In a move unprecedented in Japan’s long history of baseball, players from Oklahoma and Venezuela were inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame on Wednesday. For Hall of Famers Randy Bass and Alex Ramirez, the event was yet another in a long line of opportunities to exceed all expectations for American players in Nippon Professional Baseball.
Famous in Japan for his blond beard and consecutive Triple Crown titles, Bass led the Hanshin Tigers to their only championship in 1985. Ramirez has struggled to get a chance to play in the major leagues, but he is the only non-Japanese player to reach 2,000 hits in NPB, achieving the coveted milestone with the Yokohama DeNA BayStars in 2013.
“Growing up in the small town of Lawton, Oklahoma, I never thought about being inducted into the Japanese Hall of Fame,” said Bass, who played only six seasons in the NPB but left an indelible mark on the NPB game. “I just want to say thank you to the Hanshin baseball team for still treating me like family after all these years.
Bass and Ramirez’s path to selection was complicated by the sometimes unfriendly Japanese baseball system toward foreign-born players, especially those without Japanese descent.
The sport was introduced to Japan in the late 1800s and flourished at the amateur level until the establishment of the professional league in 1936. In 1959, the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame opened. Since then, more than 200 people have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, including those most responsible for the development of the sport and those who have excelled in that baseball in his NPB.
But until now, the only non-Japanese player in the Hall of Fame was Victor Starfin, the first Japanese pitcher to reach 300 wins. Starfin’s family fled Siberia from the Russian Revolution and took refuge in the countryside of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. Matsutaro Shoriki signed him as a teenager as a pitcher as an original member of his team, now known as the Yomiuri Giants, when the Pro League was founded in 1936.
Starfin became the first Japanese player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1960.
Oduru, a left-handed California native, was enshrined in 2002 for his contributions to the early development of professional baseball in Japan, and a year later Horace Wilson, the main player who was credited with teaching baseball for the first time in 1872, became Japan’s “father of baseball.”
However, O’Dour and Wilson were elected builders, making Starfin the only foreign-born player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame without being of Japanese descent. This is an important distinction, as most of the early foreign players were Nisei or Sansei from Hawaii. Two players, Tadashi Wakabayashi and Wally Yonamine, are in the Hall of Fame.
Over the years, more than 1,000 foreign players of non-Japanese descent have played professionally in the country, but Starfin was the only Hall of Famer until this week.
“It’s nice that Japan is opening up, maybe it’s a little fairer now,” said Marty Cuneart, a longtime baseball and sports executive, by phone from his home in Japan. “I think coming to America in 2001 and how Ichiro was treated when the prestigious record was at stake affected people here about fairness and how they treat foreign players.”
Mr. Kuhnert’s comments best reflect Mr. Bass’s plight. Drafted by the Minnesota Twins, Bass was a journeyman first baseman who played for five MLB teams from 1977 to 1982, but quickly emerged as a star when he signed with the Hanshin Tigers for the 1983 season. In his first four seasons, he led the Central League in 10 different offensive divisions, including the Triple Crown division of batting average, home runs and RBI in both 1985 and 1986. He was named Most Valuable Player in the regular season and Japan Series in 1985.
But all of Bass’ achievements are well remembered for what he failed to achieve. That is Sadaharu Oh’s record of 55 home runs in a single season. In 1985, Bass had 54 RBIs with two games remaining. But Oh’s Giants refused to challenge him, walking him six times in his final eight at-bats of the season.
The record was eventually broken by another foreigner, Vladimir Valentien from Curacao, who achieved it with the Yakult Swallows in 2013. Valentian reached 55 with 22 games left in the regular season, leaving opponents with no choice but to challenge him. His 60 career home runs are a record.
However, Bass’ illustrious career was cut short when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and left the Hanshin Tigers during the 1988 season to care for his 8-year-old son (who eventually survived the tumor and now has a family of his own). Work came first in Japan at the time, and the Tigers eventually ditched Bass. He was batting .321 at the time, but still no team would go against his contract with Hanshin, and his career in Japan ended abruptly at age 34.
Despite all this adversity from management and opponents, Bass charmed fans with his perseverance and unfailing patronage. He remains highly respected and immensely popular after 35 years of his life.
His reaction to the news of his appointment showed humility, saying he took credit for the team that cut him. But Mr Kuhnert was happy to claim that he got everything the bus received.
“Yes, he played only six seasons in Japan,” Künert said. “But his career is similar to Sandy Koufax’s, short but great. He was the fastest Japanese player in history to hit 200 homers, still holds the record for a .389 batting average in a single season in 1986, and is one of only three players to win back-to-back Triple Crowns, two others have already done it.”
Alex Ramirez’s story was quite different. Originally signed by Cleveland as a 16-year-old amateur free agent in 1991, he was seen as a talented hitter with no defensive position. After playing part of three MLB seasons, he signed with Yakult in 2001, beginning a 13-year career in Japan.
Ramirez said he was very fortunate to have Charlie Manuel, a senior in his baseball career, as his hitting coach and manager for the Cleveland franchise. Manuel himself played six seasons in Japan, and even though he played 53 fewer games from 1977 to 1980, he outscored Wang with 166-152 homers.
“One day Charlie said to me, ‘Alex, you’re a million dollar player,'” Ramirez recalled. “But not in America. ‘Go to Japan,’ I said, ‘Japan? ‘ I thought it was for players about to retire. ‘ He said, ‘No no, with your batting ability, you could play there every day and stay longer. He was right and I am very grateful to Charlie for encouraging me to go. ”
Known as “Rami-chan” in Japan, he retired in 2013 after hitting 2017. In Japan, which has about 20 fewer games in a season than MLB, he welcomes 2,000 with the same reverence as America’s 3,000. As the only foreigner to reach this standard, Ramirez was selected in the writer’s ballot in his fourth year of qualification. Bass had his writing license revoked and was elected by a special committee.
Bass and Ramirez both hope their honor will open the door for other foreigners to enter the Japanese Hall of Fame. Among the players named are American Carl Rose (known to many as Tuffy), who led a foreign player in 13 seasons with 464 home runs, and Leron Lee, who has been a great hitter in his 11-season career in Japan and whose .320 batting average remains the highest in NPB history.