Where the Twain Shall Meet

TNP 1985

Cover art by Mark Rucker

A couple of weeks ago Rob Fitts, the co-author with Masanori Murakami of a fine new book titled Mashi, asked me to preface his remarks at a signing in Rhinebeck, New York. I spoke for perhaps three minutes and then stepped aside; however, I enjoyed the privilege of joining both men for dinner afterward, and got to know the charmingly self-effacing “Mashi” Murakami a bit. Then, semi-miraculously, a week later I bumped into him at a massively attended outdoor party prior to the All-Star Game in Cincinnati, where we greeted each other like long-lost friends. I have all the admiration in the world for Mashi, who, while he is not the best Japanese national to have played here, is forevermore the first, an indelible and incredibly arduous achievement. Returning home from the All-Star Game and then moving on to Cooperstown and Pedro Martinez’s effervescent celebration of his native and adopted lands, I thought about Merritt Clifton, and the great story he wrote for The National Pastime in Spring 1985–before Hideo Nomo, when Mashi seemed likely to be an isolated instance of Japanese-American cooperation at the major-league level. Here is that story, not republished in all these years and still fascinating.

My friend Merritt Clifton described himself, back then, as a freelance writer and small-press publisher and the author of Relative Baseball, a sabermetric classic self-published in 1979. I can testify to that brilliant book’s influence on me before publication of The Hidden Game of Baseball. And upon re-reading this brilliant essay three decades later, I see how he has influenced my thinking about baseball’s primordial past, its vibrant present, and its glimmering future.

When a team of Japanese collegians defeated their American counterparts to claim the 1984 Olympic gold medal for baseball, stunned American fans realized what the Japanese have felt for years: Baseball is as truly theirs as ours. Japan’s upset victory had even greater impact upon Americans than the initial victories by Taiwan, South Korea, and Okinawa in the Little League World Series some fifteen years ago. Then, at least, disgruntled U.S. fans could claim that the Asiatic teams consisted of older players hiding behind their small stature; and certainly the Asiatic Little League squads were selected from among the best players in entire nations, not just the best in extended neighborhoods. Olympic baseball, however, is just one or two steps from top-rank professional baseball. If the American game is still intrinsically superior, at this level the edge should show, even granting that the single-game elimination format of Olympic play permits flukes and does not force the teams to call upon their depth. Americans may still produce more and better second-line starting pitchers, relief pitchers, pinch-hitters, platoon outfielders, and utility infielders, but up front, the Japanese Olympians proved themselves equal, if not superior.

Base Ball Graphic Japanese cardsThus far, no American major league club has ever lost an exhibition series to Japanese professionals. However, the Kansas City Royals had to beat the Japanese champion Yomiuri Giants six games to two to salvage a 9-7-1 overall record on their 1981 tour. The Royals claimed they started poorly–because of a three-week layoff between the end of the 162-game American League season and the beginning of their visit to Japan–but the Japanese players had been waiting around even longer since the end of their 130-game season. Like most other American baseball authorities, the Royals still describe Japanese baseball as the equivalent of American Double-A minor leagues. They point out that even Double-A teams occasionally beat the big leaguers in exhibitions. But sooner or later some cocky major leaguers are going to arrive in Japan expecting to clobber quasi-minor leaguers and really get their ears pinned back. The Olympics should be taken as a warning that Japanese baseball has not only established itself as a cultural tradition, but also matured at a top-flight level.

The past two decades of Japanese play represented a Golden Age, setting standards for the future much as the 1920s and 1930s set enduring standards for the American game. Since the 1920s, as documented in Thorn and Palmer’s The Hidden Game of Baseball, the average American major leaguer has risen to the levels of natural ability and acquired skill once possessed only by stars. Thus today’s American stars stand out much less than did Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson. Likewise, though Japanese baseball no longer boasts players as dominant as home run king Sadaharu Oh was during the 1960s, this is because the average player has improved. The single-season and career records Oh and others set during the 1960s and 1970s may stand as long as the records of Ruth, Cobb, and Johnson because in Japan as in America it is no longer possible for anyone player, no matter how good, to be that much better than all the rest.

