The June 26, 2020 episode of JapanBall’s “Chatter Up!” Zoom calls featured Rob Fitts, a historian of Japanese baseball and author of six books on the subject. He is also renowned for his expertise in the area of Japanese baseball cards. The following is the full transcript of this episode, edited for efficiency and clarity. Video of the episode is available on JapanBall’s YouTube page, and a recap of the discussion can be found on our website.
Shane: Welcome, everyone. Thank you very much for joining “Chatter Up!” Appreciate you all coming out. On to today’s episode – so of course, we have Rob Fitts here. Just to give everyone an idea of a little bit about [his] history, he has a doctorate in archaeology from Brown University, but left academics to “un-dig” something of another nature, which is Japanese Baseball history. He’s written six books now, and his first book, the subject at-hand today, is “Remembering Japanese Baseball: An Oral History of the Game.” That was the winner of the 2005 Sporting News/SABR Award for Best Baseball Research. He is the founder of SABR’s Asian Baseball Committee, and he’s won various awards in that organization – for Best Baseball Book, the Baseball Research Award, Oral Research, Presentation Award, and much more. He’s spoken at venues [such] as the Library of Congress, [in] Cooperstown [at the] Hall of Fame, the Japanese Embassy… Now to that prestigious list, we add JapanBall’s “Chatter Up!” So Rob, we are very happy to have you here, and thanks so much for joining us.
Rob: It’s great to be here, Shane. It’s great to see everybody, I think I know about a third of you pretty well, and a bunch of you I’ve met via email this week and last week because you ordered my book, so thank you.
Shane: It’s a real treat to have you here. I just wanted to kind of kick things off with the beginnings of how you got into all of this; in the book’s intro, you explain how in 1993 you went to your first Japanese game and fell in love with Japanese baseball and I think a lot of people on this call have a similar origin story, but the difference between us and you is that you’ve written a more than a handful of books on the subject and have really taken it to the next level. Did you envision any of this when you wrote your first book, or even going back before that, when you started first following the game? Was there a seedling of what might become of your life?
Rob: No, not at all. When I first started, I was just a fan and very passionate about archaeology, and I was a baseball fan on the side. Probably most people watching today have their jobs and it’s just a hobby. But when I was over there, ‘93, ‘94, there wasn’t much written in English, and I was interested in the history, so I had to go out and find it myself. And that led to this book, when I started talking to Wally Yonamine and subsequent players. And it wasn’t really until I was almost done [with] this book. And I said to my wife, “this is what I want to do.” It was a lot more fun than archaeology, which is a pretty fun field anyway, and I just decided before I even finished the first one, I was going to start the second. So from there on out, it just kind of happened. Once I decided to [be a] professional writer, it was always what’s going to be next even before it finished the book I [was] working on.
Shane: Well, we’re all very grateful that you dedicated the last 15 years to this project and we look forward to continuing to see the products that you put out. That being said, I’m just going to go ahead and open [the discussion] up. If anyone wants to ask the first question, please do. Susan McCormac has a hand up. So we’re just gonna go straight to Susan.
Susan: Hi Rob! How’s it going? Congratulations on the 15th anniversary of publishing “Remembering Japanese Baseball.” So I know that you wrote a full book about Wally Yonamine after “Remembering Japanese Baseball,” and you guys were friends up until he passed away in 2011. Were you able to establish relationships with your other interviewees from the first book and did you keep in touch with them? I know a few are still alive but have you kept in touch with the ones who are still living?
Rob: I did not at the time, Wally and I went right into working on the next book and became very friendly, and a few of the players I saw again, but most of the other players, the answer’s no. The exception was Mashi [Masanori Murakami], and Mashi and I actually fell out of touch between “Remembering” and a few years later, when I went to write his biography, and we had to remind him who I was and that he had actually met me before. That took a while to convince Mashi to work with me. And now we’re in touch often.
Shane: Duff [McFadden], I saw you had a question. So I’m just going to put you on.
Duff: Thank you. Your book was written 15 years ago. At the end of each vignette, each of them has suggestions on how to improve Japanese baseball. To the best of your knowledge, do you know if any of those have been implemented? If [any of the] people speaking in your book [were] responsible for the changes in Japanese baseball?
