Monday, July 7, 2014

Brosnan

Jim Brosnan died last week at the age of 84.  I spoke at Cooperstown last month on Brosnan and the St. Louis Cardinals tour of Japan in 1958 - based on an article I hope to publish soon that was, in turn, based on a piece written here.  I had also written about him a few years ago, and I once again recommend reading all of his works (including this, which I picked up in downtown Coop) and learning a little bit more about the man.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Zimmer

Above photo of Zimmer with the Dodgers in Hawaii during their 1956 tour of Japan (from the Walter O'Malley official website)
Japanese Baseball Cards has a good overview of Don Zimmer, who died yesterday, and his time in Japan.  Check it out. In addition to his stint in '66 with the Flyers, he was part of at least one, if not more, tours of Japan with MLB teams.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Thomasson

During the course of preparing the final touches on  a paper about the 1958 Cardinals tour of Japan, Jim Brosnan, and baseball literature (a paper with origins on this site, and which will be presented at this year's Cooperstown Symposium at the Hall of Fame), I came across a new translation of Genpei Akasegawa's Hyperart: Thomasson.  The book is a collection of essays on a phenomena described by Akasegawa as "defunct and useless object[s] attached to someone’s property and aesthetically maintained", and named a Thomasson, after former Major Leaguer and Yomiuri Giant Gary Thomasson (above).  I recommend picking up a copy.


Thomasson signed a huge contract with the Giants in the early 1980's and, despite hitting a decent number of home runs, was seen as a flop who struck out too often.  His strike outs (nearly setting the single season record in his first season) seem to have inspired not only Akasegawa to see useless yet persistent objects as having Thomasson-like traits, but William Gibson (in Virtual Light), as well.  The inspiration Japanese authors find in gaijin transplants to the Central and Pacific Leagues (thinking also of Haruki Murakami's story of how he was inspired to become a novelist while in the bleachers of a Yakult Swallows game, after watching Dave Hilton hit a double) requires more analysis than I have room for here, but I hope to capture something of it in my paper.

Stay tuned for a post on the formation of the two league system in 1950, inspired by comments from NPB Card Guy a while back....


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Fenceside Magician


Helmar and Hirayama



The photo above is well known to collectors of Japanese baseball cards, not only because it is from a photo-bromide card that features three Hall of Famers (Noboru Aota, Tetsuharu Kawakami, and Shigeru Chiba), but because Helmar Brewing used the image on one card in a set that features many stars of Japan's golden age of baseball.  The fourth man in the image, Kikuji Hirayama, was mis-identified on the Helmar card as Noguchi.  Recently, Helmar contacted me to assist in properly identifying the player as well as assist with a new set of cards.  More on that in a bit, but first, a look at Kikuji (or Kikuni) Hirayama.

It is understandable that Hirayama could be overlooked - though he played in the Golden era of Japanese Baseball, and spent the majority of his career on the most popular team, he has never been recognized by the Hall of Fame, and has otherwise languished in the shadow of his superstar teammates.


******


The 1950 Japan Series was the first of it's kind in Japan - pitting two brand new teams, stocked with old talent, in a championship dual that would set the bar for all to follow.  The Robins and the Orions battled six rounds, with the decision coming in the 11th inning of that sixth contest, as 

That 1950 season, in which Japanese professional baseball first split into a Central and a Pacific league, presented challenges to many players who had been in the league a long time.  As the leagues evened themselves out, many players found new homes as teams saw room to move up younger, and cheaper, talent.  Kikuji Hirayama (above) was one of those players, in a new environment and pitted against his former teammates as a member of the expansion Taiyo Whales.  Along with Takeshi Miyazaki and Kamekazu Yasui, Hirayama provided the speed and on base presence to assist sluggers Kiyoshi Osawa and Isamu Fujii in scoring the runs that brought the Whales a respectable middle-of-the-division finish.  However, it could never measure up to his glory with the Giants.

