The pursuit of Japanese pitching ace Yu Darvish takes one back to 1964 when another pitcher, Masanori Murakami, became the first player from Japan to play in a major league game. Though he was a trail blazer, Murakami is largely forgotten in baseball history. This may be due to the fact his major league career was short and it would take 30 years before another player from Japan played in the majors.
Murakami made his major league debut with the San Francisco Giants at age 20, the same age as Yu Darvish when he made his Japanese debut with the Nippon Ham Fighters in 2007. Before signing with the Giants, Murakami pitched for Nippon Professional Baseball’s Nankai Hawks while still in high school. One could say that he was the Bob Feller of Japanese baseball. He spent the 1962 season in the minor leagues before joining the Hawks in 1963.
In 1964 the Hawks sent Murakami to the United States to pitch for the Giants as part of an exchange program. He pitched in relief for the Giants Class A Fresno farm team and posted an 11-7 record with a deceptive left handed delivery. It is safe to say the Giants paid much less for his services than what Yu Darvish is demanding.
On September 1 he was told to report to New York where the Giants were playing the Mets. He negotiated a contract through an interpreter and joined the San Francisco bullpen. The Giants were involved in a pennant race when Murakami arrived and he was thrown right into the fray as he was called on to pitch in the eighth inning. Though he gave up a single to Chris Cannizaro, Murakami struck out the side in his major league debut. When Yu Darvish makes his major league debut he won’t be able to do much better than that.
Murakami posted a 1-0 record with an earned run average of 1.80 in nine appearances for the Giants. After the season, Nankai asked Murakami to return to Japan. The Giants refused to let him out of his contract. The Japanese baseball commissioner intervened and a compromise was reached with much less fanfare than the pursuit of Yu Darvish. It was ruled that Murakami would stay with the Giants in 1965 and return to Japan in 1966.
Murakami made 45 relief appearances for the Giants in 1965 and posted a 4-1 record, eight saves and an ERA of 3.75. He returned to Japan in 1966 and went on to pitch for 18 years.
Today, Japanese ballplayers in the majors are common. Some such as outfielders Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui have become stars. But it all started on September 1, 1964 when Masanori Murakami took the mound for the San Francisco Giants and opened the door for Japanese players such as Yu Darvish.