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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Mashi: A Review

Although baseball is the American Pastime it truly is an international game. In recent years, the major leagues have seen players coming from an increasding variety of countries, with Japan being among the most prominent. For that reason it‘s surprising how relatively unknown Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese big leaguer, is to modern fans. Fortunately, that obscurity should change with the 2014 release of Robert K. Fitts’ Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major Leaguer (University of Nebraska Press).

Murakami (or Mashi, as he was affectionately known) was a left-handed relief pitcher who appeared in a total of 54 games with the San Francisco Giants in 1964 and 1965. Sent to the United States by his Japanese professional team as a teenager in 1964 to gain seasoning, he pitched so effectively in the low minors that year that he earned a late-season promotion to the majors where he continued his dominance.

Mashi’s signing of a 1965 contract with the Giants sparked a near international baseball incident, as both his American and Japanese clubs jockeyed to assert what they each believed were their rights to his services. Ultimately, he returned for one more season with San Francisco, but at the young age of 21 at the time of his final major league appearance, he reluctantly returned home in deference to familial and cultural expectations that he remain loyal to Japanese baseball—which operated a code of honor modeled after the famous Samurai warrior class of years past.

This is an amazing story. Fitts sets the stage early on with his vivid descriptions of Mashi’s experiences on diamonds on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Although baseball was fundamentally the same game, the vast differences in approach and cultural influence simultaneously made it completely different. The pitcher’s ability to not only navigate this shifting terrain, but also thrive, makes it all the more fascinating.

Fitts’ easy writing style is enhanced by the participation of Mashi in this project. The former ballplayer’s recollections, along with a good number of his personal candid photos really tie things together. Much of his baseball journey was dictated or heavily influenced by others, giving him a burden not borne by many of his peers. His perspective shows how much the business side affects the game, and in particular, how much impact it had on his career.

Mashi is very well written and sourced, making it an authoritative voice on the subject. Some of the themes of particular interest include:

Mashi’s adaptation to American baseball and culture. Barely out of high school upon his arrival, he had a crash course on every level imaginable.

The overt and more concealed racism he experienced as a major leaguer. In particular, Fitts does a great job of digging up some of the erican media coverage, which frequently was unable to resist highlighting the pitcher’s ethnicity in varying degrees of inappropriateness.

The murky side of baseball’s front offices are a theme throughout this story. Mashi often seemed to be treated as property first and a person second. His talent was such that teams fought for the right to control him and how and where he would play.
The Murakami family dynamic is also a fascinating element. Mashi’s father was strict and traditional, and his initial opposition to his son playing the game was perhaps the largest hurdle he had to clear in attaining his baseball dreams.

With Mashi being Fitts’ fourth book on Japanese baseball, it’s time to proclaim him as one of foremost experts on the topic today. One can only hope that this top-notch baseball historian will continue to produce work as thorough and enjoyable as this story of the major league’s first Japanese player proved to be.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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