Friday, January 29, 2010

Larry Raines and the Americans Arrive!

On January 28, 1978, a few months before I was born, Larry Raines died in Lansing, Mich. at the age of 48. Some sources refer to an addiction to alcohol later in life, an addiction that could possibly have been the cause of such an early death. One thing is for certain- Larry could play baseball. He played it in several countries in a host of different leagues over a 20 year period. And during that time he was one of the few ball players, and possibly the only, to spend time in five big leagues- the Negro American League, the Majors, the Minors (International, American Association and PCL, Cuba, Japan, and even the Puerto Rican Winter League). It was during his second tour of Japan, in 1962, that he was joined by two of the greatest stars of MLB in the 50's: Don Newcombe and Larry Doby (who is one of the only two, along with Goose Gossage, HOFers to have played across the sea). However, Newcombe, Doby and Raines were at the tail end of a frenzy of players to make the trip to Japan in the post-war period.

The numbers, still, are relatively small, especially before 1950 and the development of the two league system. Since it's inception, the professional league in Japan was less-than-open to foreign players, in part due to the political nature of the time (in 1936, the leagues first year, Japan was in the middle of preparations to invade China and signing pacts with Nazi Germany). Most foreign players in the game were Nisei (second generation Japanese) from Hawaii, or, like Bozo Wakabayashi (the Hall of Fame pitcher, pictured right) and Herb North, world travelers from birth. However there were a few players from the mainland US, most notably Bucky Harris (not the same Mr. Harris who took Washington to it's lone World Series victory in '24- his real name was Harris McGaillard and he was the first foreign professional player in Japan).

After the war and the move to a more complete system consisting of a Central and Pacific League, the amount of foreign players began to increase, beginning with Wally Yonamine, the only American to be honored for his playing with a spot in the Hall of Fame (Bozo, born in Hawaii, had revoked the Japanese part of his dual citizenship in 1928, but then switched during the War and was, from then on, only a citizen of Japan), in 1951. From that point, a steady stream of players began to arrive from Hawaii and the continental US, though they were still mostly Nisei. Below is the list of the first ten, including the first three non-Nisei players from the US:

Wally Yonamine 1951
John Brittian 1952
Jun Hirota 1952
Tomoharu Kai 1952
Dick Kitamura 1952
Katsumi Kojima 1952
Masoto Morita 1952
Jimmy Newberry 1952
Bill Nishita 1952
Marion O'Neil 1952

For more information about Yonamine (whose superstardom paved the way for the rest), Hirota and the other early Nisei, check out the books of Rob Fitts. The second foreign player after the war, Brittian, was also the first star from the Negro Leagues to make his way over to Japan, accompanied by his former Birmingham Black Barons teammate Jimmy Newberry. The fact that former Negro League players, as opposed to former minor or major league talent, were the first to play makes sense: though harboring some 'anti-foreigner' sentiments for decades, the pro leagues in Japan had been open to a variety of nationalities and country-less wanderers since their inception in 1936 (during the height of the Nationalism that would catapult the country into a two-front war). Hall of Famers Wakabayashi and Victor Starffin, as well as Harris and Nisei like Kaizer Tanaka and Den Yamada, had always been a part of the system. With the collapse of the Negro Leagues imminent, and the other pro leagues (slowly) opening their doors to diversity, the 1950's were a golden era for the wayward ballplayer. And, with segregation still strong (especially in spring training facilities well into the sixties), many of these players probably felt more at home in a foreign country.

Britton, or Brittian (as it is sometimes spelled in Japan), was born in April of 1919, and made his way in 1940 to the Negro American League, filling the 3rd base slot for the New Orleans/St. Louis Stars. By 1944 he was sharing the left side of the Birmingham infield with Artie Wilson, leading the Black Barons to a championship that year. Perennially at the top of the standings for the next seven seasons, the Barons fielded such stars such as Ed Steele, Lester Lockett, Lymon Bostock, Sr., Willie Mays, Jimmy Newberry and Piper Davis (who, as manager, made sure to keep the hard drinking Newberry away from the wunderkind Mays). Newberry was the star pitcher of the Birmingham team in their greatest years, and as such garnered the admiration and attention of Black Barons business manager Abe Saperstein. Saperstein is best known as the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, but he also served as president of the West Coast Negro Baseball Association, and managed the affairs of the Black Barons- he also had connections in Japan.

