In conjunction with the 2022 MLB All-Star Game festivities in Los Angeles, I was fortunate enough to attend the celebration of the 150th Anniversary of Baseball in Japan at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles. The event was hosted by the U.S. Japan Council, JANM, The J. Morey Company, Yanase USA, and Nankai Shochu.
My hotel was only a few blocks from the museum, so I headed out a bit early to walk through Little Tokyo and make my way to the celebration. This was my first time spending a significant amount of time in downtown LA, and it was amazing to see so many people out enjoying a pleasant evening.
As I checked in at JANM, I was handed a beautiful coin that commemorates baseball’s 150th anniversary in Japan, as well as a postcard for the upcoming documentary film, Diamond Diplomacy.
After checking in, I hung back and watched the baseball dignitaries arrive. And wow, did they turn out! Attendees included former owner and president of the Dodgers, Peter O’Malley, president of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Josh Rawitch, former president and COO of the Dodgers, Bob Graziano, MLB Senior Vice President, International, Jim Small, and former owner of the Texas Rangers and former ambassador to Japan, Tom Schieffer.
However, the guest of honor we were all waiting for was Masanori Murakami. “Mashi,” as he is known by his former teammates and fans, was the first Japanese player in Major League Baseball, debuting for the San Francisco Giants on September 1, 1964, with a scoreless, two-strikeout inning. An effective left-handed reliever, he was an integral part of the Giants’ bullpen in late 1964 and all of 1965.
Mashi posed for some photos outside upon arrival, and we all headed into the theatre to start the official celebration.
Prior to hearing from Mashi, we were treated to sneak peeks of Yuriko Gamo Romer’s upcoming documentaries, Diamond Diplomacy and Baseball Behind Barbed Wire. The two films focus on the importance of baseball in the diplomatic relationship between Japan and America and the significance of baseball to Japanese Americans during their WWII incarceration. The films are set to be released in 2023; you can learn more at diamonddiplomacy.com.
After the screening, we heard directly from the guest of honor, Masanori Murakami. Mashi shared what it was like to come to America with only a few hundred dollars and only being able to speak one sentence of English — “I have a pen.” He also explained how it felt to be the first Japanese ballplayer in MLB history just twenty years after World War II, and how he is proud of how much advancement Japanese ballplayers have made since he played in San Francisco.
My favorite moment of the event was when Mashi shared a story about the time he angrily threw the rosin bag high in the air after a disagreement with an umpire. He explained that shortly after that game, a Japanese American fan approached him at a San Francisco restaurant, explaining that he was happy to see Mashi push back against the unfair call. The gentleman further explained to Mashi that after the war, many Japanese people felt like they could never say “no” to Americans, and that Mashi’s actions relieved some of the weight of those feelings being carried by the community.
Mashi was honored by several state and city officials and presented with various official decrees and gifts. In return, Murakami presented to the U.S.-Japan Council and the Japanese American National Museum a gorgeous signed photograph of himself with Mets manager Casey Stengel and Giants coach Cookie Lavagetto, taken at Shea Stadium on the day Mashi made his MLB debut in 1964.
While delivering closing remarks for the ceremony, Joshua Morey shared a poignant photo he had taken the night before. Morey had photographed the Japanese trailblazer in front of Angel Stadium while Murakami held up his phone’s camera, capturing a display that featured current Japanese MLB phenom Shohei Ohtani. In Morey’s singular photo, we saw the first Japanese ballplayer to play in Major League Baseball and the current face of MLB, also a Japanese player.
It was the perfect way to close out an evening celebrating the rich history of 150 years of baseball in Japan.
I feel incredibly lucky to have been there.
Editors note: We’d like to thank Joshua Morey for inviting JapanBall and Anna to this special event. Joshua is an advocate for the unifying aspects of baseball, especially as they pertain to Japan-USA relations and Japanese Americans, and has been very supportive of Japanball. Check out his companies, Yanase USA (master-crafted baseball bats) and the J. Morey Company (insurance). Big thanks to Anna DiTommaso for covering the event and representing JapanBall too! Check out her website and podcast, Baseball Bucket List. Finally, if you’d like to learn more about Masanori Murakami’s story, we recommended Rob Fitts’s biography.