It wasn’t always so. Just a few generations back, the Great American Pastime was as foreign to Japan as the automobile and electronics industries. Japanese players were obviously smaller, slower, awkward, less understanding of the nuances of the game. But as with automobiles and electronics, Japan imported know-how, worked hard, and put forth an impressive product.

Babe Ruth 1934 Japan Tour Postcard

Babe Ruth 1934 Japan Tour Postcard

“After the war,” Japanese professional baseball commissioner Takeso Shimoda told the New York Times, “we had to start from zero. We had to improve the technical level of Japanese players…. We had to hire American players. It succeeded. Now there’s not much difference between American and Japanese players, technically.”

He might have been speaking of cars or television sets, as an executive for Honda, Nissan, Sony, Sanyo, or Mitsubishi. Yet Shimoda wasn’t speaking of a business success so much as of a cultural transformation, of a process that more or less replaced institutionalized emperor worship with the transient idolatry that fans individually accord to favorite star athletes. Where Japanese boys once memorized the sayings of philosopher-emperors, since the middle 1960s they have memorized the statistics on the backs of Kabaya-Leaf baseball cards, just as their American counterparts who, with rare exceptions, long since ceased memorizing passages from the Bible.

The economic incentive behind Japan’s rapid industrialization is clear enough, but why should baseball have come with it? Why should baseball have become a national preoccupation while other American sports and other facets of American culture haven’t? What particularly attracts the Japanese en masse to baseball and even bubblegum cards, but not to football or drag-racing?

Golf has been adopted among the Japanese economic elite because the nation’s few greens provide an internationally acceptable place for informal business discussion. The young, upwardly mobile Japanese likewise play handball, squash, and tennis, and run marathons but, as in America, none of these successful transplants has become a major spectator sport, televised every day and discussed wherever men gather. Boxing, hockey, and basketball have been transplanted as spectator sports, but enjoy distinctly minor status.

Pitcher, by Torihei Yoshioka, 1923

Pitcher, by Torihei Yoshioka, 1923

Baseball possesses a uniquely national character in both Japan and America in part because it came first, ahead of the other leading spectator sports. But it also fills a cultural role that the other sports can’t. Battalions of American sociologists and historians have tried to figure out just what baseball means, without reaching any consensus. However, historically it is clear that the rise of baseball was coincidental with that of industrialization in both the United States and Japan. It is further clear from the overseas birthplaces of many of the pioneer players that baseball in America caught on quite rapidly with recent immigrants, who might have been expected to stick with the sports brought with them from Europe. European-style football, rugby, cricket, and rounders all require less space to play, for one thing, and less equipment. They’re easier for spectators to understand (all but cricket). Yet they faded into virtual oblivion, while the largest immigrant centers became the founding cities of the U.S. major leagues.

Sociologist Ken Hogarty, of the University of California at Berkeley, may have pinpointed the key difference between baseball and most other sports in his unpublished doctoral thesis (1977). According to Hogarty, the primary conflict in baseball is individual versus society, whereas the primary conflict in most other sports is nation versus nation. The model for most other sports is war, Hogarty observed, with the individual subordinate to the group, while baseball he compared to the classical western. The lone cowboy-outlaw, the batter, rides into town to confront a hostile posse of nine. Usually, society triumphs and the anarchic cowboy is buried in his dugout, the symbolic Boot Hill. Sometimes, however, the cowboy-outlaw shoots his way into the bank, first base. Sometimes his gang then shoots him back out of trouble with a succession of hits that finally bring him home. Once in a while, a particularly valiant cowboy shoots his own way clear through town with a home run. The umpires, in Hogarty’s view, represent God rather than human authority. Dressed in their dark suits, they arbitrate justice.

Hogarty’s model clearly explains why baseball should have appealed to U.S. immigrants. Often as not, they came to America in rebellion against authority back home. Many had themselves been outlaws, of one sort or another. They could identify with the ambitious batsman/gunslinger who takes ’em all on. And, as they gradually gained property and responsibilities, they could identify with the home-team defense, too.