Rob: I’m sure my book had no effect on Japanese baseball. It was only done in English, I don’t think very many people read it in Japanese of course. Um, some of the players such as [Masaaki] Mori, who is a pretty big name in Japanese baseball may have taken his ideas and already been talking to people in power. And some of it just came naturally. I think a lot of the American players said “as long as we only have two or three foreign players per team, Japanese baseball will never develop to its full strength,” and now they’ve increased the numbers of foreigners. And what excites me about Japanese baseball now is I think their game is developed a different way than in the US. I wonder if a lot of you saw the MLB Japan All-Star Series two years ago, where Japan came back, played small ball and beat the US, and they were really exciting games. That’s the way I remember baseball from when I was a kid: A lot of stealing, great timely hits, and not just the walks, the strikeouts and the home runs. So I’m finding Japanese baseball now to be a little bit more exciting than the MLB, which was not the case in the 90s. In the 90s. Japanese baseball was very slow. So I think it’s naturally progressed and developed.
Shane: I know when we had Bobby Valentine on last time, he alluded to a few things that he was pushing for that were really slow to implement. I think in your book, someone said that they feel the Japanese game maybe takes 10 years longer for certain things to implement, maybe decades more in some cases, but it seems like some of the things that American players are saying will probably never be fully implemented, but they start to implement just a few aspects of it, especially with the rest and the pitchers and the training and understanding physiologically how the body needs rest. I thought that was one of the interesting themes of the book. You can’t really talk about Japanese baseball without talking about the practice regiments, and I thought it was kind of funny how spring training was either the hottest place in the world or the coldest place in the world. It’s like they have to create the most uncomfortable situation possible. It was just interesting how it didn’t matter if it didn’t quite make sense from a performance standpoint, it’s really just the practicing that matters and the process matters, even more so than the result in some cases.
Rob: I’d love to see how much has changed over the 15 years. Of course, it takes a few years to write a book. So my book ends [in] about the year 2000 or so, being the last player who played in my book. It’s been 20 years since the last player really talked about what it’s like, and I’d love to be able to talk to some of the players now and try to get an update. Might be an interesting project down the road.
Shane: Gabe [Lerman]’s got a question, so we’re gonna go to Gabe here.
Gabe: Hello, Rob. I didn’t get the book in time, but I do have your copy of “Introduction to Japanese Baseball Cards”, your ebook that you released around the same time as this “Chatter Up!” was announced, and I got to the page about the US-issued Japanese baseball card sets from the 70s and 80s, and I’d like to know what was the rationale for why those were even produced. I didn’t think there would be much of a market at that time. I’d like to hear more about that, please.
Rob: You know, that’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer; how’s that for a fast answer? But I think we could find out. The person who ran TCMA is still around, and I can certainly get in touch with him and ask him why they thought of producing that set in 1979. That’s a wonderful question, I think I’m gonna get on it tomorrow morning and see what I can find out so I could put it in the next edition of the baseball card book.
Gabe: I will directly message you my email because I’m eager to hear.
Andy: Going off that it looks like Robert [Kiyoshi] has a question about Japanese baseball cards. Robert?
Robert: The TCMA said they had such a hard time selling it that originally they were selling them for $10 per set, and by the end of the year, they’re selling them 10 for $10. Like $1. I guess TCMA really underestimated what people would buy over here. I think a lot of that had to do with Ed Broder because he did all the pictures, and he became famous later on for other things, but he made some great sets. The Mets tour, the Hiroshima Carp, a lot of those cards. He’s an interesting character. Anyway, the question I had, what were the first Japanese cards you collected?
Rob: So very first Japanese card I remember very well. I was a kid, probably 11 years old and back then there was one show in Philly, called the Philly show, once a year, and it was one of the few shows on the East Coast. I think New York also had a show and I’m pretty sure that was it back in the 70s. I’m a kid so I might have had 20 bucks to spend for the entire day. And in one of the Commons Bins for unusual card bins, I found what I now know is a 1957 Yamakatsu Menko. But at the time, I had no idea what it was, it was just so unusual, it was beautiful, I bought it. Somebody wrote the Japanese player’s name across the front, [and] they got it wrong, they actually picked some fictional Chinese name. But so for 20 years, I thought I had a different player, so once I knew I was going to Japan, I knew I wanted to find out more about this set and see if I can collect it. And this is long before the guides came out. Back in the early 90s when you were collecting Japanese cards, you just kind of went to an antique show or a flea market and hoped there [were] some there and you bought whatever was on the floor. But I was lucky enough to find the rest of that set. It took a long time though.