Kikuji Hirayama (above) was a shortstop and third baseman in high school but went to the outfield during his stint in the industrial leagues. Born in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi prefecture, he was an infielder for the Shogyo High School team.

He played for the Hiroshima Tetsudo Kanrikyoku, an industrial league team on which he moved from playing primarily the third base side of the infield to the outfield.

His first year with the Giants was during the second campaign of professional baseball, during the spring and fall seasons of 1937.  Only 19, he did not see much action in his first two seasons, but had some wonderful experience, winning it all alongside Eiji Sawamura and Victor Starffin under Hall of Fame manager Sadayoshi Fujimoto in the first real "full" season of professional baseball in the Fall of '37, and playing alongside Haruyasu Nakajima as he became the first player in Japan to win a triple crown in the Spring of 1938. 

He had his breakout season in '39, placing third in the batting race and holding his own along with his future Hall of Fame teammates Tetsuharu Kawakami, Shigeru Chiba, Nakajima, Toshio Shiraishi, Shigeru Mizuhara, and Osamu Mihara among others.  Though known today as the Yomiuri Giants, the team was then known as the Tokyo Kyojin, and they won the pennant every season Hirayama (below) played with them before the war.  He left after the '41 season, eventually participating in the Burma campaign, not returning until the '47 season.  He picked up right where he had left off as a speedster and defensive asset.

Though Noboru Aota had played with the Giants during the first two years of his career, his time in the outfield did not overlap with Hirayama, who had left just before Aota's first tenure.  Instead, they were reunited for the 1948 season, and the two, together with Hiroshi Hagiwara, formed an outfield that, for two seasons, was the best in baseball.  It was here, in 1948, that he earned his nickname as "The Fenceside Magician" for a stellar play in left field, at one time snagging a home run just over the fence during an all star game.  It was said that he owed some of his defensive prowess to dance lessons.  However, at the beginning of the 1950 season, Hirayama left the Giants, possibly for personal reasons, and sought out a new team.  The expansion Whales provided a good fit (below), close to his home town and a place where he could be a leader.

After his fine season in '50, Hirayama hurt himself and missed almost the entire 1951 season.  He came back a lesser player, and could only manage 77 games for the Whales that year.  However, he was rejoined by his former outfield partner when, before the 1952 season, Noboru Aota was traded to the Whales.  Hirayama could still not muster a full season, but performed admirably alongside Aota.  He retired after the season and worked for the Whales front office, as they flip-flopped between the nickname "Whales" and "Robins", seeing their investment in Aota pay off as he twice led the league in home runs.  Hirayama eventually became scouting director, and, after recruiting former Giants teammate Osamu Mihara as manager for the 1960 season, saw his Whales win the Japan Series for the first time, beating out the Daimai Orions in four games.  He continued on in the front office, but, unfortunately, died just months before his team, by then known as the Yokohama Bay Stars, won a second championship in 1998.

Self Advertisement

As mentioned above, in addition to clarification on the Hirayama issue, Helmar asked that I provide some 1933-Goudey-style copy for the new set of cards that have just recently been released.  Below are some examples, with bios written by me, for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy!