In football, basketball, hockey, soccer, tennis, even chess, the object of the game is capturing territory, plundering or violating a protected treasure–goal-nets and basketball hoops mix sexual and territorial symbolism so thoroughly as to leave no doubt how the reproductive and territorial drives are connected. Such sports date back to the very beginnings of society, to the first time tribal groups engaged in symbolic rather than literal mass combat to determine who would drink first at a watering hole. They survive because we retain our tribal instincts, expressed now as nationalism and political partisanship.

1931 Baseball in Japan, Spectators in The Royal Box

Princess Chichibu watching game of the Inter-University Baseball Series from the Imperial Box, 1931

But, particularly since the Declaration of Independence asserted the rights of the individual as equal to those of the state, we no longer think of ourselves first as parts of a greater whole. We are each “me” before we are Christians or Jews, northerners or southerners, blue-collar or white-collar. The rise of baseball historically parallels the rise of individualism, concurrent with the collapse of the village-based, semi-tribal agrarian economy. Alexander Cartwright and Henry Chadwick devised baseball even as Ralph Emerson and Henry David Thoreau distinguished individualism from mere selfishness, the first philosophers to openly salute those “marching to the beat of a different drum.” Their colleague Walt Whitman saluted baseball for expressing the same independent American character that Emerson and Thoreau defined. Unique among sports, baseball not only permits but demands that each player briefly emerge from among his teammates to stand alone. Every player must belong to the team on defense, but each must hit his own way on base. This balance of social and individual responsibility must have appealed greatly to young men who didn’t really wish to be outcasts forever, but did wish to make the most of their own abilities in whatever field of endeavor.

But that was nineteenth century America, not Japan. Japan has received no recent waves of immigrants seeking freedom and opportunity. Throughout recorded history, Japan has maintained a society that has been regimented, if not entirely socially stratified. Indeed, historically Japan would seem much more like Europe than like America, so that one might expect the Japanese game to have followed the European course. A game called baseball developed from rounders and cricket in England even earlier than it emerged in America–again concurrent with industrialization–but became a girls’ game, which novelist Jane Austen mentioned in Northanger Abbey, written ca. 1803. It faded from popularity as Victorian mores discouraged women’s participation in competitive sports, and vanished by 1850.

Casey Stengel in Japan, 1922

Casey Stengel in Japan, 1922

Reintroduced repeatedly, baseball did finally catch on somewhat in Europe after World War II, with Little League and adult weekend clubs now scattered among all the western nations. Italy boasts one low-caliber professional league including several American ex-major leaguers, while The Netherlands recently sent pitcher Win Remmerswaal to the Boston Red Sox, the first major leaguer to spend his entire amateur career in Europe. Europe is now well into evolving a postindustrial economy, however. Baseball is at most a successful minor sport, not a significant cultural influence as it has been in Japan for decades. If the evolution of baseball in Europe could be compared at all to baseball history in America, it must be placed at about the Civil War level, the point at which troop movements and the new transcontinental railroads first spread the game from coast to coast, north and south.

Baseball in Japan, by contrast, is today about as well established as it was in the United States in 1919, by which time it was already undeniably the Great American Pastime. American professional baseball was exactly fifty years old in 1919, the Cincinnati Red Stockings having become the first admittedly salaried team in 1869. The first Japanese professional team, the Yomiuri Giants of Tokyo, was chartered almost exactly 50 years ago, on December 26, 1934. The Hanshin Tigers of Osaka followed a year later, on December 10, 1935. The Chunichi Dragons of Magoya were assembled on January 15,1936. The Hankyu Braves of Nishinomiya came together just eight days later. Nineteen thirty-six brought formation of Japan’s first fully professional baseball league. Expansion began when the Nankai Hawks became Osaka’s second professional team on March 29, 1938. Postwar, these original five teams gradually grew into the present two leagues of six teams each, paralleling the development of our American and National Leagues.

When the Yomiuri Giants formed, baseball had been played in Japan for about twenty-five years. A team of American major leaguers first visited in 1912, beating a nine of U.S. missionaries. Babe Ruth led several subsequent visits, leading to the almost annual tradition of one U.S. team or another visiting in the fall. Each time Ruth visited, he and his teammates noted larger crowds and better players, an observation continued to this day.