Shane: Ian Raezer had kind of a generic question, but an interesting one nonetheless.
Ian: What changes would you make to NPB? Would you get rid of the Gaijin Rule?
Rob: In the perfect world, where I’m in charge, and all I do is think about baseball, I would get rid of the Gaijin rule, I would impose an international playoff system and World Series, I would like to model it after European soccer, where the best teams in the world whether they be the Yankees, the Tokyo Giants, the Hiroshima Carp, are full international teams and that there’s not really a disparity of talent between the leagues. In my perfect world, that would be it. But that’s never gonna happen.
Shane: I like those ideas, true World Series would be awesome, too. I want to go to Jonathan Greenberg.
Jonathan: The writer Haruki Murakami wrote a story called “The [Moment] I became a Novelist,” which talks about Opening Day 1978, Swallows against the Carp. And he remembers the exact moment that he realized that he wanted to write about things and for a living. I’m wondering if you could share with us your exact origin story, and what do you remember about that day?
Rob: I remember the story really well. A lot of people probably read it if they got the book in time, but it happened on my first night in Japan. I traveled over the 12 hour, 13 hour trip. I didn’t sleep on the plane at all. I was exhausted. I show up in the hotel room, take a quick shower and my wife who [was] already there comes back from the office and says, “hey, we got baseball tickets, let’s go.” Off we go to the Jingu Stadium, we saw the Hanshin Tigers vs the Swallows, and they’re in the middle of a pennant race. And that place was rocking; the whole stadium was shaking as the bands were playing and people were using the umbrellas, going up and down with them, and the balloons… It was just crazy. I was also sleep deprived, so I probably having a bit of an out of body experience, but wow, I couldn’t believe baseball could be this exciting. So that’s the day I became a Japanese baseball fanatic. And I think even the next day, I went out looking for Japanese baseball cards, and I found the Tokyo Dome.
Shane: And how about from there? What point did you decide that you want[ed] to embark on a book?
Rob: That was many years later. In 2000 I started an online baseball card shop, Rob’s Japanese Baseball Cards, Before eBay, I had a website, and I had to convince Americans that they wanted to buy Japanese baseball cards. So what I started doing is writing little biographies of the great stars, you know, just short 500, 1000 word pieces, and that led to as much research as I could do back then. That led me eventually to Wally Yonamine because he was a man who was in the Hall of Fame in Japan, he had played with the best players and he was fluent in English. So he could tell me stories that I could record. That’s of course what lead to “Remembering” and then on to the career in writing.
Shane: Eric Petersen, I’m gonna go to you because I saw you had a question in the chat.
Eric: Hey Rob, thanks for doing this. In reading the book, I came across the chapter on Daryl Spencer and just kind of saw his style of play, especially break up slides and how that really wasn’t a thing in Japanese baseball. But then he also talks about almost being able to flip a switch and become a better player, because of the caliber of play. Some of his antics like running straight to the bullpen or pulling on people’s pants and stuff like that. I guess thinking of the American old-time game, like kind of more stuffy and proper stuff, so it’d be frowned upon, I guess; how was that received over there?
Rob: That’s a great question. It was received by the fans very well, because Japanese baseball was always really kind of stuffy. And so, to have somebody break the mold and do things that the Japanese players wouldn’t do is great, [the] fans loved it. For those of you who have lived in Japan, [you know that] Gaijin can get away with a lot and once you’re there a while, that’s a survival tool. You can misbehave on purpose and get what you want whereas if you’re following the Japanese rules, the answer’s no. If you start to goof around, they’ll say “Ah just go do it. Get out of my hair.” So I would say I don’t know if Spencer’s teammates or his manager appreciated a lot of his behavior, but the fans loved it. And gaijin have always been able to get away with a lot in Japan while they’re producing. Soon as they start to go into a slump that changes and their antics aren’t appreciated.
Shane: Interesting. Hey, Mark [Kanter], I saw you have your hand raised. I’ll go to you.
Mark: My wife Lynn had a friend who still has a friend who lives in Japan and we tried to go into different types of stores to see if they had tabletop or computer baseball games like Strat-O-Matic. I wonder if you know if they have those there or if they used to have those, do you know anything about that?
