Friday, January 23, 2015

Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame Election Results

     The Hall of Fame and Museum in Tokyo today announced three new members to be inducted for 2015: Atsuya Furuta (with 76.8 % of the vote), Kazuo Hayashi, and Ryohei Murayama.  Hayashi helped to develop the Little League system in Japan, and Murayama, at the helm of the Asahi Shimbun in 1915, developed the National Secondary School Championship and Invitational tournaments, more commonly referred to as Summer and Spring Koshien.
     Furuta was one of the most popular players of his time.
A bespectacled catcher from the start, he played high school baseball in Hyogo Prefecture at Meiho High, not known as a baseball powerhouse, and never made it to a Koshien.  Furuta then went on to Ritsumeikan University, which is not in the "Tokyo Big 6" of college baseball teams, resulting in Furuta once again flying under the radar.  Seen as risky due to his vision, Furuta bolstered his skills playing industrial baseball after college, a move that helped him make the 1988 Japanese Olympic Team where he won a silver medal.
     More teams took notice, including the Nippon Ham Fighters, who eventually passed due to concerns with his vision.  It was the Yakult Swallows, managed by the greatest catcher in the history of the Japanese game, Katsuya Nomura, who finally took a chance on him, though Nomura was initially reluctant.  That reluctance was short lived, as Furuta became their starting catcher, winning the All-Star MVP in his second season while hitting .340.  He would add another All-Star MVP, a regular season MVP, and several Japan Series Championships to that before the decade was done.
     Known as a great handler of pitchers and an all around intelligent ballplayer, Furuta benefited immeasurably from his manager and mentor Katsuya Nomura's guidance.  He regularly was among the league leaders in preventing stolen bases, and was one of, if not the best defensive catchers in the game, winning 10 golden gloves. Several former MLB players in Japan have stated that he could have played in the US.  He also followed in Nomura's footsteps by becoming the first player-manager in Japan since the old catcher had done it himself twenty years before. By the time he had retired he had collected over 2000 hits, making him one of only 44 players in history to reach that milestone
     Furuta is perhaps most admired by fans for his role as head of the Japan Professional Baseball Players Association.  In 2004 he led the first ever players strike that, unlike previous strikes in the US, developed overwhelming fan support and led to many significant improvements for players in the NPB.
     Former Angels and Padres infielder Jack Howell played with the Swallows in the 90's.  In conversation with Rob Fitts for his book Remembering Japanese Baseball, he said, "Our manager, Nomura, was the best catcher that ever played in Japan, and he was tough on Furuta.  Furuta had a lot of pressure on him, but I think if you asked Furuta, he would probably say that it was the best thing that happened to him.  He became one of Japan's best catchers.  Furuta was also the fan favorite.  He was a G.Q.-type guy.  He wore designer clothes and glasses, and the girls really liked him.  When we would come off the bus or go into a hotel, the fans would be yelling and screaming, 'Furuta!' and going nuts.  He would wave to them or sign for them, and they would go whacko!"
   

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Hall of Fame 2015

In November 2014, the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Tokyo announced the Players Division and Expert Division ballots for the Hall of Fame Class of 2015.  Superstars such as Atsuya Furuta, Masumi Kuwata, and Kazuhiro Kiyohara return to the the Players Division Ballot, and are joined by notable former stars Tuffy Rhodes and Norihiro Akahoshi (below) among 9 first timers.

Rhodes hit 464 home runs for the Kintetsu/Orix Buffalos and Yomiuri Giants, but is probably best known for tying Sadaharu Oh's single season home run mark of 55 before the Oh led Fukuoka Soft Bank Hawks allegedly pitched around him in order to preserve their manager's (and national hero's) record.  Akahoshi was a base stealing, smooth fielding infielder for the Hanshin Tigers who retired early after a diving catch resulted in a major injury.

The Expert Division ballot includes return appearances by Kihachi Enomoto, Koichi Tabuchi, Randy Bass, Boomer Wells, and ANAFN's favorite Masayuki Dobashi, among others.  They are joined by five newcomers, including Senichi Hoshino, Haruki Ikara, and Yasunori Oshima.


Oshima (right) is a member of the Meikyukai, and after a 20+ year career with the Chunichi Dragons and Nippon-Ham Fighters he ended up with 382 home runs and 2204 hits, good for top 15 all-time in both categories at the time of his retirement.  His long hair and good looks set him apart from his fellow Dragons in the 70's and earned him a youthful fan following.  After retiring, he took the helm of the Fighters, though to little success.

Hoshino (below) found success as a pitcher with the Dragons, winning 146 games and a Sawamura award as a teammate of Yasunori Oshima, but found even greater success as a manager.

He led both the Dragons and Tigers to pennants, and proved to be immensely popular throughout his career with an outsized personality and outspoken dislike of the Yomiuri Giants. He then took the helm of the Rakuten Golden Eagles, and, with the help of Masahiro Tanaka's 24-0 season, won the pennant and the Japan Series in 2013.

The results are scheduled to be announced on January 23, 2015.

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....

 
 
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