Thanks to Saperstein, Newberry and Britton came together and joined forces once again on the Hankyu Braves for the 1952 season, after a stopover together with the Winnipeg Buffaloes in the Mandak league of Western Canadian Baseball (Japanese Baseball and Canada had been linked for decades already, going back to college tours and of course the first pro tour's arrival in Saskatoon). One rumor persists that the pair were on loan from the St. Louis Brown, with whom Saperstein had a relationship as well. For the Braves Britton hit .316 (fifth in the league) with 5 triples, and Newberry went 11-10 with 100 strikeouts (second in the league), helping the Braves to a fifth place finish, just a few steps out of the gutter. Look here (scroll about three quarters of the way down) to see a great photo of the two with their Hankyu manager Shinji Hamazaki.

The following season Newberry went back to Canada, but Britton stuck around for another year of Braves baseball. He wasn't left alone, however- he was joined by a few more Americans- once again former Negro League players Rufus Gaines (though there is little evidence he did actually play with the Elite Giants) and Larry Raines, another product of Abe Saperstien's extended reach.

Born in 1930, by the time he was twenty Raines was playing for the Chicago American Giants in the Negro American League, manning the shortstop position and helping out Satchel Paige during his stay between Major League tours. It was the twilight of the Negro Leagues, and the CAG were not the same as the team Rube Foster put together a quarter century before- they finished last in the league, but Raines stayed for one more season before making the trip to Japan, most likely riding on the success of Newberry and Britton.

It was in Nishinomiya with the Braves that Larry became a star. In his first season in the Pacific league, he hit .286 while leading the league in at bats, runs scored and stolen bases (he had 61). What was most impressive, though, was his ability to combine power with that speed- his 16 triples not only led the league, but beat out his nearest competitor by nearly twice the amount. He came close to breaking Masayasu Kaneda's two year old NPB record of 18, and still holds the record in the Pacific League.

His fielding, however, was not his strong point- for instance, in '54 he was next to last in fielding percentage and one of the leaders in errors. These contributions helped the Braves move out of the cellar and into second place, closer to the top than they had been since 1949. However, his accomplishments at the plate the next season made 1953 look tame.

In '54, Larry won the batting crown with a .337 clip, beating out MVP Hiroshi Oshita by .016 points. Add to that the league lead in doubles, hits and at bats, and one could make the case that HE should have been the MVP. Yet, he also scored 96 runs (10 more than his nearest competitor), swiped 45 bases and drove in 96 runs, good enough for second overall. His .535 slugging percentage was behind only Futushi Nakanishi. This was enough to earn him his second trip to the All-Star game (it was in '52 that Britton had been the first foreign All-Star) and, more importantly, the shortstop spot on the Best 9 team- making him one of the first two non-Nisei to be so honored (Charlie Lewis earned the catching spot that same season).

The success he earned in Japan prompted Raines, once again with the assistance of Saperstein, make the journey back to the States, where he struggled for a bit before once again finding success at shortstop with Indionapolis of the American Association. He again led the league in triples (as well as stolen bases) and earned a tryout (along with a young Roger Maris) with the Indians in 1957- not before honing his skills with Almendares in the Cuban Winter league, where he hit 4 triples in only a hundred or so at-bats.

Though he impressed Cleveland enough to earn a spot at short and third (and even a garnering a Sporting News All-Rookie spot at third), but his lackluster glove work and less than stellar bat (though he did hit the ball well and scored 39 runs in only 266 PA's) caused him to lose his job to Minnie Minoso the following season.

He once again found fire in the minors, first in the Puerto Rican Winter league, then improving his glove work and hitting a respectable .303 with San Diego in the PCL, where he might have run into Larry Doby, who had played with the Padres the previous season. Doby would be traveling to Japan to play for the Dragons with Don Newcombe the next season. Whatever the circumstances, Raines found himself back in Japan to start the '62 season, back with the Braves, while Doby and Newcombe were with Chunichi in the Central League. It's possible that, revived by his stint in the PCL, (where, according to Larry Moffi and Jonathan Kronstadt, he learned to throw harder and shorten the time it took to get the ball to first), Raines thought he could capitalize on his previous Japanese success. He only played in 73 games but drove in 27 runs, splitting infield duties with Chico Barbon, also nearing the end of his long career.

Japan Baseball Daily mentions a possible problem with alcohol, a problem that can account for his diminishing skills as well as his early death. He finished his career with at least 265 stolen bases through the various leagues he appeared in, an impressive mark that may never had been appreciated once he was back in the states, without fame in Lansing. He was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Lansing, and few other records indicate how he lived out those final years.