Rob: Yes, they did, they started developing these tabletop baseball games, I think as early as ‘49 is the first one. These were insert cards, I talked about it a little bit in my illustrated introduction to Japanese baseball, they went out of fashion in the late 50s and the 60s. In the late 1970s to the 80s. There’s a game called Takara, which is a lot like Strat-O-Matic. You roll dice, you look on the back, the results are based on the stats of the individual players and that lasted from 1978 all the way to 1997. And since then they developed a whole bunch of other games, all dice-card games. Most of them had picture cards with the stats on the back, Now, of course they have incredible video games to play, but I’ve never gotten into that.
Bob Lapides: Hi! First-time caller, longtime listener. Rob, when you were doing “Remembering Japanese Baseball,” did you have a wish list? And any interesting stories about players you almost got and wanted to get and couldn’t get at the last minute, or a funny story about the players you weren’t able to get that you wanted?
Rob: That’s a great question, Bob. Once I got the idea for the book, I called up Wally Yonamine And I said there’s this list of players I really want to talk to. They are Sadaharu Oh, Shigeo Nagashima, Masaichi Kaneda, Isao Harimoto, you know, all the greats. And he just kind of laughed and said “well, we’ll do our best.” They all said no. I then I said I wanted to talk to some Hall of Famers, and they got me a few. There’s a few in the book. But what I found out very quickly was it’s not the stars that are the best interviews, it’s the utility players. The stars have their stories memorized. They’re used to being in front of the camera, basically talking a lot not saying much. Utility guys have the stories because they’re sitting on the bench and they’re watching and they’re sucking it all in. So they’re the ones who give the good stories about the other players, and what it was like, because in a way it’s more meaningful for them.
The other thing that I was surprised at was when I just finished an interview with a Japanese player, retired fella, probably in the 70s. And my translator’s like “so you got his cab money?” “What, cab money?” And they’re like, “yeah, you know, it’s traditional to give them an envelope with cab money, so they don’t have to pay their way home after the interview.” “Yeah sure, what do I got?” “Well, the tradition is $200.” “WHAT?” All the Japanese ball players expected cab money of $200 for every interview, and that was quite a surprise for me. And then they would sometimes bring their friends. And sometimes you’d have to provide cab money for both of them because they make a point of saying, “well, I’m going this way and I’m going that way.” [I’d] have to sneak back into the hotel rooms, get some envelopes and stick some cash in there. So that was a surprise I had when I was doing this. I never made my money back, by the way, on this book.
Shane: Well, I’m glad that we had some people buy it in the past week, starting to chip away at that. I was interested in the first chapter about Cappy Harada. At one point he said “I hate to take credit for it, but I think I came up with the idea for two leagues.” And it seems like he could give that disclaimer, “I hate to take credit for it,” for a lot of things. He seemed to be really influential and kind of just envisioned things ahead of time, including Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe’s divorce, which is a funny story. But I didn’t know too much about him other than his name, and I was really impressed by how big his reach and influence was in Japanese baseball. Could you speak a little bit to that? And is there anyone that you can come up with in American baseball or other sports that [could be] compared to him to convey how important he [was] to the Japanese game?
Rob: Well Cappy was Cappy. Cappy was very good at self promotion, and 15 years later, I’m not exactly sure how many of Cappy’s stories are completely true. But he was there. It’s wonderful once you knew him and you go back at old magazines of any of the tours, there’s the star, there’s Joe DiMaggio, there’s Robin Roberts, Eddie Matthews, and behind them, there’s Cappy Harada’s face in the dugout or holding their children and directing them. So he was very influential. He was to go-between the Japanese league and the teams. In terms of an American, I just can’t say.
Shane: Well don’t feel bad if he fooled you because it fooled me too then.
Rob: He’s got books and biographies written in Japanese about him. So he certainly was influential. I wish I could find out the true story.
Shane: Maybe like a Bill Veeck or something. So I really liked the Brad Lesley, the “animal” chapter. I wish I could have seen him play in person. Can you talk a little bit about what your experience was interacting with him? And was he as interesting to deal with in your interviews as he was in the book and on the field?
