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Why Haven’t We Had More Japanese Players in the Majors?

The title question is important to answer when one considers Japanese candidates for Cooperstown. If they had a realistic opportunity to come to the majors but chose not to, should they be honored by the Hall of Fame which is inextricably linked to Major League Baseball? Many would answer that question in the negative. On the other hand, if they were kept from the majors by practices as sacrosanct as the color bar, should those same practices serve as the reason to exclude them from Cooperstown as well? Many will say that in such a case the fact the player did not play in the majors should not be held against them because doing so would perpetuate an injustice.

So, did the Japanese players (at least before Nomo) have a realistic chance to come to the majors? I will divide the history of Japanese baseball on this issue into six different eras so we can see the evolution of the answer to this question over time. Those six eras are:

  1. 1935 and earlier-No professional Japanese baseball league
  2. 1936-1950-Wartime and occupation
  3. 1951-1963-Korean War to the Murakami Affair
  4. 1964-1994-Murakami Affair and the De Facto Ban
  5. 1995-2000-Pitchers Break the De Facto Ban
  6. 2001-present-Position players arrive
  1. 1935 and Earlier
  2. The first era, 1935 and earlier, is simply the era before Japanese Professional Baseball became organized. The only player I am aware Japan produced during this time who would likely have been major league quality is Eiji Sawamura, the legendary Japanese pitcher after whom the most prestigious award for starting pitchers is named. In 1934, as a 17-year-old, Sawamura faced a major league all-star team. The Major Leaguers were manhandling the Japanese during their tour, but Sawamura shackled them. In one stretch, he fanned Charlie Gehringer, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx consecutively (and in that order). He only yielded one run to the major leaguers, but it was just enough for them to defeat him. Thus, the legend of Sawamura was born. Sawamura was even "offered" an opportunity to play in the States, but the so-called "offer" was made in an underhanded manner. A major league scout tried to obtain Sawamura's "autograph" on a player contract, but Sawamura sought a teammate's help before affixing his signature. The teammate uncovered the ruse, and Sawamura refused to sign. It is safe to say that such methods are not the most auspicious way to try to begin a relationship.

    This was the Depression era in America, and the Japanese were just emerging as a nation to be reckoned with. Japanese society was even more closed and tightly knit then than it is today, and resistance to the departure of a player of Sawamura’s stature would doubtless have been high. Further, ethnic relations in America were not particularly enlightened, and the concept of a support system for a Japanese with little or no knowledge of English did not exist. As such, coming to the States would have been a very unattractive option to a player if he had received a bona fide offer.

  3. 1936-1950
  4. This era is one in which it would have been exceptionally unlikely for a major league club to have made any offers to Japanese players, and just as unlikely for any Japanese receiving such an offer to accept. This was a time which not only had the difficulties of the earlier era, but also the relations between America and Japan in this time went from hostile to war to post-war occupation. In the period immediately after World War II, it is questionable at best if American fans would have accepted a Japanese player, given the Americans lost and wounded in the bitter Pacific battles with the Japanese.

  5. Korean War to the Murakami Affair
  6. The Korean War and the Cold War made good relations with Japan very important to America. The occupation of Japan was lifted, and Americans began to see the Japanese in a more positive light. As with all such changes, they did not occur overnight.

    Major League teams once again toured in Japan, and dominated their Japanese competition. The Major Leagues should have been aware there were major league quality ballplayers in Japan at this time, if only because of the Americans who returned from playing there. However, the way the major leaguers were drubbing Japanese teams on the tours must have caused the Major Leaguers some doubt as to exactly how good the Japanese were. Add to this the fact animosity to the Japanese had hardly disappeared, it isn’t hard to see why the majors may have been reluctant to take a chance on anybody. The risk in bringing a Japanese player to the States would likely have been larger than for American or Latin players due to the larger likelihood a Japanese player wouldn’t adapt well to his new surroundings. The idea of a ballclub establishing a support network for a player did not exist at that time, or if it did, it was rare indeed. In fact, in 1964 when Masanori Murakami (see below) came to America, he had two personal Japanese/English dictionaries and no other help in dealing with his new surroundings. Even when he arrived in the majors in September of that year, he knew virtually no English.

    White and black Americans and Latins all had teammates or at least other major leaguers with similar backgrounds. Also, at least at the major league level, there were fewer cities with significant Japanese communities than there were with significant black or Latino communities.

