Victor Starffin: The Greatest Pitcher in Japanese Baseball History?
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.
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.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.
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.”
Video footage of Victor Starffin (#17) pitching for the All Japan Team against the San Francisco Seals in 1949.
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.
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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