Rob: He was, he was a trip. I explained this in the introduction, but these are the players’ words. So what I did was after I’d made contact, I’d set up a time to do an interview, have about 20 to 30 questions I would ask them and everything was taped, and then I would transcribe the entire interview. I would then go back, take out my questions and mold the transcript into a discussion as if they were talking directly to the speaker. So parts would be dropped off, parts would be combined, and then I’d send it back to the player for their approval. And not all players liked it, some of them loved it, some of them hated it. Most of them were like “okay, we’re just going to fix this and that.” So I called up “The Animal,” and I said, “So, Brad, what do you think about it? What should we change? He’s like, “Man, I don’t speak like that.” I know, we have some kids out there, so I’m gonna watch my language here and not tell exactly what “The Animal” was telling me, but [he was] like, “I think you said I say ‘Oh, shucks’ at some time. I’ve never said ‘Oh, shucks’ in my life, and if you print that, all my friends are gonna laugh at me and just razz me about that for years! You can’t print ‘Oh, shucks,’ and I want you to print what I really said. I said, “I can’t print that.” Obviously, there was an F-word at least every sentence, there was a lot more explicit language than just that word, and we compromised on “shit.” So that shows up a few times in his interview, but that was a fun, but real debate we had before he finally approved his chapter.
Shane: That’s awesome. Well, I’m glad you made it kid-friendly because this is good work for kids’ educational purposes, but I guess “shit” is a good compromise.
Ray Denny: Hey, Robert, greetings from Yokohama. In all the different book signings that you did, which do you think was the most interesting book signing? What was the most humorous or most informative, or who is the most unique person at these book signings that you can remember?
Rob: I guess for me the most interesting one was one we did on the Mashi tour in Fresno, California. When we did the Mashi tour, I brought Mashi over from Tokyo. We arrived in Chicago for the SABR conference, and we did a talk together at SABR, then we flew to Boston and did the Japan Society in Boston, drove to New York [and] spoke at the Japan Society in New York, then we drove to Cooperstown, spoke, drove back to New York, had a second day in New York, jumped on the plane, flew to Los Angeles, spoke three days in Los Angeles, drove to Fresno and San Francisco. This is all in two weeks, no days off. Mashi was 70, he was exhausted by the end of this. So I had this choreographed fairly tightly and I knew about how many people were coming to each event, and there was only one that I didn’t have control of, and that was Fresno. And it was going to be at the Buddhist temple in Fresno in the gymnasium. I was just like, “Oh, this could be a disaster.” But we have to get from LA to San Francisco, we’re driving, it’s halfway. So five people show up, we’ll go out to dinner afterwards, we’ll have a good time., We had 150-200 people there with a line for autographs going on for hours. Everybody wants to talk to Mashi, it was just amazing. So I think that was my favorite one.
Susan: Rob, one more question. Since it’s been 15 years since you published “Remembering,” who of the NPB players who’ve retired in the last 15 years, who would you like to include in Volume Two?
Rob: You know, I’ve never given that any thought. I’m gonna have to come up with somebody I know. Of the Americans, I met Matt Murton of the Hanshin Tigers and Chicago Cubs, I met him about two months ago at an event and he is amazing. He’s such a smart guy, loves Japanese baseball [and] Japanese baseball history. He’s read almost everything there is on it. I would like to include him and talk to him about his experiences. He would probably be one of the most interesting Americans. Of course, there’s Tuffy Rhodes, who I’d want to talk to. And I’d like to talk to a lot of the Japanese who came [to the US] to play in the majors, but especially the ones who didn’t make it, especially the ones who thought they were going to come over here and have a career and fizzled out. I’d love it if they would honestly talk about the differences why it didn’t work out. I probably interviewed about 30 to 35 guys for when I did “Remembering.” And a lot of the interviews were very short. Five minutes, ten minutes. “Ugh, I hated it there. Never got used to the food. Everybody spoke Japanese. I never was able to hit the pitcher. The umps are horrible. What else do you want to know?” I had like three interviews with guys like “Oh, okay. Nice talking to ya.” And I hung up as quickly as [I could]. I’m pretty sure by the end, I included only people who had a positive experience for the most part in Japan, partly because I was a fan of Japanese baseball. I didn’t want anybody just ragging on the game, but also because they weren’t very interesting when all they did was complain about it. So I would think I’d stay away from Rob Deer.
Shane: Yeah, it seems you’re either kind of bitter and dumbfounded by the whole experience, or you’ve rolled with the punches, and you really embraced it and had an amazing time, and it is interesting that you talked to some of the biggest stars as far as the Americans that went over there, and they’re all guys that really were able to really [stand] out and help others to adapt. I think a lot of us on the call here have been to Japan or go on tours or live there as expats, they all can relate. You can try to live your own life, to create your own American life in Japan, or you can really embrace it and your on-field performance really correlates to how much you embrace that, which is a pretty interesting thing.
