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Thursday, June 25, 2015

The 1934 Japanese All-Nippon Baseball Team And Murder

I'm talking baseball - notably about the 1934 visit of the MLB select all-stars who traveled to Japan to play a series of exhibition games… an even that quite literally changed the game in Japan.

Just note that yesterday and in today's headline, I promise(d) murder… so read on.

First Inning - Play Ball!
First… a bit of background, and then we'll get to a discussion about the Japanese entry for these games against a powerful American squad lead by Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. Hmm… I mentioned Gehrig first.    

The full squad of MLB All-Stars was:

Charlie Gehringer, Jimmy Foxx, Rabbit McNair, Babe Ruth, Earl Averill, Bing Miller, Moe Berg, Frankie Hayes and Harold Warstler. Pitchers: Lefty Gomez, Earl Whitehill, Joe Cascarella and Clint Brown. Coach Lefty O'Dould, and grand Poobah and over-seer Connie Mack.

I want to show you this great photo of Lefty Gomez - no one has a wind-up like this anymore!
Lefty Gomez pitching (warm-up) on November 23, 1934 in Japan.
Second Inning
Anyhow… a bit of background on Japanese baseball.

Introduced, apparently in 1872 or 1873 by American Horace Wilson at Kaisei Gakko (now Tokyo University), he created a baseball club for students and a practice field on the school ground.

There is a claim that in 1873 Albert Bates helped organize the first formal game on Japanese soil, but we know that the earliest RECORDED game was in 1876 between a team from Tokyo's Imperial College and a bunch of ragtag American amateurs, including Horace Wilson. The Americans won 34-11.

The New York Clipper of December 12, 1876 says: "(the Japanese) take a great deal of interest in the game, and, as they are quick and generally good throwers, they will make fair players with some instruction."

Third Inning
In 1905, the Waseda University baseball team traveled to the U.S. to practice their skills, becoming the first Japanese team to travel abroad.

American teams from the University of Wisconsin, University of Chicago, University of Washington and Harvard University all sent teams to Japan, as did the Philadelphia Royal Giants of the Negro League in 1927 - for cross-cultural promotion of the sport. 

These Philadelphia Royal Giants (more of a semi-pro team) should not be confused with the original Negro League Philadelphia Giants who actually played a two-game series in 1902 against the MLB American League champs Philadelphia Athletics, losing both games: 8-3, 13-9.

Fourth Inning
There were quite a few MLB teams to tour Japan: Reach All-Americans in 1908; New York Giants and Chicago White Sox in 1913; Herb Hunter All-Americans in 1920 and 1922; and the MLB All-Stars of 1931 and 1934.

Now… it's that 1934 series that we're going to examine a wee bit, because the MLB players who came over were one of the stingiest ever, especially when you consider Foxx, Gehrig, Ruth, Gomez and Gehringer.
(From left): organizer Shoriki Matsutaro (surname first); U.S. Ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew, manager Connie Mack of the Philadelphia A's, someone else, and New York Yankee great Babe Ruth.
Knowing it wanted to avoid being embarrassed by such a powerful line-up, the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun's owner Shoriki Matsutaro (surname first) scoured Japan to bring its best players together to form the All-Nippon team.

Although the Japanese squad would feature 11 men who would eventually earn enshrinement in the Japanese baseball hall of fame, they still managed to lose all 18 games they played by a combined 189-39.

Fifth Inning
After the series, in 1935, Shoriki kept the team together and traveled to the U.S. and Canada as the Dai Nippon Tokyo Yaku Club (All Japan Tokyo Baseball Club), playing amateur teams minor pro and college teams.

Later in 1935, Shoriki was convinced to change the team name by American 1934 All-Star team manager Lefty O'Doul. He said they should call the team the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants… because O'Doul happened to be part of the New York Giants (now San Francisco Giants) in 1934.

Known as "Japan's Baseball Team", the Tokyo Giants are the country's most famous team… winning enough championships to bridge comparisons to the New York Yankees… but note that the Tokyo Giants uniform and colors are an homage to the rival New York Giants baseball team.

By 1936, the popularity of the Giants helped form the Japan Professional Baseball League, where a total of seven teams played tournaments… when an eight team joined in 1937, they played a full season of professional baseball… suspended in 1944 due to the threat of air raids during WWII.

Sixth Inning
O'Doul, by the way, was very important to Japanese baseball… considered a sports goodwill ambassador in Japan BEFORE and AFTER WWII.

O'Doul was even elected to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002.

Rain Delay
Now… I mentioned murder earlier and yesterday.

