Miracles Part Three- Catchers In The Central League:
After analyzing the catchers selected to the Best 9 teams in the post war era in to the formation of the two leagues in the previous Miracles post, it's time to look at the Central League. The first star catchers of the Central League were Akira Noguchi, Jyun Hirota, and Shoji Arakawa. Akira Noguchi, brother of several professional Japanese ballplayers including Hall of Famer Jiro, was almost as productive a hitter as Tadeshi Doigaki (see Miracles pt. 2), and began his career at the beginning of it all (in terms of professional baseball), catching in both the Spring and Fall series of the inaugural season of Japanese baseball for the Tokyo Senators.
That first season, when he wasn't catching or in the outfield, Noguchi won 7 games (fourth in the league behind leader Eiji Sawamura) as the Senators best pitcher. He then proceeded to go 19-7 in the Fall, and 15-15 in the Spring of the 1937 season- once again second only to Sawamura in terms of dominance. After a five year hiatus (possibly due to the war), he returned to the Senators in '42 as a catcher and first-baseman and led them in home runs and rbi, while also managing to fit in a few games on the mound (though, his 0-2 record did not quite compare to his brother's 40 wins). The next season, 1943, his last as a Senator, Akira was tied for the league lead in rbi with Aota while splitting his duties between first base and catcher, and was traded the next season to Hankyu, along with brother Jiro (though, due to the war, Jiro would not debut with the Braves until '46). Akira led the war-ravaged league in at-bats in '44 before the entire show was shut down.
Returning with his brother and Aota for the Braves when play resumed in 1946, Noguchi (right) performed utility man duties for a few seasons with mixed results- it wasn't until he was traded to the Dragons, for the 1949 season, that he got back behind the plate for good. Between '49 and '54, Noguchi was the starting catcher for Chunichi, handling a great young pitching staff that included Hall of Famer Shigeru Sugishita, who would go on to win the Sawamura Award in 1951, 1952 and 1954 as the best pitcher in the league.
He also, along with Michio Nishizawa and Satoshi Sugiyama, led the Dragons offensive charge, creating 60 to 70 runs per season while catching around 100 games per season. His offensive prowess led to his being named to the Best Nine as backstop for two years running- 1951 to 1952. Part of it was his ability to get to 2nd base- he led all catchers in doubles during his time with the Dragons, a skill which undoubtedly assisted his ability to create runs. However, he lost the contest for the first Best Nine award in the newly split Central League.
In 1950, the league split into two, and instead of one set of Best Nine's, there were two- one for the Pacific League and one for the Central League. As covered in the last post, the first Pacific League catcher to be honored on the Best Nine was Doigaki. The first in the Central League was Shoji Arakawa- Noguchi would win in '51. Below are the stats for the starting catchers for each of the eight teams in the CL in 1950:
Masato Monzen (Whales): .280 25HR 110RBI
Akira Noguchi (Dragons): .271 18HR 73RBI
Takeshi Hibino (Pirates): .287 10HR 47RBI
Hiroshi Tsujii (Carp): .294 5HR 67RBI
Shoji Arakawa (Robins): .268 3HR 51RBI
Kazuo Usami (Swallows): .284 5HR 33RBI
Shinichiro Inoue (Swallows): .233 2HR 16RBI
Shigeru Tokuami (Tigers): .251 2HR 69RBI
Tetsunosuke Fujiwara (Giants): .244 1HR 21RBI
The best offensive catcher, by far, was Monzen, breaking the 100RBI mark (the first catcher to do so) and finishing in the top ten in home runs in a season where only Hall of Famers made both of the lists. But Monzen did not win the Best Nine, Arakawa did, and the most likely reason can be represented in the number 12- as in 12 triples, the all time record for triples in a season by a catcher.
Shoji Arakawa (left) not only had 64 runs created, but also handled the best pitching staff in the league, with three 20 game winners (including one 39 game winner). He was part of a Robins team that beat out the rest of the league to win the first Central League pennant, and play in the first Japan Series. He led the Robins with 9 hits and during the series, stole two bases and was one of only three to hit a triple. Though he handled a losing pitching staff, his batting eye was second to none, walking four times to only one strikeout, a ratio that mirrored his short career totals of 366 walks to 209 K's.
Arakawa began with the Robins in 1947 as a utility man, displaying his speed and power immediately with 8 triples that season, only three behind the league leaders. After Masumi Isekawa left for the Stars in '48, Shoji began to fill in as catcher while also playing both infield and outfield, and once again put on a show with his speed. According to Japan Baseball Daily, he had a 10th inning, 'sayonara steal' of home in a game against the Dragons, and, while he slammed only one triple, displayed his great eye and control with a 44-11 walk-to-strikeout ration, the best rate in the league that season.
