On September 1st 1964, roughly 17 years after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s “color barrier,” a man by the name of Masanori Murakami broke another kind of barrier, becoming the first Japanese born baseball player to enter an American Major League Baseball game.
After Jackie Robinson entered his first game in 1947, the major leagues saw a semi-steady stream of African-Americans come into the majors, enough so that by the early 1960’s most other leagues created specifically for African American’s had folded.
70 yrs ago today Jackie Robinson played his 1st game at Wrigley Field! 46,572 people attended, a record to today! Now that is history. pic.twitter.com/HNBMmfRlQL
— Roger Rodby (@NephRodby) May 18, 2017
The influence of the Japanese born player took a little bit longer; after Murakami threw his first pitch in 1964, it would take 31 years before another Japanese born player, Hideo Nomo to enter the league in April of 1995 for the LA Dodgers.
Since Nomo’s debut in the league in 1995, MLB has seen a consistent influx of Japanese born players enter the league. From Kazuhiro Sasaki, to Hideki Matsui and Junichi Tazawa to Yu Darvish, for the past 20 years the league has seen countless Japanese players enter the league with varying degrees of success.
Ah. Here we go. A quick pick of Masanori Murakami. pic.twitter.com/8G3p5jEzqG
— nick (@vossbrink) April 30, 2017
One Japanese born baseball player however has transcended the rest. On April 2nd 2001 an outfielder by the name of Ichiro Suzuki made his major league debut as a Seattle Mariner. The season that would follow that debut in the spring of 2001 is one that will go down in history.
The Seattle Mariners would go on to win 116 games that season, tying the mark for best regular season in MLB history, and looking back now, that season is remembered for another reason, as the last time the Mariners made it to the playoffs.
As a lifelong Mariners fan and Seattle resident, I remember that season fondly. Not only for the winning but for the hope that the season symbolized. Only a couple years removed from the betrayal that was Alex Rodriguez leaving Seattle for division rival Texas Rangers, and the sadness involved in Ken Griffey Jr. returning to his hometown Cincinnati Reds.
After an era that saw all-time greats like Griffey and Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner and Dan Wilson all playing together and regularly making the playoffs, it was hard to have hope in Seattle.
Then came Ichiro. His success on the field was palpable, and in a city with one of the largest Japanese populations in America, his off the field presence was enormous as well. I remember going to games those first few years he was in Seattle and seeing Japanese fans wearing his Nippon Professional Baseball (Japan’s MLB equivalent) jersey, cheering enthusiastically as they saw one of their own trot out into the outfield for the top of the 1st inning.
This season Ichiro was back in Seattle at Safeco field for the first time in almost three years.
I went to the game and although it was an afternoon, midweek game, it was packed, and as I expected, I saw some of those old NPB jerseys in the stands. Although he was playing for the other team, I rooted for Ichiro and I think most of Seattle did.
I rooted for him because of the impact he had on MLB as a foreign player, and I rooted for him because he was great for the city of Seattle in the time he was here, I cheered loudly in the 9th inning when he hit a solo home run in a game that had already been decided.
I’ll root for him again when he retires to become the first Japanese born player to head to Cooperstown, because as a member of the 3,000 club, he absolutely belongs in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.