Seventh Inning
Let's take a look at Japan's All-Nippon team (all surnames first):
#20 - Yamashita Minoru - 1B;
#14 - Nagasawa Fujio  - 1B;
#27 - Takenosuke Murai - 1B;
#29 - Yamashiro Kenzo - 1B;
#2 -  Mihara Osamu - 2B;
#4 - Mizuhara Shigeru - 3B;
#23 - Shintomi Saburo - 3B;
#1 - Karita Hisanori - SS;
#29 - Eguchi Yukio - Infield;
#26 - Makino Motonobu - Infield;
#30 - Tominaga Tokio - Infield;
#6 - Horio Jimmy - Outfield;
#7 - Yajima Kumeyasu - Outfield;
#12 - Nakajima Haruyasu - Outfield;
#28 - Fuma Isamu - Outfield;
#24 - Sugitaya Mamoru - Outfield;
#17 - Nidegawa Nobuaki - Outfield;
#16 - Yamamoto Eichiro - Outfield;
#5 - Ri Eibin - Outfield;
#25 - Inokawa Toshiharu - Catcher;
#15 - Kuji Jiro - Catcher;
#19 - Ihara Tokue - Catcher;
#3 - Kura Nobuo - Catcher;
#8 - Sawamura Eiji - Pitcher;
#18 - Date Msao - Pitcher;
#9 - Aoshita Kenichi - Pitcher;
#22 - Hamasaki Shinji - Pitcher;
#31 - Victor Starffin (surname LAST) - Pitcher;
#21 - Takeda Kaichi - Pitcher;
#11 - Asakura Osamu - Pitcher;

Click HERE for photos of all these players!

Did you see an interesting name in there?

Victor Starfinn (image above) was 6'3", blonde and blue-eyed, and of course nicknamed "the blue-eyed Japanese" (青い目の日本人 aoi-me no Nihonjin). As an 18-year-old, he was the son of a Russian military officer who had previously served under Czar Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia.

When the Russian revolution came, the Starffin family hid by traveling in a freight train filled with patients suffering from typhoid, as well as hiding in a Red Army truck that was filled with corpses.

But that's not what makes him interesting, believe it or not. Murder.

Not dying of any sickness, the Starffin family, after running for a few years, landed in Japan.

With Japan already mad for baseball, Starffin fell for it, too - and was good at it.

Although he plans to go and play baseball at university, his father's actions changed all that.

Starffin's father, Konstantin, was convicted in 1933 of involuntary manslaughter of a young woman who worked in his teashop - it meant the whole family could have been deported back to Russia.

Hearing of the young Starffin's baseball prowess, Yomiuri Shimbun owner Shoriki promised to use his influence (blackmailed) to help that murdering old man IF he would forget about college and come and play for the All-Nippon team in 1934. Then as now, if you play professionally, you give up eligibility to play in college, or in this case, you lost the eligibility to even enter a school of higher learning.

So he did. Shoriki used his influence with the newspaper to explain Konstantin Starffin's case in the media.

As a right-hander, Victor Starffin became the first pitcher in Japan to win 300 games, finishing with a 303-176 W/L record with a 2.09 ERA and 1,960 strikeouts.  He played professionally in the League between 1936 and 1944.

By the way, in 1940, Starffin was forced to adopt a Japanese name: Suda Hiroshi - part of Japan's plans to force people to be Japanese. He was also forced to go into a detention camp at Karuizawa in Nagano with other foreign diplomats and residents.

Eight Inning
There was another interesting name on that All-Nippon team - did you see someone called "Jimmy"?

Jimmy Horio
Jimmy Horio, born in Hawaii (moved to Japan, moved back to Hawaii) wanted to play professional ball at the MLB level, and also become the first ethnic Japanese person to do so.

With little opportunity to showcase his wares in Hawaii, he traveled from Hawaii to Tokyo, after hearing about plans to form the All-Nippon team. There, Horio made the team as a power-hitting switch-hitter, but did not impress the Americans, and so no professional contract was ever offered. D'oh!

Still... there's more to this man than just this story - especially when the press took to calling him the Ty Cobb of Japan. Yeah... Ty Cobb... so I'll come back to him at a later date with a biography.

Bottom Of The Ninth
The goodwill created by this baseball tour to Japan helped ease the political clime a little bit, with the great Connie Mack saying the tour was: "one of the greatest peace measures in the history of nations" adding that it did "more for the better understanding between Japanese and Americans than all the diplomatic exchanges ever accomplished."

Not quite, Connie. Kani, pronounced the same as Connie, is Japanese for crab, by the way.

Extra Innings
Just two months after the MLB All-Stars left Japan, an ultra loyalist War Gods Society member - Nagasaki Katsusuke - attempted to assassinate Shoriki, saying that he had defiled the memory of the Meiji Emperor by allowing gaijin Americans to play in a stadium named in the Emperor's honor.

That seems silly considering the Meiji Emperor was very much responsible for the opening up of Japan's borders to the rest of the world. 

Read all about that attack and Shoriki's involvement with atomic energy, the CIA and baseball HERE.

By 1941, the Ultra-loyalists had helped prompt the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to officially bring the United States into WWII.  

Let's play two!
Andrew Joseph

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