Like the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the Tokyo Giants drew together top players from various locales–in the Giants’ case, their talent was drawn from college and athletic club teams. They barnstormed against these same colleges and athletic clubs, in the absence of any organized professional league, and having most of the best players they naturally won most of their games. Even after other professional teams organized and the first Japanese major league was formed, the Giants were able to maintain their advantage, winning over thirty championships. Only two other Japanese teams have won as many as ten.

Yomiuri Giants Poster

Yomiuri Giants Poster, 1950s

Here Japanese baseball first diverges from American, and a difference in the cultural traditions appears. Our Red Stockings soon disbanded, with their players moving to other cities, principally Boston and Washington. But the Giants remained together. Other teams similarly started from scratch. Instead of raiding one another to achieve parity, they patiently developed their own talent. The principle became established that Japanese players would generally remain with their clubs for life. To this day, trading and otherwise moving from club to club is rare in Japanese baseball, just as Japanese factory workers rarely move from firm to firm. Japanese club owners, usually large industrial consortiums, are expected to provide lifetime employment for their players in one capacity or another, while players are expected to remain unswervingly loyal to their bosses.

These expectations of loyalty have recently become a point of conflict between the Japanese teams and imported American players, a conflict of great symbolic significance that may influence the future direction of all Japanese society. On the one hand, imported American players are viewed as mercenaries, and are clearly treated as such, hired, fired, and blamed for team failures with an abandon management would never display toward native players. On the other hand, the imported players are expected to conform at least outwardly to the same rules as the natives: to respect their supposed betters and keep their mouths shut, just as if they could expect similar long-term rewards for good behavior.

Grafting on an almost feudal system of team loyalty was only part of how the Japanese adapted baseball customs to suit the traditions of their own society. Baseball took root in Japan at precisely the time when most other foreign activities became suspect, the period during the late 1930s when tariff wars with Great Britain and the United States were raising tensions that culminated in World War II. As Japanese baseball promoters realized immediately, the game would have to take on a nationalistic character to survive.

To great extent, this influenced the style of play. In the heyday of American jingoism, between the Spanish Civil War and World War I, the American game endured the “deadball” era, a phase in which managers tried to replace the freewheeling Wild West style of offense that characterized the ’90s with team play emphasizing the sacrifice bunt. The sacrifice was lauded by sportswriters while players swinging for home runs were derided as “rutting sluggers” with more muscle than either brains or character. Baseball in Japan entered a similar phase, with several significant differences. Despite the patriotic emphasis on conformity during the American deadball era, Americans still prided themselves on being rough-and ready. Thus American pitchers continued knocking batters down with inside fastballs and American base-runners threatened fielders with their spikes at every opportunity. While sublimating offense, the American deadball era might have featured the most violently aggressive style of play ever. The Japanese, on the other hand, pride themselves on courtesy. As recently as the mid-1960s, pitchers apologized for accidentally “dusting off” batters, and no Japanese player ever physically challenged another. Players even bowed to the umpires who called them out. Deadball play in Japan stressed the sacrifice without any form of self-assertion emerging until after World War II.

Thus, even as jingoistic generals urged a return to the code of the samurai and other unique cultural traditions, baseball was not only tolerated but even encouraged. Baseball and military preparations were perhaps the only two realms in which Japanese leaders urged the population to learn from the West right up to the outbreak of war. Shortly before Pearl Harbor, when most foreigners were being hustled from the country, former major league catcher-turned-spy Moe Berg was not only allowed in but was welcomed with the red carpet, was allowed to take photos from a tower overlooking Tokyo, and was further permitted to take them home again, to be used in directing American bombers. Berg recalled in his memoirs that his having played on one of Babe Ruth’s teams that toured Japan served him much better with the Japanese authorities than either his passport or his ability to speak Japanese.