Before the end of the 50's, another 36 men from the continental US, Cuba and Hawaii would play in Japan and set a precedent for all Gaijin (Japanese term for foreigner) to come:

Billy Wyatt 1952 11
Tsutomu Yaji 1952 12
Rufus Gaines 1953 13
Charlie Hood 1953 14
Fumi Kashiwaeda 1953 15
Len Kasparovitch 1953 16
Leo Kiely 1953 17
Al Long 1953 18
Ben Mitsuyoshi 1953 19
Phil Paine 1953 20
Larry Raines 1953 21
Mitsuru Watanabe 1953 22
Larry Yogi 1953 23
Harvey Zenimura 1953 24
Howard Zenimura 1953 25
Jim Doole 1954 26
Charlie Lewis 1954 27
Mitsuo Matsuoka 1954 28
Jimmy McCabe 1954 29
Sal Recca 1954 30
Chico Barbon 1955 31
Don Bussan 1955 32
Fibber Hirayama 1955 33
Andy Miyamoto 1955 34
Bill Pinckard 1955 35
Alvin Spearman 1955 36
Noboru Fujishige 1956 37
Dick Pariene (or Parente) 1956 38
Stan Hashimoto 1957 39
Allen Yamamoto 1957 40
Carlton/Haruo Hanta/Handa 1958 41
Jack Ladra 1958 42
Bob Alexander 1959 43
Ron Bottler 1959 44
Glenn Mickens 1959 45
John Sardinha 1959 46

15 of the players are Nisei, and a few more were players looking for a home just like Raines, Newberry and Britton. Al Spearman was another former Negro American League player who also played in the Mandak league and was also, apparently, a gold glove boxer. Same as Rufus Gaines, who came over to the Braves with Raines- he pitched brilliantly for Hankyu, going 14-9 with 142 strikeouts. However, little else on his baseball career exists.

Some made the best of their time in Japan- Marion O'Neil (one of the first 10) and Billy Wyatt were stationed in Japan with the US military and ended up playing for the Lions, at the peak of their dominance. Many others, like Charlie Hood, were in Japan b/c of military reasons, and others, like Harvard educated Jim Doole, in Hawaii. And Leo Kiely became the first former Major Leaguer to play in Japan, pitching, and winning, six games in 1953 after pitching for Boston in '51 before being drafted and arriving in Asia courtesy of Uncle Sam.

Even Glenn Mickens, a former UCLA star and Brooklyn prospect, mastered the shuuto and was a two time All-Star.

The Giants had a monopoly on the first wave of Nisei to make their way to the NPB, but some made their mark elsewhere. Howard and Harvey Zenimura were the sons of Kinichi Zenimura, a giant in Japanese American baseball, who was instrumental in, among other things, the continuation of baseball in the internment camps into which most Japanese Americans were forced during WWII. Zenimura also helped to get Fibber Hirayama to Japan, where he became one of the greatest bespectacled players of the 50's, and one of the most celebrated Carp players of all time.

It was the 31st player, though, Chico Barbon, who was, along with Fibber, the biggest star. He could never really hit for average, but in every other category he was at the top of the list.

Barbon was born, according to Japan Baseball Daily, in Matanza, Cuba, and began his career in Western Canada with the Florida Cubans and Indian Head Rockets(though some sources put him in one of the Negro Leagues, and the Rockets had been the Jacksonville [FL] Eagles of the Negro American League before moving to Canada, well before Chico was in the picture; others also place him in the outfield of the Matanzas team, and then with the Havana Cubans in 1953 as Humberto Barbon). It was once again through the efforts of Abe Saperstien that Barbon was introduced to Hankyu management, and he made his way to Japan in 1955.

By that time, Raines had left the Braves, and the only remaining American was Al Spearman- though anyone in the crowd may have seen two Americans. However, that season Barbon became the first Cuban-born athlete to play professional baseball in Japan, and he immediately became a star. His 49 stolen bases led the team, and with 105 runs scored, he was the only one in both the Pacific and Central leagues to score over 100. In addition, he led the Pacific league in at bats, hits and triples. On top of all of that, he was, by far, the best second baseman around: his .975 fielding percentage in '55 was tops, and his totals in every other category were first or second in the league. His performance, though, was not enough to earn either an All-Star selection or a place on the Best9.

Barbon would not have to worry about unrecognized glory- he would go on to play 1228 games for the Braves over the next ten years, and another 125 for the Buffaloes in one final season. Though he was recognized only once (in 1958) for his play at second with a spot on the Best 9, his impact was felt all around the league. In his first four seasons, during which he played his best ball, the Braves never went below .500 and finished at the top of the heap every season. And he would finish with the top four base thieves in every year between 1955 and 1961, leading the league from '58-'60: his 308 lifetime thefts are still good for 24th on the all time list.

