Major League Baseball (MLB) has always been a game of trailblazers. Between Jackie Robinson and his famous destruction of the color barrier in professional baseball, Hank Aaron’s powerful bat, or Roberto Clemente’s legacy embodied through generations of Puerto Rican baseball players, there’s no shortage of inspirational stories walking among the halls of Cooperstown and along the basepaths of diamonds everywhere.
There’s also no shortage of Japanese players achieving this “trailblazer” title. Among the hits are Hideo Nomo’s famous defection from Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) to become an international sensation for the Los Angeles Dodgers, or Ichiro Suzuki’s legendary years for the Seattle Mariners, winning the MVP in 2001 and setting a new record for hits in a single season in 2004. There’s one player, however, that often eludes the casual baseball fan when reading these stories: the first Japanese MLB player, Masanori “Mashi” Murakami.
Murakami’s role in baseball history is the subject of a fantastic biography by Rob Fitts: “Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major Leaguer.” In his work, Fitts gives the lesser-known Murakami a spotlight 50 years in the making, highlighting his unlikely path to earn his place in history, and explaining why his role in history has largely been forgotten.
Earning the trailblazing title was not easy for Murakami; he encountered almost every possible obstacle on his march to the Majors. Born in Japan in 1944, Murakami had to convince his parents to let him play, battle through tough injury after tough injury during his time in high school, and almost turned down the opportunity to play professional baseball, instead electing to study at university. All of this was forgotten, though, when management at the Nankai Hawks (now the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks) told him he might have the opportunity to play in the United States.
Murakami was not dazzled by the MLB opportunity, however; he instead was interested in seeing where his favorite American TV show, Rawhide, was set. The first Asian-born MLB player, one who endured racism, injuries, and more to earn the title, jumped at the opportunity not because of the amazing power of MLB, but just to see his favorite TV show location.
This funny, yet incredibly human, detail is just one of many that are littered throughout the book, including Murakami’s failure to save his minor league wages after spending too much on cowboy hats and steak dinners, his gin rummy games with Hall-of-Famer Gaylord Perry (in which Perry would often cheat, as he did on the mound with his infamous spitball), or his pretending to not speak English very well when harassed by reporters- even though his teammates would speak to him without a hitch. All funny, human stories that are brought to life by Fitts, who seemingly almost effortlessly paints a fantastic background for the pitcher and the clubhouses he went through on his journey, using a metric ton of research and unprecedented interviews from the pitcher himself.
Beyond the funny stories, “Mashi” also holds serious undertones that not only reveal why, for almost 30 years, Murakami was the first and last MLB player from Japan, and what racial tensions he endured; racial tensions that unfortunately still continue today. During his time in the minor leagues, Murakami remembers a time when he was taunted with racial slurs by a fellow player, and refused to stand for the National Anthem afterwards. There is also a chilling story in which San Francisco Giants’ manager Herman Franks receives an anonymous letter from an ignorant fan who believes Murakami should not have been “playing America’s national game,” and if Franks continued to play him, the fan threatened, “You don’t know where and when I’ll shoot you, but I will.”
Murakami’s experience as the first Asian-born player reveals a still-continuing trend in modern America, as racial taunts and attacks- even against professional athletes- are still horribly common. Just this past week, it was suggested in an opinion column by the Kyoto News that former Yankees’ pitcher Masahiro Tanaka may have decided to return to NPB partially due to a fear of discrimination and hate crimes against the Asian community that have been spiking during the COVID-19 pandemic. With Japanese and Korean players becoming a common part of the MLB landscape, these fears and experiences by pitchers like Murakami and Tanaka are a reminder to those that love the game that it isn’t one to be gatekept. The book does a fantastic job of keeping this in mind throughout the prose, showing the issues Murakami faced while torn between leagues, and how his role grew and shrank over time and history.
Murakami’s experience as a Japanese player, however, was not all bad; in fact, he received much praise and appreciation from the Asian community in the United States, who saw him as a shining example of the abilities Asian athletes bring to the sports world, as well as the local surroundings of MLB. These examples are highlighted in detail in the book, including several “Japanese-American Heritage Nights” held by his teams, and his MLB debut in Shea Stadium, where the Mets’ faithful gave Murakami a standing ovation for his performance against their beloved team. Murakami was, and still is, a beloved figure in both San Francisco and MLB, a true ambassador of the game and for international affairs.
“Mashi” is a fantastic book for those who want the funny stories of life on an MLB club, those who want to know more about the relationship between MLB and NPB (and why it was so cold for thirty years), and those who are willing to open their hearts and eyes to the plight of Asian-born MLB players. I cannot stress enough how much I enjoyed reading the book, and hope that it helps preserve Murakami’s name forever among the rest of the trailblazers.