Friday, January 17, 2014

Hall of Fame Announces Class of 2014

     The Hall of Fame and Museum in Tokyo today announced that  Choichi Aida, Koji Akiyama, Hideo Nomo and Kazuhiro Sasaki were elected to the Hall of Fame as the Class of 2014.
     Akiyama played almost 20 years for the Seibu Lions and Daiei Hawks, compiling  437 home runs and 2157 hits.  He was a superstar in every way, leading the league in multiple hitting categories between 1981 and 2000, winning an MVP and winning almost a dozen gold gloves.  According to Japan Baseball Daily, Akiyama, in the twilight of his career, led off the 1999 Japan Series with a home run less than two months after being hit in the face by a Daisuke Matsusaka fastball. 
     In September, 2008, Sadaharu Oh stepped down as manager of the Softbank Hawks, ending his illustrius 50 year career in baseball, and handed over the reigns to his head coach, Koji Akiyama.  Still the manager of Hawks, Akiyama has guided them to one Pacific League pennant so far, and now joins his former boss as a Hall of Famer.
     Kazuhiro Sasaki and Hideo Nomo were both dominant pitchers in the Central and Pacific Leagues in Japan, the former a reliever and the latter a starter, before moving on to successful stints in the MLB.  Sasaki compiled 252 saves in Japan as well as 129 in the MLB, winning both an MVP (in Japan) and Rookie of the Year (for the Mariners, at age 37). 
Nomo became the first Japanese player to move to the MLB since Masanori Murakami played with the San Francisco Giants in 1964.  Murakami also made it on to the ballot for the first time, and in a fitting combination of firsts, Nomo, on the Japanese ballot for the first time, was also the first Japanese born player to appear on the US Hall of Fame ballot.  And, unlike so many before him, Nomo was elected on his first try.  Nomo's success (a 123-109 record in the MLB to go along with 78 wins and 1200 strikeouts with the Buffaloes in the Pacific League) paved the way for Sasaki, Ichiro, Matsui and others to excel on both sides of the Pacific. 
     Rounding out the group is Aida, a legend in Tokyo Big 6 baseball and a key figure in the amateur baseball system in Japan that allowed for all of the players listed above to become successful pros.  More to come on those who didn't make it in....