How to Play Baseball, by Babe Ruth, 1931

How to Play Baseball, by Babe Ruth, 1931

Nor did the war itself curtail Japanese enthusiasm for baseball. Americans who flew on General Jimmy Doolittle’s 1942 raid against Tokyo recalled feeling guilty about dropping their bombs after passing over children at a sandlot ballgame. Japanese troops on the Pacific islands shouted “To hell with Babe Ruth!” at American invaders, but the invaders usually found shell-pocked baseball diamonds ready for play just as soon as they finished mopping up.

If baseball were only another game providing some sort of moral lesson, it probably wouldn’t have caught on so strongly, certainly not at that time. But the nature of the lesson had special appeal. Although Japanese baseball was played in a fashion tending to promote traditional values, it added the notion that there are times in life when it is not only necessary but also good and praiseworthy that each individual step forward and do something conspicuous. Though ostentation was discouraged, the spotlight was unmistakably focused upon the man at bat, upon his individual contribution to the greater whole. Here, at least, the small fish in the big sea were not permanently anonymous. Here also, they received the opportunity to perform so well as to become big fish. The promise of social mobility endemic to America was rather new to Japan, but equally appealing–and all the more noticeable, because in Japan hardly any other field of endeavor overtly offered it. The peasant who accepted industrialization might indeed become richer, but he would still be a peasant, whereas the humble batsman who excelled might become exalted as a samurai.

Perhaps the most significant clue to what baseball means in Japan lies within the event that prompted Commissioner Shimada to address The New York Times–an event highlighting essential differences. A few months before the Olympics, xenophobic Japanese baseball fans including Shimada raised a hue and cry against the foreign players they once enthusiastically hired and copied. Foreign players should be banned, they argued, for corrupting the character of their national sport. Their definition of that character emerges from the origin of their wrath.

Former U.S. major league infielder Don Money touched off the uproar by signing with a Japanese team for more money than any of his native teammates were making, reporting to the team out of playing condition, griping incessantly about the Japanese training discipline, and finally leaving the team without permission in mid-pennant race. Money claimed he jumped the club to receive treatment for an injury from his own doctor back home, but Japanese baseball people weren’t convinced. Many other disillusioned American players have used the same excuse as a means of escaping their Japanese contracts. Foreigners were nearly banned a decade ago, in 1973, when Joe Pepitone jumped the Yakult Atoms with a purported injury best diagnosed as acute culture shock.

Money was an irritant, both as an individual and as an economic factor, but Money in either sense wasn’t the primary issue. The primary issue for most Japanese fans was that players like Money and Pepitone violate the fundamental tenets of their society by overtly placing their own interests above those of their team. Their actions are discourteous and disloyal. They set a poor example for Japanese youth. American sports columnists reported that Money and Pepitone were simply too individualistic to suit the Japanese, an unfair oversimplification. Money and Pepitone were criticized not for being individualistic so much as for being selfish.

Nor would their conduct have been any more acceptable in the American major leagues. Pepitone, in fact, wound up in Japan after similarly jumping his contract with the Atlanta Braves. During his career, Japanese baseball actually offered him more leeway than the American leagues did, since the standard Japanese contract for foreign players lasts only two years. At that time, players in the U.S. leagues, like native Japanese players, were purportedly bound for life to the teams that owned their contracts. In actuality, American players have always moved rather freely and frequently from club to club, through trades often self-initiated. Nonetheless, in either nation, Pepitone was expected to honor his contract by playing ball to the best of his considerable ability. In both nations, Pepitone was notorious as a playboy, often criticized for letting off-the-field pursuits interfere with realizing his on-the-field potential. American teams put up with Pepitone for a decade because he still hit better with a hangover than most players who were cold sober. In Japan, however, he hit .163, erasing any claim to special privilege.

Money’s case was somewhat different, in that U.S. baseball norms have changed since Pepitone’s time. Since 1976, about midway through Money’s career, American professional baseball has offered veteran players several means of openly choosing their own teams, through requesting or refusing trades and playing out their contract options. The most significant change from past practice is that today players can change clubs without their former clubs receiving compensation: can in effect sell themselves, instead of being sold by club owners, and pocket the proceeds. But even under this new system, contract-jumpers have never been tolerated. A U.S. major leaguer who simply breaks his contract is heavily fined, as Dick Allen was for abandoning first the Phillies and then the White Sox. If less valuable than Allen, one of the game’s all-time great sluggers, a contract-jumper in the U.S. might also be suspended, or unconditionally released, ending the team’s obligation to pay him. Over the last thirty-five years, such cases have usually been resolved through retirement or a trade, rather than confrontation such as happened in Japan in the Money and Pepitone cases.

