History of Baseball: Japan’s First Pro Ballplayer in America
The history of baseball is often a reflection of American culture. Sometimes, the history of baseball in Japan merges with the history of baseball in America.A friend of mine was recently involved in a heated debate with a business associate about who was the first professional baseball player from Japan to play in the U.S.
One believed it to be Masanori Murakami, the star pitcher for the Nankai Hawks of Osaka (currently known as the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks) of Nippon Professional Baseball’s Pacific League. He had enjoyed success as a reliever for the San Francisco Giants in 1964 and 1965. The other thought it was Tadashi Wakabayashi, nicknamed “Bozo,” from… Hawaii. Wakabayashi was an award-winning pitcher in Japan, one of the stalwarts in the early history of baseball in Japan, but he was American, of Japanese-American ancestry.
Baseball was introduced into Japan by American teachers and missionaries in the early days (1870s) of the Meiji Restoration, and Mikami grew up playing the game. He was born into a well-connected family in Yamanashi Prefecture (state), west of Tokyo (interestingly, this is the same prefecture where Murakami was born). His family was prominent politically and the father encouraged his sons to learn about international culture, a radical new concept in Japan at that time. The family made large donations to Waseda University, a prominent Tokyo educational institution. The beautiful tennis court complex at the school is named after Mikami’s brother.
In the early 1900s, Waseda established a baseball rivalry with another Tokyo university, Keio, which exists to this day. It is the most famous sports rivalry in all Japan. Mikami played a starring role for Waseda. Then, in 1911, Waseda toured the U. S. on a barnstorming tour. Mikami and his teammates lost most of their games, but did secure victories over the University of California at Berkeley and Manhattan College in New York. Mikami then returned to Japan to obtain his business degree from Waseda in 1912.
In 1913, Mikami went to Galesburg, Illinois (hometown of Jim Sundberg, one of Major League baseball’s All-Time great defensive catchers), to further his education at Knox College. He excelled on the baseball team and was named captain. During 1915 and 1916, he studied for his American business degree at the University of Illinois, while also playing with the All-Nations group.
Upon receiving his American business degree, with honors, he apparently retired from professional baseball, and joined Mitsui Bussan, the international trading arm of the Mitsui Company. He was 27 years of age. He was based in the New York area until 1920, traveling extensively in the Western hemisphere, then returned to Japan. For many years, he headed up Mitsui’s business interests in China, mostly based in Shanghai, and retired from there to Japan.
Many years after his passing (in 1958), his daughters were asked what it was like to grow up with such an iconic, pioneering figure. They were shocked to learn of their father’s exploits. They were vaguely aware that their father had traveled to America, and knew nothing about his baseball-playing achievements! This was, of course, in keeping with Mikami’s very humble, quiet nature. No one could ever remember him talking about himself.
An outstanding human being–a superb ballplayer–the very first professional from Japan to play in the U. S…. Goro Mikami!
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