 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Arakawa

     Hiroshi Arakawa is making his debut on the Expert Division ballot this year as a candidate for the Hall of Fame in Japan.  Though known to most as the influential Yomiuri Giants coach who taught Sadaharu Oh a "zen way of baseball", Arakawa was a player, coach, manager and announcer in Japanese baseball for over 40 years.
     Born in the Taito Ward of Tokyo, Hiroshi Arakawa attended Waseda Jitsugyo High School, or Sojitsu, the future school of Oh and a feeder school for Waseda University. He played on the baseball team there that appeared in the 1948 Koshien Tournament, but the team did not advance far.  After playing several seasons with Waseda University in which he hit .280 in 289 at bats, Arakawa moved across town to join the great Karao Betto in the outfield of Korakuen stadium as a member of the Mainichi Orions.  Number 22 (above) was voted to the All-Star team in his rookie year, but had his best season in '54, hitting .270 while making not a single error in the field.  The Orions never made it to the postseason during Arakawa's tenure, but they were still an exciting team, with future hall of famers Betto, Shosei Go, and Atsushi Aramaki.  Later, they were joined by slugger Kihachi Enomoto, who, as a rookie in 1955 would become Arakawa's first pupil, an endeavor that would lead to Enomoto earning rookie of the year honors before embarking on a stellar 18 year career in which he hit 246 home runs, made 9 Best Nine teams, and smacked 2314 hits for a .298 average.  Enomoto joins Arakawa on the Expert Division ballot this year.
     Sadaharu Oh described Arakawa as "a purebred city dweller....down to earth, sophisticated, nasty, sweet, cunning, simple, puzzling - and educated", and ruminated on how a friend once "mistook him, in his plain black trenchcoat, for a sickly Catholic priest".  He had spent his whole life in Tokyo, from the Taito ward where he was born, to Waseda, to the Orions and his apartment in Toshima ward, less than two miles from his birthplace.  And then, again, to the Yomiuri Giants, in the heart of Tokyo, where he became the hitting coach when, in 1962, Tetsuharu Kawakami, the God of Batting, took the managerial reins from Shigeru Mizuhara. He got the job, in part, thanks to the work he did with Enomoto.  His first job was to improve Oh, who had been recruited by Yomiuri as a pitcher one year after "Mr. Baseball", Shigeo Nagashima, had been simarly recruited, but who had failed to meet the expectations of fans and front office to compliment the great Nagashima.
      The strange, city dwelling Arakawa, devotee of Zen and a teacher more than a ballplayer, took Oh under his wing and set about instructing him spiritually, mentally, and physically.
      Though some claim that Oh's offensive surge, that began in 1964, was aided by a concave-top,  compressed taro wood bat "Special Order made for Mr. Oh" (the same wood preferred by Ichiro, and a bat coveted by major leaguers like Lou Brock but outlawed by the MLB and, now, the NPB), it was Arakawa's guidance and zen approach to hitting that transformed a binge-drinking, nightlife-craving disappointment into the greatest hitter in the game.  They worked together every day for two years, utilizing both traditional baseball techniques as well as those found in the martial arts including samurai swordsmanship, demonstrated famously by Oh learning to control his wrists by slicing a dangling strip of paper with a sword. Oh would go on to set almost every hitting record in Japanese baseball.
Arakawa remained a hitting coach with Yomiuri throughout most of the V-9 years, a period in which the Giants won 9 straight titles, due in no small part to the contribution of his famous pupil.  He worked with others as well, and was not above throwing himself in harms way for the team, as he did in 1968 against a towering Gene Bacque.
     After the 1970 season Arakawa moved on from the Giants to a quasi private life, most likely due in part to an incident involving the beating of his adopted son, himself a star of Waseda's baseball team, over his refusal to accept the outcome of the 1969 draft. Takeshi Arakawa was drafted by the Whales, but, when he deferred to the Giants or Atoms (later the Swallows), he was attacked in the street - an incident which must have shaken the elder Arakawa.  However, the allure of both baseball and teaching was too much for him to stay away, and he signed on as hitting coach for the Swallows (for whom, by then, Takeshi was playing) in 1973. 
     By '74 he was the manager (left, with Katsuo Osugi), and though his teams never finished higher than 3rd, he groomed a crop of young talent including Tsutomu Wakamatsu, Akihiko Oya, and Hiromu Matsuoka, as well as bringing over talented veteran sluggers such as Roger Repoz and future hall of famer Katsuo Osugi. When he resigned mid-season in 1976, he was replaced by fellow Waseda alum and former V-9 Yomiuri sparkplug Tatsuro Hirooka, who took the talent Arakawa had fostered, and, along with the additions of Dave Hilton and Charlie Manuel, led the Swallows to their first ever championship in 1978.
     He continued on in baseball as a commentator for Fuji television, as well as stints advising the Giants in a variety of capacities. He also continues to teach and practice zen, and would be an excellent addition to the Hall of Fame.






Thursday, December 12, 2013

Hall of Fame Announces 2014 Ballot

The Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum announced the candidates for the class of 2014 (see here for the list in English).  Joining Koji Akiyama, Atsuya Furuta and Tatsunuri Hara on the Players Division ballot are Kazuhiro Kiyohara, Masumi Kuwata, Takenori Suzuki and Hideo Nomo.  In November, Nomo became the first Japanese-born player to make the Hall of Fame ballot in the US, and now becomes the first player to be on both ballots at the same time. 

Joining Masayuki Dobashi, Boomer Wells, Randy Bass and others on the Expert Division ballot are Kihachi Enomoto (left) and Don Blasingame, who competed against each other during the 1958 Cardinals tour of Japan later in the Pacific League as members of the Orions and Hawks; Laron Lee, Kenichi Tazawa, Taira Fujita, Masataka Nashida, Fumio Takechi, Michiyo Arito, and Hiroshi Arakawa, well known as the coach who taught Sadaharu Oh (above) his famed flamingo batting stance; and Masanori Murakami, who was the first Japanese pro to pitch in the MLB, was featured in Rob Fitts' excellent book Remembering Japanese Baseball, and is the subject of an upcoming work by Fitts. It's fitting that both Murakami and Nomo, the first two Japanese pitchers to pitch in the majors, both appear on the ballot for the first time together.

More to come on Arakawa, the '58 tour, and the rest of the ballot....
 
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