    The situation wouldn’t have looked too attractive to a Japanese player contemplating the move, either. Not only would the Japanese player likely be aware of the factors laid out above, but he would also be quite aware that the Japanese baseball establishment was catering to its Japanese fan base by keeping the Japanese flavor of Japanese baseball. The key ways to maintain the Japanese flavor of the game was to limit the influx of foreigners and to keep Japanese players in Japan. Therefore, a Japanese player knew that unless somehow a situation arose in which a Japanese club approved of his move to the states, he would not only face the opposition of the Japanese baseball establishment and escape the reserve clause used in NPB from its very beginnings, but that the establishment would also attempt to stir public outrage in Japan over his departure by painting him as a traitor to Japanese baseball if not Japan itself. This would pose a daunting picture to anyone, and would be even more daunting to someone raised in as close-knit a culture as Japan.

    Under all the circumstances presented during this time frame, it is hard to maintain that Japanese players had a realistic chance of going to the majors.

  7. The Murakami Affair and the De Facto Ban
  8. In 1964, the Nankai Hawks sent a few of their younger players to the San Francisco Giants to gain experience in the Giant farm system. One of those players was left handed pitcher Masanori Murakami. Murakami pitched so well that the Giants called him up for the pennant drive. His major league debut came on September 1, 1964 against the Mets. He continued to pitch well, though he only got 15 innings pitched in the majors in 1964.

    The Giants and Hawks had signed an agreement before Murakami and two other Hawks came over in the spring of 1964. That agreement had a clause which allowed the Giants to purchase the contract of any player who had earned a promotion to the major league club. Murakami qualified, and the Giants were sufficiently impresssed with his pitching to exercise their right to purchase Murakami’s contract.

    A full-scale international baseball incident ensued. Hawks officials told Murakami he might never be allowed to play again in Japan if he returned to the majors. Murakami bowed to this pressure and decided to stay in Japan. Major League baseball saw this as a clear violation of their precious reserve clause.

    The war of words between NPB and MLB escalated, with threats of lawsuits and Ford Frick's "suspension" of relations with NPB over the matter. The Hawks tried to claim the club's signature agreeing to send Murakami to San Francisco was a forgery. The majors, through Frick, would have none of that. Next, the Hawks tried to claim Murakami was homesick and therefore a clause covering that situation applied. However, Murakami had been quoted on a number of occasions in the press as liking San Francisco and wanting to stay with the team, so Frick nixed that ploy as well. Eventually, the commissioner of Japanese baseball suggeted a compromise: Murakami could play for San Francisco in 1965, but had to come home for good in 1966. Frick declined that offer as well because he maintained such a compromise was still a violation of Major League Baseball's reserve clause.

    The Japanese commissioner let things simmer for a while, and then enlisted the help of Murakami's father. The elder Murakami made a plea to San Francisco and Frick for sympathy. Also, The Meaning of Ichiro suggests the father's approval might have been needed in 1964 (it wasn't obtaned), but it is unclear if this requirement still had any meaning in 1965, when Murakami was no longer a minor under Japanese law. Suddenly, the Americans caved in. Frick ruled that Murakami had to play in San Francisco in 1965, but that he could return to Japan in 1966 if he so desired.

    The Meaning of Ichiro advances two possible reasons for the American's sudden change of heart while rebutting the idea of any official governmental action regarding the matter on either side of the Pacific. The first suggestion is that Mr. Stoneham, the owner of the San Francisco Giants, found the plea of Murakami's father touching, and also did not think the matter worth ruining international good will over. Given the callous way the majors often treated players (and Murakami himself), the suggestion about the plea by Murakami's father is hard to accept. As for the larger issue of international goodwill, the majors had consistently framed the issue in terms of the sanctity of their reserve clause. Perhaps a payment by the Japanese, possibly hidden by inflating the purchase price of a player going to Japan could have resolved the matter. However, The Meaning of Ichiro provides no evidence of such, nor am I aware any evidence of such exists. Accordingly, I find this to be unpersuasive in explaining the American change of heart in the Murakami affair.

    The other explanation presented by the book is that Japanese teams were purchasing player contracts from MLB at fairly good prices. However, no information on the frequency or amounts of these sales is not discussed, and therefore it is difficult to accept at face value. Furthermore, MLB would have been aware of this aspect of the situation from the get-go. If this is the answer, why was MLB so bellicose early in the dispute if it intended to fold in the end?

    It may also be that if San Francisco consulted a lawyer, they might well have been advised that forcing Murakami to come to the States would be impossible (or nearly so) and that collecting a money judgment against Murakami or the Nankai Hawks might be about as unlikely. The majors and Stoneham may have overestimated their allure to Murakami himself.

