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Victor Starffin: The Greatest Pitcher in Japanese Baseball History?

Nicknamed "the blue-eyed Japanese," Victor Starffin was an ethnic Russian baseball player and the first professional pitcher in Japan to win three hundred games.

Nicknamed "the blue-eyed Japanese," Victor Starffin was an ethnic Russian baseball player and the first professional pitcher in Japan to win three hundred games.

Victor Starffin, except for a fluke of history, might have been a member of the American baseball Hall of Fame. He was the first pitcher to win 300 games in Japanese baseball history, and was elected to the Japan Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in 1960.

Much of his family history is speculative and disputed, even the exact date of his birth. We don’t know for certain what his father’s occupation was, nor exactly why, or how, or where they arrived in Japan in the waning days of the Russian Revolution. Had the Starffins immigrated to North America, as did many of their compatriots, Victor might have become a great American pitcher, and ended up in Cooperstown.

In any event, we know that Victor was born in the Russian Empire, in the Ural Mountain village of Nizhny Tagil, in May (possibly May 1) of 1916. His father, known in Japan as Konstantin, was purportedly a high-ranking Russian military official during Nicholas II’s reign. As the Czar was being overthrown by the the “Whites,” then , the “Reds,” the Starffin family fled Russia and entered Japan. By whatever route, they ended up in Asahikawa (sometimes referred to as Asahigawa), a town in central Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands. Interestingly, the weather would be about the same as the central Urals–snowy and very cold, most of the time.

Starffin still holds the Japanese record for most wins in a season (42) and most career shutouts (83).

Starffin still holds the Japanese record for most wins in a season (42) and most career shutouts (83).

The young Starffin grew up, attending Japanese schools and playing baseball with his Japanese schoolmates, Since there were small handfuls of other ethnic Russian settlers in central Hokkaido, Victor was able to grow up fluent in both his native Russian as well as the Japanese language. Baseball, introduced in the 1870s into Japan, was by now emerging as the most popular participation sport in the country. As he entered his first year at East Asahikawa High School, he was rapidly reaching a height of 6′ 4″, and a weight of nearly 200 pounds, and he towered over his classmates. He quickly became a dominant high school pitcher with his blazing fastball and improving control.

Upon graduation in 1934, his goal was to attend the famous Waseda University in Tokyo and play there, but he ran into a significant roadblock. Matsutaro Shoriki, head of the Yomiuri Shimbun (Newspaper), had just formed Japan’s first professional baseball team, and wanted a second starting pitcher to pair with the great Eiji Sawamura (after whom Japan’s version of the Cy Young Award would eventually be named). Starffin was offered a contract by Shoriki, owner of Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants, the first, and ultimately, the greatest professional team in Japanese baseball history.

At first, Starffin politely refused, explaining that he wanted to play at Waseda University and obtain his degree. However, his father had previously been imprisoned on what later proved to be trumped-up charges of manslaughter. Additionally, the Starffin family had entered Japan on transit visas, in 1925, and were under constant threat of deportation. Shoriki told Victor that he could make all this “go away” if only he would sign with the Giants. Starffin signed.

After winning a record 42 games in 1939, Starffin finished the 1940 season with an astonishing 38 wins.

After winning a record 42 games in 1939, Starffin finished the 1940 season with an astonishing 38 wins.

This began a nine year run with Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants, a team that Starffin helped propel to the top of Japanese professional baseball. The Giants have often been compared to the New York Yankees due to their unmatched history of success. Starffin won 42 games in 1939, still a record for Japan (tied in 1961 by the legendary Kazuhisa Inao). He also won the Triple Crown of pitching (wins, E.R.A., and K’s) in 1938. He recorded a Japan record 83 shutouts, had an 18-game winning streak, and three 30 win seasons. In 1937, he pitched a no-hitter, and recorded 350 complete games for his career. As mentioned, he was the first 300 game winner in Japan, compiling an amazing 303-176 record over 19 years. He also won 2 MVP Awards, and posted a minuscule 2.09 E.R.A. for his career.

Pro Baseball was suspended in Japan in 1945 by the government, and by war’s end, Starffin had been recruited by SCAP (Supreme Commander of Allied Powers) as an interpreter. He worked under American auspices as a Russian-Japanese translator. He also had learned enough English from California and Hawaii ballplayers in Nippon Professional Baseball to be nominally conversant in English.

In 1946, Starffin elected to sign with the Pacifics, and then in 1947 with Taiyo, both of which teams ultimately evolved into the Yokohama Bay Stars. In 1948, he joined Kinsei, a team that eventually merged with a team that evolved into the Chiba Lotte Marines. From 1949 to 1955 (the year he retired) he was with Daiei, Takahashi and Tombow, all teams that became part of the Lotte franchise.

Starffin's statue greets visitors to the Asahikawa Starffin Stadium in Kamikawa, Hokkaido, Japan.

Starffin's statue greets visitors to the Asahikawa Starffin Stadium in Kamikawa, Hokkaido, Japan.

