The First Japanese to Play Baseball in America Was? Masanori Murakami
As of September, 2016, there have been about 55 players from Japan who have played in America's major leagues of baseball, a few more if you count non-Japanese citizens who were born in Japan.
Many baseball fans remember Nomomania of 1995 when 26-year-old pitcher Hideo Nomo of the Kintetsu Buffaloes joined the Los Angeles Dodgers and had an outstanding season, culminating in being named the Rookie of the Year.
His every pitch, walk, hit and strikeout was followed by millions in Japan. Fans got up in the middle of the night, Japan time, to watch Dodgers’ day games. Nomo was great for several years, twice leading his league in strikeouts and also throwing two-no hitters, but by the time he left America he had a losing record.
Nomo was not, however, the first Japanese to play in the major leagues. He was the second.
More than 30 years earlier, 20-year-old Masanori Murakami pitched for the San Francisco Giants. His short career was both a triumph and a disaster, with the fallout of his contract dispute between American and Japanese baseball rulers leading to a 30-year gap before the next Japanese player, Nomo, would appear in the U.S. major leagues.
In the spring of 1964, (some accounts say it was February) the Nankai Hawks of Japan's Pacific League sent pitcher Masanori Murakami (then 19 years old), third baseman Tatsuhiko Tanaka and catcher Hiroshi Takahashi (both 18) to the San Francisco Giants' minor-league spring training camp at Casa Grande, Arizona to improve their skills.
Tanaka and Takahashi both struggled, hitting .250 and .267 respectively for their rookie league team. They returned to Japan well before the season was over.
Conversely, Murakami, who was given the nickname "Mashi," did not struggle with anything except the English language. In Fresno, the Giants' Class A affiliate, he went 11-7 with a 1.78 ERA. His strikeout to walk ratio was nearly 5-to-1. Despite a high strikeout ratio, he was by no means a power pitcher. Murakami had pinpoint control and a late-breaking curve ball (some accounts call it a slider).
That September, the major league affiliate Giants were in the middle of a pennant race, and they needed a left-handed reliever. On September 1st, they called up Murakami and his quirky sidearm delivery from his class A team.
Murakami made his debut at Shea Stadium in front of 40,000 screaming fans - a long way from the 1,000 or so fans who usually showed up to Fresno Giants' games. To calm himself on the way in from the bullpen to the mound, he hummed the song "Sukiyaki (Japanese title: 上を向いて歩こう, or I Look Up as I Walk).
Murakami finished that season pitching in nine games with a 1-0 record and a 1.80 ERA, striking out 15 and walking just one batter in 15 innings.
After his strong 1964 performance, the Giants offered him a $10,000 contract for the 1965 season, which he quickly signed. The problem was, he already was under contract for that season with the Nankai Hawks (currently called the Softbank Hawks).
The ensuing dispute sparked an international row. A compromise was eventually reached allowing him to pitch one more year in America before having to return to Japan, but it was 30 years before any other Japanese was allowed to play in America.
In 1965, his only full season in the American major leagues, Murakami went 4-1 in 45 appearances and 74 innings with a 3.75 ERA, 85 strikeouts and 22 walks.
Shortly after returning to Japan, Murakami sustained an injury while changing from his sidearm delivery to an overhand delivery. He recovered and pitched for 17 more years, ending his career pitching for the Nippon Ham Fighters from 1976-82. His best year was in 1968 when he had an 18-4 record with a 2.38 ERA for Nankai.
In 1983, his Japanese career at its end, the then-38-year-old Murakami returned to America and tried to make San Francisco's major league roster, but was one of the final cuts the Giants made that year.
He later said that he wished he had been able to stay with the Giants longer.
For more information about Murakami, you can read Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major Leaguer by Robert K. Fitts.
There are also a few poor-quality Youtube videos on Murakami.