Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Preparations for pt. 2 of the Miracles post has taken longer than expected, so here is a short piece on another great player from the 1950's in Japan. Most well known to American fans of Japanese baseball are the former major league players who have made their way to NPB for one reason or another, guys like Davy Johnson, Dave Hilton, , even Cecil Fielder. They have generally stayed a few years before trying to make an MLB comeback or hanging up their spikes. Even Hall of Famer Larry Doby played 72 games for the Dragons in 1962, hitting 10 home runs in 268 plate attempts. But it was not the former MLB players that forged the path for foreign players in Japan- it was the Nisei scrappers in the 1950's, the Wally Yonemine's, the Dick Kashiwaida's, and the Fibber Hirayama's.
Fibber (Satoshi) Hirayama (above) was born in California, not Hawaii, like many of the other Nisei stars, and played a season for the Stockton (CA) Ports, a team in the St. Louis Browns farm system, before making his way to Japan. After getting out of the army, Wally Yonemine and Kenichi Zenimura put him in contact with the Hiroshima Carp, a team only five years old playing in a town just ten years past the devastation of atomic warfare. According to the excellent Through a Diamond: 100 Years of Japanese American Baseball, Fibber had been playing baseball in a Japanese Internment Camp in Arizona at the time the Hiroshima bomb was dropped. Following a stint in the Army and his time with the Ports, Hirayama arrived in Hiroshima less than a decade after that bomb had redefined the terms of war and changed the city forever, and the Carp seemed to be the only bright spot in the lives of the people that still inhabited the coastal town. Much has been written about Fibber, the finest being an article by Marc Harris (who wrote the novel Bang the Drum Slowly) for Sports Illustrated in 1958- it covers the 10,000 fan greeting Fibber received upon his arrival in Hiroshima, and the wave of excitement he inspired. The Carp were coming off their best season yet, thanks to their young pitcher Ryohei Hasegawa and the arrival of Makoto Kozuru, and, though they would love their team whether or not they won a single game, the prospect of a winning season seemed to arrive with the young American.
Two teammates helped him feel more at home. One was Kenshi Zenimura, also from Fresno, son of Kenichi Zenimura, one of the most influential Nisei in American Baseball who led the charge to organize teams in the Japanese internment camps set up by the US government during WWII like the teams Fibber played on. The other was Jiro Kaneyama (see Feb. 20 post in this blog), who had arrived with Kozuru and shared the speed and aggressive style of play that Fibber excelled at. In his first season with the Carp, the rookie Hirayama stole 25 bases, third on the Carp behind Kanayama and Kozuru, and scored 46 runs and played the outfield with a strong and aggressive throwing arm. According to Harris, Kaneyama also raved about Fibber's leadership qualities, taking charge on a team that had not yet found its center. The result was the best Carp team yet, winning 58 games and finishing 4th in the Central League, bolstered by Ryohei Hasegawa's 30 wins. Unfortunately, though Fibber would improve in the years to come, this would be the highest placing the Carp would be able to achieve during his stay.
1956 would be his most productive year, though the Carp finished the season 37 games behind Central League champs Giants. Fibber drove in 46 runs while scoring 52, and stole 34 bases, second in the league behind Yoshio Yoshida. He led the Carp in almost every batting category except HR, and his 10 were second, making him one of the few in the Central League that season to make it into double digits with home runs- the league leader that year with 25 was Noboru Aota of the Whales.
With the Carp until 1964, Fibber was consistently productive, continually creating 50 or so runs per year with his speed and aggressive play (and most likely a lot more with his excellent defensive skills) while helping Hiroshima break the .500 mark for the first time in their history in 1960 and making the '56 and '58 All-Star Teams along the way. Since Gold Glove awards were not issued until the early 1970's, he was never so honored, but the anecdotal evidence suggests he deserved quite a few. In the field he gave his all until the end of his career, and ended up staying in Hiroshima as a coach, scout and community member.
In addition to being a great, hustling ballplayer, Fibber was also one of the few bespectacled players in post-war Japanese Baseball, along with my favorite Shissho Takesue (to be covered in a later post) and many others. Below is an attempt to compile a list of all bespectacled players from that era- this is an incomplete list, so please, if you have names to add, include them in a comment and they will be added:
There are still a bunch missing, so please write in if you have any names to add. The second part of Miricles should be done soon, so stay tuned....