    However, the possibility of back channel governmental or business pressure on MLB is not much explored in The Meaning of Ichiro, and Robert Whiting, the author of that book conceded in a post on that such a scenarion was possible. Certainly, if significant business interests of major league owners or the reserve clause were threatened, it wouldn't be surprising if MLB folded in view of the unlikelihood of any meaningful legal success in the matter. A variation on this idea is that the NPB may have quietly informed MLB that if the Murakami matter was litigated, they would challenge the legality and/or enforceability of the reserve clause. I can only say that I expect that some day an explanation along the lines covered by this paragraph or a previously undisclosed payment by the Hawks to the San Francisco Giants will come to light.

    Of more importance, though, is the fact that as a result of this incident, MLB and Japanese baseball signed a "Working Agreement" in 1967. The fact the parties felt such an agreement was appropriate in the aftermath of the Murakami affair suggests that perhaps NPB had caused threats to be made against MLB's reserve clause. A key aspect of the agreement was that each side would respect the other's rights to players. At the time, both sets of owners had an enforceable reserve clause which forever bound players. Both groups of owners ruled with iron fists. It can accurately be said that at the time the agreement was signed, the players on either side of the Pacific were well-paid indentured servants.

    The major league players escaped this indentured servitude with the Catfish Hunter case, and free agency was born. The majors continued to honor the Working Agreement, however, so Japanese players remained indentured servants. The players remained in that status in Japan in large part because Japanese players and their union were far more docile than their American counterparts. Free agency did not come to Japan until 1993, and player agents were banned from negotiation sessions until 2001. Even when agents were finally permitted, it was under extremely limited circumstances.

    The loophole we will discuss in the section on the busting of the de facto ban existed from the creation of the Working Agreement. However, it was a fine enough legal point that it took 28 years for someone to find it. Of course, if Japanese players had had agents and/or a stronger union, it might not have taken so long.

    Nevertheless, it is extremely doubtful that major league owners would have been receptive to any attacks on any professional baseball reserve clause prior to the loss of their own ironclad enforcement of their reserve clause in the Andy Messersmith case. Even after that, they might have been concerned about setting off a bidding war with Japan for players. In such a situation, it might have been reasonable for them to believe that such a bidding war would put them in a position of having more to lose than they could gain in Japanese talent. Therefore, it is questionable how receptive they would have been to a Japanese player's attempt to come to the majors. In any event, such a Japanese player would have had to found the Nomo loophole, retired from a good paying job, and endured significant Japanese public pressure against the move. After all that, he might face legal maneuvering in the States for a significant period of time. During that time, he would have trouble finding serious competition to keep him sharp. This could easily cost him his career if the legal maneuvering took too long. Even if the player overcame all that, part of his reward would consist of adapting to a new league in a strange new land--at who knows what salary.

    The only other road to the majors was simply not going to open: a Japanese team granting a player permission to go to the majors. The Meaning of Ichiro documents several occasions in which major league teams tried to acquire Japanese playera, all without success.

  9. Pitchers Break the De Facto Ban
  10. The 1994 major league season ended with a public relations disaster-cancellation of nearly the last third of the season plus the playoffs and World Series. Major League executives were desperate for publicity which would change the focus in the American sports pages from the continuing labor strife.

    Don Nomura, a Japanese-American sports agent in Los Angeles knew of a loophole in the Japanese system of keeping players in Japan. He saw the existence of the strike and the need of the major leagues for positive publicity (i.e. almost anything but labor strife issues) combined with his knowledge of the loophole as a perfect opportunity. He contacted Hideo Nomo, who leapt at the chance to become a free agent. A key reason was Nomo's concern that between Japanese training methods and the extremely harsh way his manager chose to use his services would quickly burn out his arm. Nomo "retired" from Japanese baseball, and now he was legally a free agent who could go to the majors. Not that Japanese baseball didn’t put up a fight. Quite the contrary. Once again, the baseball establishment of Japan fought with the conviction that its very survival was at stake. Once again, an exodus of Japanese talent loomed. The establishment tried everything the could to stop Nomo from going to the majors, including a full-scale effort in the arena of public opinion. There were public pleas by Nomo’s parents begging him to stay in Japan. In fact, there was even a complete break between Nomo on one hand and his mother and stepfather on the other over the matter. All this was duly reported in the Japanese press. The initial perception of the Japanese public of Nomo in this situation was not particularly favorable. There can be no question Nomo faced enormous personal and public pressure to get him to change his mind and stay in Japan.

