his tonsils removed. As San Francisco prepared for spring training in February 1965, however, Murakami informed the team he would remain in Japan. He had signed a $40,000 contract with Nankai, much more than San Francisco would pay.
Then a tug of war began between the Giants, who insisted Murakami return, and his Japanese team. Legal threats fueled the ire of MLB commissioner Ford Frick. The sides eventually reached a compromise that permitted Murakami to pitch one more year for the Giants before becoming a free agent.
In 1965, Murakami pitched in 45 games for San Francisco, striking out 85 in only 74.1 innings. He finished his big-league career with a 5-1 record and a 3.43 ERA. The following season, he rejoined the Hawks in Japan, where he played for 17 more years.
In 1966, Major League Baseball and the Japan professional leagues signed an agreement to honor each other's players contracts—a deal that effectively stopped Japanese players from playing in the big leagues for nearly 30 years.
Following Murakami's debut, no other player from Japan made it to the majors again until Hideo Nomo with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995. In the early 2000s, Ichiro Suzuki (Seattle Mariners), Hideki Matsui (New York Yankees) and others from Japan played in the big leagues. Los Angeles Angels pitcher and designated hitter Shohei Ohtani, one of the greatest stars in the big leagues, was born in Japan.
"From a historical perspective, it's a real shame that he's kind of a footnote [in the history of Major League Baseball]," Fitts says of Murakami. "He did so well and showed so much promise, and then because he went home and the leagues reached their agreement, you didn't have any more Japanese players coming."
In 1983, Murakami attempted a comeback with the Giants, but the 38-year-old was among the final spring training cuts. “I enjoyed being in America," he told the Daily News years later, "but I was young then and under pressure from home to come back.”