He played with the Robins until 1951, the year after making the first Central League Best 9, and moved to the Whales in 1952, where he was the starting catcher for one more season. During the years 1950-1952, he averaged 24 stolen bases while slamming 23 triples, all the time catching 100 games per season, hitting .391 in the Japan Series after making Best 9 in his best season. However, by '53, he had already slowed down, catching fewer games and spending more time in the field, though he did manage to steal 12 bases and drive in 20 runs. He was joined that year by Noboru Aota, fresh from his stay with the Giants, where he had played side by side with Tetsunosuki Fujiwara, who caught one of the premier pitching staffs of the post war era with Yomiuri between 1949 and 1951.
Fujiwara (right & at the top of this post) was the primary catcher for the Giants in '49 and '50. In 1949, the Giants were one of the best teams ever- outhit by the Tigers, but had such good pitching that the ran away with the league. They had the lowest ERA, and especially the lowest WHIP for any team, attributed to Fujiwara's handling of three HOF Pitchers- Bessho, Fujimoto and Nakao. In 1950, he was quick, second among catchers (behind Arakawa) with 17 stolen bases, but it was his finesse behind the plate that made him valuable.
Fujiwara began his career before the war with the Dragons. His best offensive season was in '46 after the war with the Dragons, catching a poor pitching staff with only one above-.500 pitcher. After a one year stint with the Flyers (where he caught Kuroo and Shiraki, two great pitchers who will be covered in an upcoming post), he moved to the Giants, where for three seasons he helped one of the best pitching staffs ever to two championships- though he did not make it to the Series, losing the job to Kusunoki by the start of game 1. With the Carp, beginning in 1952, he served in a backup capacity for several more years.
In discussing Giants catchers, it is important to include Fukuzu Tada, the Giants back-up catcher/pitcher/utility infielder for a decade surrounding the war. Tada (left) recorded over 1000 at bats as well as over 1000 innings on the mound, and in 1950, with Fujiwara behind the plate, he went 14-9 while also hitting 3 HR in 100 plate appearances, and also filled in at first base. There is no doubt that the Giants were stocked with talent, and Tada is a perfect example- he could still catch, and did so once he left Yomiuri for the Pearls, there being no room behind the plate with Fujiwara, Toshiyaki Takemiya, Yasuo Kusunoki, Tomatsu Uchibori, and, eventually, Jyun Hirota.
The starting catcher for the Giants in the 1951 Japan Series, Kusunoki, had been with the Giants before the war, mostly as a utility player, but came back in '51 to take over the starting catcher duties. Unfortunately for him, the success of Wally Yonemine would bring over several Nisai players to join him, including a catcher who had played with Wally in Hawaii- Jyun Hirota.
With Fujiwara gone to the Carp, Hirota quickly edged his way in to the starting catching position, and by the time Yomiuri was battling the Hawks in the '52 Japan Series, Jyun caught in all six games, driving in 3 runs while batting .353. Though an offensive threat during his time with the Giants, Hirota's real contribution to the game was his defensive innovation, at least in the context of baseball up to that point in Japan. Read Rob Fitts' books, including Wally Yonemine and Remembering Japanese Baseball- he covers much of Hirota's career with the Giants, and the perception of his contributions. According to many of his contemporaries, Jyun changed the way catchers approach each pitch, throwing from a crouch both on regular throws back to the pitcher as well as runners on base.
Hirota (above, with Yonamine and Andy Miyamoto) was also a four time all-star, whose solid offense was not only consistent, but aggressive in a way, similar to his Hawaiian teammates, that would influence all play in Japan and help the Giants to the pennant every year of his tenure except 1954. His strength and toughness were legendary, influencing a whole new generation of catchers, especially those who would go on to replace him on the Best 9 lists for decades to come.
Hirota's three straight Best 9 awards began a trend for Giant catchers- with the exception of 1960, a Yomiuri catcher would be on the Best 9 every season until 1968. His replacement behind the plate, Shigeo Fujio, carried on his streak beginning in 1956 and went on to win 4, leading to his selection by Jim Albright as the best catcher of the Central League in the 1950's. Fujio (right) helped the Giants to as many pennants as Hirota, but did not experience a Series win until 1961, by which time he had been replaced as starting catcher. He played from '53 to '64, just missing the V-9 run, but slugged .400 lifetime and lost his catching job to no one less than Hall of Fame catcher Masaaki Mori- the same Mori who would go on to make the Best 9 team from 1961 to 1968, giving the Giants a good run at the Best 9 for catchers.