During most of Starffin’s adult life, he battled chronic depression and self-inflicted alcohol abuse. It cost him friendships, business opportunities and his marriage. He did work intermittently as an actor and M.C. after he got out of baseball. While he had a large fan base, he suffered constant discrimination by ultra-nationalists in Japan, even though he was described as having a pleasant, quiet demeanor. Government hard-liners forced him to change his name during the war years to “Hiroshi Suda,” and he was, in late 1944, interned (a defacto house arrest) at Karuizawa, in Nagano Prefecture, with other foreign “dignitaries.” When asked once about his many baseball accomplishments, he thought for a moment, then responded in a soft voice, “I feel sad… and lonely.”

He was killed in a car-train accident in 1957, at age 40. The best evidence indicates that he was driving while intoxicated, and caused the accident.

In 1983, the baseball venue in Asahikawa was named Asahikawa Starffin Stadium. His daughter, Natasha, attended wearing a Kyojin (Giants) home jersey with her father’s famous number “17″ on the back.

Masaichi Kaneda, a Japanese-born Korean pitcher, had 4,490 strike outs and won a Japanese record 400 games during his career. Kaneda's jersey number, 34, was retired by the Giants in 1970 and he was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988.

Masaichi Kaneda, a Japanese-born Korean pitcher, had 4,490 strike outs and won a Japanese record 400 games during his career. Kaneda's jersey number, 34, was retired by the Giants in 1970 and he was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988.

The four greatest pitchers in Japanese baseball history are Victor Starffin, Masaichi Kaneda, the great left-hander, Kazuhisa Inao, called the “Iron Man,” and the legendary Eiji Sawamura. I was privileged to see three of them pitch, and I choose Starffin as the best ever, by an eyelash over Kaneda or Inao. Friends of mine who also saw Sawamura pitch tend to agree with my assessment, though a couple have Starffin in a dead heat with Kaneda. In any event, Starffin was a great pitcher, whatever the league. By our evaluation, we would rate him just inside our top 40 pitchers of All-Time. Stylistically, he is probably closest to Tom Seaver, but not quite at Seaver’s level. All of our top 40 pitchers are at Cooperstown levels.

For those of us who saw him pitch, it was a real treat. There is some film of him, too. I can see him now, his 6’4″ 220 pound body, perched on the mound like a tall gunslinger, peering in like a hawk for the catcher’s sign, framed by the perpetual dark clouds during the rainy season at Korakuen Stadium, then the wind-up, and… whoosh! Pure smoke! He was really something to see.

The greatest pitcher in Japanese baseball history? Well, he gets my vote.

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  • shortporch

    This is an amazing post!  Since you have opted for rating the greatest players of all time (including previously ignored or overlooked Negro and other-leaguers), why not go yet another step and include Japanese and other leagues around the world?  What a great list THAT would be!

    • http://fromdeeprightfield.com/ Paul Gillespie

      Our next step is to include Japanese Professional Baseball and Cuban Professional Baseball players. We are working on equitable ranking systems. It will take a while, but we will get there.

      • AlexUlacio

        This is a difficult task. You know about the great Martin Dihigo? well in Venezuela we had a similar player named Vidal Lopez, considered “The Venezuelan right handed and black Babe Ruth”, he was a star pitcher/mighty slugger, and also outfielder, he hit the first grand slam in venezuelan baseball history and defeated Satchel Paige and Martin Dihigo when he faced them in Venezuela. Vidal was the first great sport star in my country and he had great perfomance in Cuba, Dominicana, Puerto Rico and Mexico, he was born in 1918 and died in 1973, in the professional baseball he was the first franchise-player of Magallanes in Venezuela League… how would we rate him? there is not posible way to know it, since Racial issues kept him out of majors. Anyway, good luck with that and I would be waiting the results and if you would like to consider venezuelan players in your list, let me know, I would help. By the way, this is the picture of the player I was talking about: (PS Excuse my english, it might contain faults, i am still learning it)

        • http://fromdeeprightfield.com/ Paul Gillespie

          Yes, Alex…

          I have heard of Vidal Lopez. He was obviously a great talent–both on the mound and at the plate. My father said he was a power pitcher with excellent velocity–and also developed a change-up later in his career. I was also told that Vidal had “light tower” power–he could jack balls a long way. He was also an above-average contact hitter. He had a good throwing arm and could make plays from right field; yet, he was considered a better left fielder for his overall defensive ability. He also manned the catching position, but was not considered an outstanding defensive catcher.
          The bottom line is that he was an amazing baseball talent–just wish he could have played in the Major Leagues. According to my Dad, Vidal played in Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Mexico–mostly in the 1930s and 1940s. Wish I could have seen him play.

          I know much more about the great Cuban star, Martin Dihigo. We have more documentation on him. We have him rated as the 7th best right fielder of All Time. He was particularly known for his throwing from right field. And, he was a great hitter, both for average and power. As for Dihigo’s pitching, we show him to be ranked at 53rd All Time–a very high ranking. He was a fastball pitcher, but had a curve and change-up to go with his heater. One of the greatest players ever.

          On Vidal, he may well have been one of the finest players ever–but we do not have as much data on which to base a definitive assessment. In essence, we do not have a substantive frame of reference. My “guesstimation” is that Vidal could possibly be ranked in the top 15 left fielders ever–maybe higher. As for pitching, perhaps in the top 200–but that is just a guess.
          Alex, hope this will help–wish I had more data for you.

          All the Best!

          Paul Gillespie

          .