Rob: There’s very few Americans who did well and hated it. It’s usually the guys who may not have been big stars over [in] the US who went in there and managed to adapt well, and their full talents were able to come out.
Shane: It’s interesting [that] the farther back you go with the American guys, the less leniency the Japanese teams had in them doing their own thing, and I think both sides have kind of met in the middle a little bit now. We’re gonna jump over to Richard Geiwitz because he had something interesting to say.
Richard: Okay, great. Rob, you talked about retired players, and I was going to ask you as a Tigers fan, to compare Gene Bacque and Randy Messenger. I think [Randy Messenger] would be a good guy to interview for the next book, but just compare the two guys because they do have some similarities with you know, being big guys.
Rob: You know, I’m not going to be able to answer this really good question because I stopped following modern Japanese baseball around 2010, until just a few years ago. So I don’t know Messenger; I’ve never spoken to him, I didn’t watch him play. I know who he is, of course, I have his baseball cards, but I can’t give you a really good analysis of the differences, the similarities to two players. Sorry about that.
Jennie Rothman: It’s actually really good timing based on the question that you just asked, it contextualizes my question. I have 11 students, six of whom are diehard baseball fans, five of whom have never set foot in a stadium and never watched a game. I want them to engage with the sport in their own country, maybe something they’re not aware of. What is something that you or someone or something about Japanese baseball that you think Japanese fans should know that maybe they don’t know about, that doesn’t get enough of a spotlight shined on it.
Rob: So something that as a foreign scholar of Japanese baseball, I can tell a Japanese fan about their own game. That’s a great question. So off the top of my head, the fans themselves. The cheering group, the more organized things that’s very Japanese. It’s not gonna work completely in the United States even if we tried; that’s something that’s unique to Japanese baseball that’s really special.
As I mentioned before, right now, I actually find the Japanese game to be far more exciting than the US game, I was watching the Pacific League highlights on Opening Day, and I don’t know how many stolen-base attempts I saw, like, three, four? You’d be lucky to see three and four in a typical day of 30 games in the US, so that’s something I really like, and I think that we can learn from them again right now.
One of the things that’s always struck me when I’m in Japan is that the average Japanese fan does not appreciate their history. When I lived there and in ‘93, ‘94, the books on the history of Japanese baseball were often old, were written by guys who had long since passed away there in the 50s, early 60s, there wasn’t much going on. So there’s a lot more going on now when you go to the bookstore, you see books about Sadaharu Oh, Nagashima, the stars of the 70s, but see very little about the 30s, 50s, 19th century outside of academic circles. And I think it’d be nice if they started to develop a better appreciation of their own history.
Jennie: That’s very interesting, because I think regarding the fan cheering and those sorts of things, I did actually have them do all of that, they’ve been sort of researching and presenting and comparing what you learn about this region based on what this fandom does, or how they act and things like that. But I’m [also] trying to think about the history because I want them to discover interesting [the] stories in here, and I want them to find them, and then learn how to talk about them in English. So thank you very much. It’s a really, really helpful answer for me.
Shane: Gabe says the ballpark food is better, and Leon says the Lucky Seven. I have one too: you can bring your own beer into the ballpark in Japan. That is something that Japanese fan should appreciate because that is unfathomable in the US and probably other parts of the world. So that would be my vote for that one. I think you can do food in most parks but not the beer unless you put it in your sock or something.
Gabe: I wanted to ask Rob if [he] had any contact with members of the Vancouver Asahi team, and how popular they were before the internment camps started. I wanted to hear if you reached out to them or we’re able to speak with them on your research.
Rob: I did not. They’re very well-known of course, they have one or two movies about them, including one in Japanese, a number of books about them, some written a long time ago, 20 years ago and some very recent. They’re too late for me. What I was interested in were the very beginnings of Japanese-American baseball, and I was specifically interested in one group of players who started in Los Angeles, whose records I had the most knowledge of. I could have also focused on Seattle, and written the book with a Seattle focus. I mentioned the Seattle teams, but I don’t focus on them. So the fellas that I focus on from LA went on to form the first professional Japanese baseball team [in 1906], and then a second professional Team in 1911. So that’s why I had the LA focus, and never went past World War One except in the final chapter.
Shane: Rob, are you able to read Japanese?
Rob: No. I can read baseball cards, names, some stats. When I’m doing my research in Japanese, I can often figure out the articles, [and when] I need to hire someone to translate for me. Occasionally, I’m wrong. I bring it home and it’s about somebody’s birthday party, but usually I can kind of figure it out.