    However, Nomo and his agent stuck to their plan, and Nomo eventually departed Japan for America with no promise of a contract. Nomo’s agent aggressively shopped the pitcher, arguing not only that he was a fine player, but that signing him was a way to renew public interest in major league baseball. Besides, the major leagues had a far more pressing problem-winning back its fans after the long and bitter strike of 1993-1994. With these facts in mind, the Dodgers eventually made the best offer, and Nomo accepted.

    Nomo’s rookie year in the majors is an amazing story when the backdrop of events at home is considered. He came to a strange land without any significant understanding of the language nor any promise of employment. In doing so, he became an outcast at home. He secured employment then redeemed himself in the eyes of the Japanese public (if not the Japanese baseball establishment) with his marvellous 1995 National League Rookie of the Year campaign. Suddenly, he was no longer a traitor in the eyes of the Japanese public but a bona fide Japanese conquering hero.

    Nomo had faced enormous pressure in making the gamble of going to the majors, and when he succeeded, it paid off handsomely. Now the Japanese public was willing and maybe even eager to see Japanese stars test their prowess against major league competition.

    The Japanese baseball establishment has continued its effort to restrict the movement of Japanese players, but it has been forced to permit free agents to go to the majors if they wish. The current posting system is a response to that reality, in that it allows teams an opportunity to prevent losing its players to the majors without any compensation. This is similar to the way major league teams trade soon to be free agent players they do not want or believe they cannot come to terms with.

    In the five seasons after Nomo’s arrival, more Japanese pitchers came to the majors, such as Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Hideki Irabu, and Kazuhiro Sasaki. As a group, they experienced a reasonable degree of success. The next step was obvious-a Japanese position player would have to test his skills on the major league level.

  11. Position Players Arrive

Ichiro Suzuki was the big news of 2001. He was the test of Japanese position players’ ability to succeed at the major league level. He was Japan’s best player at the time he went to the Seattle Mariners, and he carried his nation’s hopes with him. He not only did not fail them, he succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of everyone but perhaps himself. He not only won a Rookie of the Year Award, but an MVP as well while playing for a team that was the winningest squad of the season. While Ichiro was the big story, perhaps more significant was the performance of his fellow Japanese outfielder, Tsuyoshi Shinjo.

Shinjo had played well in Japan, hitting for power, winning some Gold Gloves and had even been named as one of the three best outfielders in the Central League in a couple of seasons. On the other hand, he was hardly a star of the first magnitude in Japan. His 2000 season showed significant improvement, especially in hitting for average. He chose to use that campaign as a springboard to the majors. Then-former Japanese manager Bobby Valentine, signed him. Shinjo did not face the pressure that Nomo or Ichiro did, to be sure, but he turned in a credible 2001 performance in the major leagues. That performance demonstrated there were quite likely a significant number of Japanese players who could contribute on a major league level.

Even today, a Japanese player who wishes to play in the majors faces significant barriers. Usually, he will have to play nine or ten seasons in the Japanese system, which will put him in or just past his prime. It is almost certain that the current situation will likely change again in the direction of greater freedom for Japanese players to go to the majors, because three key groups want it at this time: the majors, the Japanese players, and (most important) the Japanese public. It is difficult to determine what those changes will be, but given the position of the Japanese baseball establishment, it is very likely those changes will come in a slow and incremental fashion. The Japanese baseball establishment still has a reasonable degree of control, and will not yield it quickly or easily.

The perception of the Japanese public is probably the key to the course of future developments in this regard. If the Japanese public becomes concerned that it is losing too many players too fast, it is certain the Japanese baseball establishment will not voluntarily allow any loosening of its grip. In such a scenario, the establishment will likely attempt to turn back the clock on player movement as far as they think they can get away with. Japanese societal dynamics would likely help the establishment in accomplishing this, so long as the public did not view their efforts as going too far. On the other hand, if the Japanese public wants more of its stars in the majors and/or in the majors sooner, it has the undeniable leverage to force such a state of affairs. Fans do not have to buy tickets, and can and do express their displeasure in this very tangible way. Baseball leagues are in business, and cannot afford to ignore the wishes of their customers. The only thing that is certain beyond the key role the Japanese public will play is that the major leagues and at least some Japanese players will exploit all available openings for Japanese players to play in the majors.


The Meaning of Ichiro by Robert Whiting

Philadelphia Daily News, July 11, 2002

Sports Illustrated, July 8, 2002, page 54

SABR-L posts of Merritt Clifton and John Holway

Sadaharu Oh: A Zen Way of Baseball

"The Next Step in the Internationalization of Major League Baseball" by Robert Nishimoto here

Baseball Weekly, August 14, 1997

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