Yet he was only an All-Star once in 1959, and finished his career with only one Best 9- it must have been his consistently low average. He was a run scorer, a league leader, and a great fielding second baseman- for instance, in 1958 he had almost twice as many putouts, assists and double plays turned than any other second baseman. It was not a fluke- he did it every year. But his play was never enough to help the hapless Braves to a pennant, despite their two stellar pitchers: Testuya Yoneda and Takao Kajimoto. But his dedication and consistancy laid the foundation for the Braves Pacific League dynasty of the late 60's and 70's.

After sharing the infield with Raines in 1962, Chico spent only two more seasons with Hankyu. His final season was spent with last place Kinetetsu, scoring 50 runs and imparting some of his fielding and base stealing knowledge with all of the young players on the team. Then, unlike a lot of his contemporaries, he decided that his career was over, and that the place which had accepted him so openly as a fresh faced Cuban (a face that would have brought him adversity had he gone to find stardom in the States) was his real home. Of course, his birthplace was in the midst of a revolution, a fact that may have persuaded him that he had no choice. Whatever the reason, he continued the association with Hankyu fostered a decade before by Abe Saperstein, and worked (according to Japan Baseball Daily) as an interpreter for the Braves. He married, settled down and remains there to this day.

Eri Yoshida--Tonight!

Tonight Eri Yoshida makes her debut on the mound for the Yuma Scorpions in the Arizona Winter League. She made headlines last year as the first woman to pitch in a professional league in Japan, and she is set to make history again tonight at 6pm Mountain Time. Yuma manager, former Dodger, Nippon Ham Fighter and Belinda Carlisle boy-toy, Mike Marshall, is the perfect person to ensure that she will continue to impress. Marshall, the 369th foreigner to play in the Japanese Big Leagues after the war, is part of a long line of former major leaguers to make their way to Japan- see where it all began in the next post, as the American's arrive in 1950's Japanese baseball!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Congratulations to the Hall of Fame Class of 2010: Shinichi Etoh, Osamu Higashio, and Masayuki Furuta!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Dobashi, Doigaki and Fujii for the Hall of Fame

Next week the vote for the Hall of Fame class of 2010 will be announced, and the competition is fierce. A number of sure-bet first-rounders (see above, who, nevertheless, did not make it in during their first year) are back, along with some first time entries and players/coaches/managers in the experts group.

The 300 electors in the Players division, 50 electors in the Experts division, and 14 electors of the Special Selection Committee have their choice of a number of stellar players to choose from- too many, almost. From the player group, Ochiai, Akiyama, Hara, Boomer Wells, Kitabeppu, and Arai have our endorsement as players who, if not voted in this year, will eventually (or should eventually) make it into the Hall. Those on the fringes from that group all played in an era that falls outside of the scope of this blog.

In the expert group, only Minagawa and Dobashi began their careers in an era that falls in the outer limits of our scope- Minagawa joins Eto, Tabuchi and Shibata as four who (like the players above) should make it in with no argument. That leaves Masayuki Dobashi (1956-1967) as the player to argue for- the player who, along with Takeshi Doigaki (1940-1957) and Isamu Fujii (1936-1958) (two players who are unfortunately not on the ballot), will be officially endorsed by this blog.

To start with, the argument for Doigaki (right) was made in the previous post on catchers and miracles- his performance in the post war era brought him the first 6 best nine awards ever awarded, and his handling of multiple all-star pitching staff's is a testament to his defensive ability. He even made both the One-League Era All-Decade team as well as the 1950's All Decade team in Jim Albright's rating system. A more detailed analysis of his defensive prowess will be covered soon in an upcoming post.

Masayuki Dobashi is listed in the Experts division as the manager of the 1993 Nippon Ham Fighters- his final post as a manager that included a stint in 1973 with the same team, and three years in the mid-eighties as manager of the Swallows. Overall, it was an unproductive tenure. He finished with a winning percentage below .500 and never placed above 5th. The one bright spot was when he nurtured a young Satoshi Niimi ( in '73 when the Fighters were still the Flyers), who would come in third in the strikeout race that year and was voted Rookie of the Year. One reason for that rookie's success could have been the expertise Dobashi brought in terms of pitching- for seven years in the late 50's and early 60's, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball, and for that reason he should be in the Hall of Fame.

Because he played second fiddle to Kazuhisa Inao in the Pacific League for most of his career, his lack of awards overshadow numbers that justify his enshrinement in the Hall. His career WHIP of 1.06 comes close to Inao's (0.99), and compares to other HOF'ers of the era (Fujita- 1.13; Fujimoto-1.01; Sugishita-1.08). During those seven years mentioned above, he won 20 or more games 5 times, including a 30 win season in '61 (in which he also struck out 298- numbers, however, overshadowed by Inao's 42 wins and 353 K's).

