Sunday, July 5, 2015


Rob Fitts recently released his excellent new book Mashi, the story of Masanori Murakami. Though best known as the first Japanese born player in the Majors, Murakami was also a stellar pitcher for the Nankai Hawks during the final managing years of Kazuto Tsuruoka (aka Yamamoto, right).   Tsuruoka had begun his career before WWII and, after the war, become the most successful manager in the game.

He understood that "there was money to be made", and he was the first to put together a powerhouse to rival the Yomiuri Giants, taking full advantage of the new two league system and dominating it for most of the decade. He drafted, recruited, and developed hundreds of players - those who succeeded, those who failed, and those who shone brightly and briefly.   His 1954 Hawks included three rookies on whose shoulders the future championship teams would seemingly stand.  Two would start slow before eventually living up to potential and putting together Hall of Fame careers. One would shoot out of the gate as a fireball before fading just as quickly.  In his first 150 games for the Hawks, Motoji Takuwa would win 56.  After that, only one decision, a loss in the last game he ever pitched for the Hawks, would mark his fade into obscurity.  But his start was much more optimistic.
Motoji Takuwa (below) was born on July 18, 1935 in Fukuoka Prefecture and attended Moji Higashi high school.  The ace of the baseball team, he played in the Kyushu tournament in 1951 but his school never qualified for the more coveted Koshien tournament.  He graduated in 1953 and was signed by the Hawks.

 As the 1954 season began, Manager Tsuruoka had won three straight pennants but lost three straight Japan Series to the Giants, and was ready to do anything to succeed.  He had three rookies to join his otherwise stellar team of Chusuke Kizuka, Kazuo Kagayama, future HOFer Tokuji Iida and 1953 MVP Isami Okamoto. One was Takuwa (left), who was joined by two other rookies - future Hall of Famers Katsuyu Nomura, who at 19 years old played in just 9 games in '54, and Matsuo Minegawa, who was a year younger and appeared in just one game more than Nomura, recording a paltry 0 wins to 3 losses.

Takuwa, however, was selected by Tsuruoka to join the Hawks starting rotation, along with veteran Susumi Yuki and Taketoshi Ogami, who at just 20 years old had been the ace of the staff in the previous year.

He was successful immediately and by seasons end racked up 26 wins against nine losses, along with an ERA of just 1.58.   He was voted Rookie of the Year (narrowly beating out runner up, and future HOFer, Takao Kajimoto), and led the league both wins and ERA.  In addition to all of that, his mark of 275 strikeouts would set a rookie record that lasted almost 30 years.

 Along with Takuwa, two other pitchers rounded out the "ace" category for the '54 Hawks.  One was Sasumu Yuki (right), a veteran pitcher who won 124 games in a nearly 10 year career spent entirely with the Hawks.  He had been a 27 year old rookie in 1948 when he immediately became their top pitcher, leading the league with a 1.89 ERA, and notching 19 wins.  Having been a star at Hosei U before going off to war, his late start was attributed to a fateful stint as a prisoner of war in Siberia until 1948.

The other, Taketoshi Okami, had been the ace rookie pitcher in '53 who had narrowly lost game 7 of the '53 Series despite home runs from Hawks stars Chusuke Kizuka and Jun Matsui.

The '54 Hawks would lose the pennant to the Lions by only half a game, and the disappointment was eased only slightly by Takuwa's stellar season, as well as a few other surprises.  Isami Okamoto, the MVP of the '53 season, was ineffective in '54 to the point that he was replaced at 2B by Nobushige Morishita - yet it was Morishita who would win best nine at the position, just as Okamoto had the previous year.  Tokuji Iida would hit for his worst average since his rookie season but still knock out 18 homers -  however he not win the MVP until '55. 

The next season, in 1955, the Hawks made it to the Japan Series. That season Takuwa became the ace, on whose shoulders Tsuruoka placed the bulk of pitching duties as he, and many other Japanese managers were want to do.   Despite a stellar season during which he won 24 games, he started only one game in the series.  After Takuwa lost the first game, Masaharu Obata and Ichiro Togawa would win the next three games. Blessed with a 3 games to 1 lead over the Giants, the Hawks then squandered it, losing three in a row to hand Yomiuri the title.

By the time he was twenty, in 1956, Matoji Takuwa's arm was dead.  Roughly 20 games into the 1956 season, still maintaining a 2.29 ERA, his arm stopped functioning.  He never won a game again.  He had pitched twice as many innings as his nearest teammate in '54 with an impressive 329 innings, but could muster only a little over a 100 innings for the Hawks during the following four seasons.

After pitching only 3 innings for the Hawks in 1959 (and giving up 2 runs), he moved to the Kinetetsu Buffaloes in 1960. He would only pitch 20 innings over two seasons before finally hanging up his spikes, garnering no decisions and little fanfare.  Manager Shiguru Chiba, famed Yomiuri 2nd basemen and the teams namesake, seems to have forgotten (or ignored) him in a bullpen filled with a bevy of burned-out arms.

After retirement Takawa took a position as a commentator for Mainichi television. In 1994 he accepted a position as coach of the Taiwan Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL)'s Tigers, and quickly became manager.  He served for two years before returning to Japan as a commentator once again for the Mainichi company.

His numbers, lined up in a row, seem unimpressive when representing a career, or a life: after 50 wins collected in just two seasons, Takuwa finished his career with 168 games pitched, 56 wins and 26 losses, with an ERA of 2.29.  In addition to his Rookie of the Year award, he was named best defense pitcher once, led the league in wins twice and strikeouts once.  But his moment of brilliance was only lost, not forgotten.

Kazuto Tsuruoka (left) continued on as Manager of the Hawks until 1968 before wrapping up a Hall of Fame Career as Japanese Baseball's winningest manager.  He had taken over the player/manager role for the Hawks as soon as post-war baseball began in 1946, and continued until moving to solely a managerial role after the 1952 season.  For the first 18 years of the Pacific League, Tsuruoka defined the Hawks.

After baseball resumed in 1946, the former Nankai/Kinki Nihon team was known as the Kinki Great Ring (or Ringers, as dubbed by the American Servicemen stationed in Japan, in part for the shortened term and in part due to the contemporary slang for an available Japanese girl, or "ring worthy").  In 1948 the team, owned both before and after the war by Kinki Nippon Railroad, would update their name to the Nankai Hawks.  After that '48 season, the success of the Hawks, as well as most other teams led to a frenzy of interest by corporations similar to Kinki Nippon Railroad, intent on earning similar profits.

Thanks largely to Tsuruoka and his ability to find and coach talent, the Hawks dominated the first decade of the Pacific League.  The birth of the Pacific League is just one part of the fascinating story of the development of the 2 league system in Japanese baseball starting in 1950.  Coming soon - a multi-part post on that history.

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!"

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