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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