Back to the beginning of the Central League and 1950, Masoto Monzen. He was one of the first catchers in the professional ranks, starting with the Fall season in 1936. According to Japan Baseball Daily, Monzen was the first player drafted by the Tigers, and that first season played backup behind former Keio star Toshiyasu Ogawa. Ogawa was unfortunately called up to military service and never made it back to the Tigers, losing his life in the war, supposedly in China. Had he been able to stay, or come back, Ogawa might have gone on to a HOF career- more on him in a later post. Monzen was with the Tigers, with the exception of the 40-41 seasons during which he was at war, until the league was finally halted in 1944. Offensively, he was consitent at driving the ball and getting bases- in 1937 he set the record (that has since been tied by several players) for double in one game with 4, and went on to lead the league with 15. During that time he caught almost all of the Tigers games, reaching his peak in '39 with team leading .401 slugging percentage and a league leading (for catchers) 53 rbi.
By 1948, Monzen was back in the league with the Stars (left) for a season, leaving in '49 for the Tigers for a short season (where Doigaki showed no signs of giving up the starting spot) before landing with the expansion Whales for the 1950 season. This would lead to his greatest season, leading all catchers in offensive production and becoming the first catcher to drive in 100 runs. But after a lackluster year in '51, he went to Hiroshima, where he was the regular catcher for the Carp for several more seasons before finally retiring (after 21 years in the league). Though he played in only 1200 games in those 21 years, it is important to remember that short seasons and war dominated the first decade of his career, and that between 1950 and his retirement, he caught on average 100 games a season, despite being in the latter part of his career and having served several years in WWII!
When Monzen had left Hanshin for the Whales in 1950, Takeshi Doigaki left as well, leaving an open spot behind the plate. Enter Shigeru Tokuami- 1950 was his rookie season, but ended up as the Tigers starting catcher, replacing Doigaki who had moved on to the Orions along with a gaggle of other Tiger's stars. Until the mid 50's, while occasionally sharing duties with Hiromi Tanida, he was the Tigers' starting catcher, though his offensive output never again matched that of his rookie season.
Tetsuya Yamamoto replaced Tokuami as the primary backstop for the Tigers, in time for the emergence of the Tigers all-star late 50's pitching staff. Beginning his career at the tail end of the post-war era, he was a two time all star who played in the Central League shadow of the Best 9 winning catching staff of Yomiuri. Yamamoto (right) was a Tiger lifer, playing 11 seasons for Hanshin and starting all 6 games of the '62 Japan Series and 1 for the '64 pennant winners. However, he was instrumental in the most famous game in Japanese Baseball history, the demarcation point between the 50's and the 60's, between the first golden era and the second: the Emperor's Game. According to Japan Baseball Daily, Yamamoto was behind the plate for the Tigers on that June evening in 1959, catching Minoru Murayama in his moment of failure. Rookie Sadaharu Oh's game tying home run, as well as Nagashima's famous Sayonara Home Run, marked the beginning of the new era of Japanese Baseball, of the O-N Cannon and V-9 and a time beyond the post-war period.
Part 2 of this post concluded with a list of the catchers who, in the post war era, played every game of their career as a catcher. Below is the completion of that list- every other player who played at least one game at catcher between 1946 and 1955 (in descending order of games played):
Among the players on this list were several 'Moonlight Grahams', catchers who played only one inning, or one game behind the plate:
Kawai, Shizuo- 1 game 1955 Chiunichi
Kitamura, Shuichi- 1 game 1950 Hawks
Taki, Hideo- 1 game 1955 Tigers
Takiguchi, Toyohiro- 1 game 1949 Stars
Yamamoto, Fumiya- 1 game 1955 Dragons
The story of Graham, and those with stories similar to his, are fascinating because of the work involved in getting to the professional level- that first game is the pinnacle of a decade or more work on various aspects of the game, of . Even those players who go on to Hall of Fame careers still remember their first game as moving to that top level. There is no higher league to advance to, and those that get the chance are heroes, legends to anyone in their lives, no matter how successful they are at that level, there is something special about them, something special that surrounds them. For those that could only make it for one game, there is a romantic aspect added to that special aura, a romantic aspect that equals that of the Hall of Famer. So what separates the two? What is it that makes Fred Exley jump up and down at the New Parrot Lounge while watching the game, or kids in a small town ask a one time major leaguer for their autograph? More about the Hall of Fame and what it takes make it there, as well as some recommendations for the next election, in the upcomming posts....