In 1964, 20-year-old Masanori Murakami became the first player from Japan to play in the Major Leagues. Japanese baseball expert/author Robert Fitts documents Murakami’s journey from the Nankai Hawks of Japan’s Pacific League to the San Francisco Giants in “Mashi.”
Fitts was the winner of the Society of American Baseball Research’s 2013 Seymour Medal for the best baseball book with Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan. Prior to that he had penned Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Baseball.
Fitts was kind enough to take some time after a recently-concluded book tour with Murakami to answer some questions from the VORG ….
A few general questions before we get into the book …
VORG: Its quite a leap of faith to go from a career in archaeology/anthropology to writing about baseball history. Can you describe what pushed you towards giving up one career for the other?
RF: That’s a really long story. The gist of it is: in the late 1990s I created a website for selling off of Japanese baseball card doubles. The site did well enough that I left my job as a consulting archaeologist to focus on the website. I began writing about Japanese baseball history to promote the card sales but soon realized that I enjoyed the research and writing far more than selling cards. After meeting Wally Yonamine in 2003 and hearing his stories about playing in Japan, I decided to write Remembering Japanese Baseball. That got me hooked and I’ve been writing full-time ever since.
VORG: Your bio mentions that you lived in Tokyo from 1993-1994. What were you doing over there at that time?
RF: My wife was a Japanese major in college and could speak fluent Japanese. Her law firm sent her over for 2 years and I went along.
VORG: There are all types of baseball fans, and SABR helps niches within the fandom grow. What drew you to study and write about baseball in Japan specifically?
RF: During my time in Japan, I fell in love with the Japanese game. I enjoyed that atmosphere of the games.
VORG: I would suspect that doing research about Japanese baseball history is a magnitude more difficult than most other baseball interests, given the written and oral language barriers. What sort of resources (online, library, societies) have provided you with the broadest help in navigating the language differences?
RF: I’ve built an extensive library on the topic so that I can do most of my research at home. I also have a wonderful research assistant named Keiko Nishi who translates for me as well as interprets when needed.
VORG: How good is your Japanese these days?
RF: It’s pretty poor. I can accomplish basic tasks like ordering food, asking directions etc. Sometimes I can follow a conversation. I can read names, box scores and stats but not much beyond that.
And now … the book …
VORG: You mention in the book that Murakami published a Japanese-language autobiography back in 1985. Given this, did you receive any initial pushback from him regarding an “updated” biography for an English-language audience?
RF: No. we barely talked about the earlier book. He just pointed out where the mistakes were in the earlier work so that I didn’t repeat them.
VORG: Your interviews with Mashi began in 2003. Did you have a sense then that Murakami was a person worthy/in need of a full-length biography?
RF: Yes. His 2003 interview was very moving. I knew then that the story was worthy of a book length treatment.
VORG: How much did the “50th anniversary” of Murakami’s debut in the Majors help you in a) getting a book deal and b) getting Murakami to share so many stories/photos with you?
RF: Actually, I was completely unaware of the anniversary when I started. It wasn’t until 2013 that I realized it and by then it was too late to finish the book in time for the actual anniversary.
VORG: You took it upon yourself to organize a (wildly successful) Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to bring Murakami over to the United States for a book tour. Can you describe how you came up with the idea and what the publisher (University of Nebraska) thought of it?
RF: I actually don’t remember who suggested the idea. It might have been (documentary filmmaker) Yuriko Romer. My publisher was supportive of the idea and mentioned it on their website and on their twitter account.
VORG: The two-week, bicoastal, eight-city, 13-stop book tour would have seemingly been taxing on just about anyone. How did you convince the 71-year-old Murakami to agree to it? Even though you has established a working relationship with him through years of interviews, he could have just said … “hey, I’ll help you with the book … that’s it.”
RF: 10 cities in all. He was easy to convince. I initially asked him to do about 9 days and gave him a choice of 2 weeks and he said why not do both weeks? So we did 15 days of touring plus travel days on either side.
VORG: Did Murakami at any point tell you a story that was fundamentally different than what could be found in his 1985 autobiography? If so, did you ask him why/did he state why there was a difference (nearly three decades later, some recollections change, or certain new details come out).
RF: Not that I’m aware of. I probed deeper than his ghost writer did since I had the benefit of already having the stories from the autobiography. so I was able to get more detail than appears in the autobiography
VORG: Did Mashi ever receive any sort of “apology” (verbal/written) from any of the powers that be back in Japan over the contract squabbles that essentially killed his MLB career?
RF: No. but none was needed . it was his choice to return to japan.
VORG: Have you gotten any feedback with how the book is being received in Japan, especially by those who may have witnessed the events unfolding in the mid-1960s?
RF: No, so far nothing from Japan. But few, to none, of the people involved in the story are alive or can read English.
VORG: Looking through his stats, he was a lefty who actually had better results against righties (.183 batting average against) than lefties (.247). Of course he was pitching before the era of bullpen specialization (LOOGY, ROOGY, setup, closer). If you had to venture a guess. How might someone with his skill set be used today?
RF: Remember that he was just 20 during his rookie year and 21 during his second and final year. Had he stayed he probably would have developed further and probably would have become one of the league’s top relievers. In today’s game, he would be a top closer.
VORG: Now that the tour is over, can you share Murakami’s opinions of the book and the tour itself?
RF: Actually, he didn’t comment. I hope he enjoyed it. It was tiring and some of the autograph seekers were pushy and greedy. They certainly made the experience less pleasant.