With the addition of Shigeru Mizuhara (who replaced fellow HOFer Yoshiyuki Iwamoto as manager of the Flyers in 1961), Dobashi's stellar pitching finally began to contribute to winning teams, and Toei won the pennant in '62, despite his "off" record of 17-14. He made up for it in the Series against the Tigers, getting shut out in game 2, but winning his final two appearances. It was a wild Series, going the full 7 games, four of which went into extra innings, including games 5 and 7. Dobashi (left) won both, dueling 11 innings with Masaaki Koyama in game 5 before going 12 in the final and deciding contest against Minoru Murayama (who pitched in at least 4 of the contests, including games 6 and 7), winning the game 2-1, and the Series. Though HOF'er Isao Harimoto won Outstanding Technique, and HOF'er Yoshio Yoshida Fighting Spirit, it was Dobashi who (along with fellow Flyer Masayuki Tanemo) was named MVP of the Series.

He finished his career 162-135 with 1562 strike outs, and his 2.659 ERA put him in the top 13 all time at the time of his retirement. His 1961 season is one of the top 25 of all time in terms of wins and strike outs, and he is still tied with Takao Kajimoto as the only two pitchers to strike out 9 consecutive batters.

While Dobashi is on the ballot this year, not included is Isamu Fujii, one of the original Tigers who was on the roster for their first game in the Spring tournament of '36. In the April of 1950, 14 years after that first spring, Fujii suited up for the expansion Whales alongside Masato Monzen, who played at his side with the Tigers in '36. Soon, they would share a record, set by Monzen in 1937 and tied in '51 by Fujii, for the most doubles in a game with four. Isamu Fujii would finish his career with 254, among the career leaders at his retirement, even though he played half of his career during a shortened-season & war-torn era.

Most of his numbers are distorted by that fact- up until 1949, though missing 5 seasons (spread over two tours of duty) due to war, Fujii had still put together some decent numbers, including one very important number- 1. As in, the first home run in Japanese Professional Baseball History, which he slammed (according to Japan Baseball Daily, inside the park) on May 4, 1936. When he put on the Whales uniform in 1950, he put behind him some decent post-war seasons in which he would occasionally come in third in doubles, or in the top 10 in hits- one would expect that his age and trials would prevent him from taking advantage of the thinned pitching and the surge in hitting stats that season. However, with the Whales in '50 he put together a 34/122/.327 line, with a .597 slugging percentage aided by 36 doubles and 68 walks- his 122 rbi performance is still one of the top thirteen seasons ever. Having slammed the first homer in history, Fujii was still in the top 10 all-time of home run hitters at the end of that 1950 season, despite having missed the '39, '40, '41, '43 and '44 seasons. He ended his career with 146, which left him at #10 on the all time list, and, add to that more walks than strikeouts combined with a .423 lifetime slugging percentage, and you have a valuable run creator who played for 22 years.

As an outfielder, Fujii (right) was sound- take his 1950 season. While he had an average amount of assists for an outfielder that season, he committed the fewest errors of all the outfielders on the team, with a total that was down with the lowest in the league. However, first an foremost, Fujii scored runs- he was the leading run scorer in the first three short seasons of pro ball in Japan, and, one would guess, could have continued if he hadn't gone to Mongolia in 1939. It was, in that statistically-challenged era, the dominance needed by any HOF candidate. His career total of 689 is the result of a rate of a run scored every 2.1 games, similar to Kawakami's rate of 1 run every 1.9 games, and Oshita's 1 in 2.0- and Oshita finished with 763 runs, just behind Fujimura's (who also started his career in the spring of '36) 871 runs.

And though his productivity never again matched the levels he reached in 1950, he continued to contribute to the Whales, tieing for 8th in the league in runs scored in '52, and coming in the top ten in most offensive categories- his 15 home runs in '53 were tied for 5th in the league and led the Whales. That 1953 season he was joined on the Whales (or Robins, at that point) by Noboru Aota, and for the next two seasons they led their lackluster team in offense as Aota was by far the come back player of the year in '54.

At the end of the 1958 season, 22 years after his debut (as well as the debut of professional baseball in Japan) Fujio finished his career with a .275 batting average and 1482 hits- another decieving stat, in that of all the players to finish their career before 1960, only Tetsuharu Kawakami finished with over 2000.

These could be the longshots, but their credentials are strong, and one can only hope to see them up on the wall with Ochiai and the rest of them.
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