Shane: Yeah, that must make it a little bit complicated [while] being a Japanese baseball historian, but we all appreciate the hard work you put into that. I think a number of people have more collecting questions.
Bob: Rob and I met in the 1990s, and Rob gave me the addresses of some of the greatest Hall of Famers. So I want to share just a quick story that was amazing. I wrote to Tetsuharu Kawakami, and Kaneda and a couple other people. I got replies from Kawakami, I asked him a question in my request for an autograph, I knew he had met Joe DiMaggio in 1951, and I had photographs of him and Joe DiMaggio. So I asked, Kawakami “Did you learn anything from Joe DiMaggio?” And his reply was “Joe taught me to hit for doubles. He said swing for doubles, because if you hit the ball well, you’ll get a double, and if you hit the ball really well, you’ll get a home run.” And I just wanted to share that little story with everyone about learning from an American player.
Shane: That’s cool. I think that that approach to hitting is disappearing by the minute in the States. That’s cool that he responded to you.
Robert: I have two questions. One is, throughout the years whenever I ran into Japanese fans, they’re so surprised about Japanese baseball cards. A lot of them didn’t know they existed until baseball magazine. What’s the response that you’re getting? Have you showed any Japanese your book? And are they surprised?
Rob: Not somebody who’s not within like our circles, who already collects. They’re not surprised. I did have somebody volunteer to translate the newest book into Japanese. So we’ll see how that goes, and if we’re lucky, we’ll get a Japanese edition out there and we’ll see what Japanese people think about this. But yeah, Menko weren’t so popular in the late 60s and 70s, so the collecting base of fitness Japanese baseball cards is almost exclusively the United States.
Richard: Hey Rob, I apologize ahead of time, this is probably an unfair question. I’m a big fan of Japanese movies and TV series. One thing that strikes me odd is that for a country that’s in love with baseball, it seems like the only baseball movies or tv shows that I’ve seen from Japan are mostly about high school baseball, [and] we have a lot of baseball movies in this country. And I’ve even asked some when being on the JapanBall tour, I asked some Japanese that spoke good English why there aren’t more movies about professional baseball over there. Do you have any thoughts on that? Or have you ever heard anything?
Rob: Just a guess here. First of all, there were, at least in the 50s and 60s, a number of like player biography movies. There was an Oh movie, a Nagashima movie, a Kawakami movie, you know, just out there to promote the players. As it turns to classic movies, for a long time, professional sports in Japan were kind of looked down upon. The idea that sports should be amateur, they should be pure and to play for money sullied the sport. [My guess is] here that the amateur game, especially the high school game, is a better subject for a movie in many Japanese movie producers’, movie writers’ eyes. That might be why. There is a book that came out last year, I don’t remember the name of it in English, and it’s about Japanese baseball novels and Japanese baseball movies. It’s from a fella who teaches in Taiwan. It’s kind of expensive academic book, but I’m sure Shane can give you my contact information and I can find another bookshelf later.
Shane: I’m gonna wrap things up, but right now there’s a big boom in baseball cards in the US having a kind of second life or third life, whatever you want to call it. Has that translated to Japanese baseball cards at all, whether American collectors or Japanese collectors as well?
Rob: Yeah, and the newer ones are very popular there. If you go to a baseball card, sports card store in Japan, they will be selling American cards and modern Japanese cards. There’ll be no vintage Japanese cards there, nothing at all earlier than say 1970, and you’re even lucky to get the ones from the 70s in the shops. So yeah, the current cards have a parallel set and insert sets and autographs. I just got an autograph Mashi card in the mail yesterday, it was released this year, a retro card shows him in his uniform for the 70s. And it’s one of I think ten or something like that. So it’s real parallel development in Japan right now.
Shane: And are Americans showing any interest in Japanese cards?
Rob: Sure there’s there’s a handful. Yeah, but not that many.
Shane: The handful that are on this call maybe?
Shane: Huge thanks to you, Rob. This was awesome. We threw all sorts of questions at you, and you had an answer for all of them, so nice job handling that. This book has been really helpful for me because it’s really helped me improve my Japanese Baseball history, so I’m really happy that you’ve made this accessible to people like me. I really appreciate it, especially in the English language making it accessible to us. So we’re all rooting for you and keep pushing those books out, and we’ll have you on to talk about them.
Rob: All right, thank you.
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