Dodgers Tour of Japan, 1956

Dodgers Tour of Japan, 1956

American fans would certainly boo a Money or Pepitone for jumping his club, just as they booed Allen. The issue in either nation is not “individuality” but honor. Antagonistic toward the Americanization of traditional Japanese society, the xenophobes emphasize the imported players’ mercenary status-warriors with no sense of honor, who unlike the samurai fight only for pay, and then only when they feel like it. After all, the American and Latin American players in Japan have already left other teams and countries, often under questionable circumstances. The very first American players in Japan actually were mercenaries, more or less. Former Boston Braves’ pitcher Phil Paine became the first ex-major leaguer to play in the Japanese big leagues during 1953, while serving with the U.S. Air Force. Infielder Larry Raines made the U.S. major leagues in the mid-1950s as the best-known of many Americans who also played for Japanese clubs on leave from the U.S. military. Arriving under moral suspicion, meanwhile, was first baseman Don Newcombe, who drank himself out of a brilliant pitching career with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The first American stars to reach Japan, Newcombe and outfielder Larry Doby, played poorly for the Chunichi Dragons in 1962, becoming the focus of criticism directed at U.S. imports ever since.

Although American players have generally given honest effort and conducted themselves honorably, Japanese fans are aware that most view their two major leagues as a sort of Siberia, preferable only to the death of a return to the minors. American players go to Japan either because they’re washed up, not good enough to stick in the U.S. major leagues, or because no American team will put up with them.

Faced with the end of their careers, many Americans do take advantage of the tough Japanese training regimen to get back into shape and play good baseball. George Altman and Willie Kirkland came off the American scrapheap to become superstars in Japan, thanking martial arts discipline for rescuing them from hard drink, fast women, and what appeared to be fast fade-outs after brilliant beginnings. U.S. minor leaguer John Sipin similarly developed his abilities through the Japanese approach, also becoming a superstar after scarcely getting a trial in the American majors. Former Kansas City infielder Tim Ireland, now with the Hiroshima Carp, speaks for many American players in observing that under the Japanese regimen, “you forfeit individual expression, but you gain in production and non-confusion.”

Great comeback efforts are applauded and compliments from Americans accepted, even when they miss the point. But comebacks attributed to sobriety and proper conditioning also hurt Japanese pride somewhat, since Americans often take the successes of “failures” to mean Japanese baseball is inferior. Never mind that American stars often likewise emerge after interleague trades–Hall of Famers Carl Hubbell and Joe Cronin, for instance. No baseball expert claims the National League of the 1930s was inferior because the late-blooming Hubbell excelled for the Giants after failing with the Tigers, or that the American League was inferior because Cronin made it big with Washington and Boston after riding the Pirates’ bench. The accusation that the Japanese game isn’t quite as good persists because nonentities like Greg “Boomer” Wells keep emerging as superstars when Japanese clubs give them the first real chance to play regularly that they’ve ever had. How, then, to account for the inability of former stars like Reggie Smith or Warren Cromartie to handle Japanese curveball pitching? American scouts find it easier to consider the Smiths and Cromarties washed up than to accept that they’ve misjudged a Sipin or a Wells, or an Altman or Kirkland, for that matter.

The Japanese, meanwhile, are sensitive about being considered a nation of imitators, whose products are essentially inferior to the originals. They’ve worked hard for two generations to erase the “Made in Japan” stigma from cars, cameras, and electronic equipment. Thus when Americans take Japan’s national pastime lightly, the “ban foreigners” approach is understandable. It’s what the U.S. and Soviet Union do, more or less, in boycotting one another’s Olympics … what half the world does in boycotting sports events involving South Africans … what every child does when offended by a playmate: “If you don’t play nice, I’ll take my toys and go home.”

Part II, concluding the essay, tomorrow.

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