By John Sammon, NikkeiWest Staff Writer
A documentary film that will show the shared love of baseball between Japan and the United States; how the sport impacted relations between the two countries, promises to offer an insight into a history hardly touched on before.
“We hope to have the film completed a year from now,” said producer-filmmaker Yuriko Romer. “The film looks at the U.S. – Japan relationship through the lens of baseball.”
Titled “Diamond Diplomacy,” the film also looks at the unique career of the very first Japanese baseball player to play in the Big Leagues in the United States. His Anglo teammates called him affectionately “Mashi” because they had trouble laboriously pronouncing his full name, Masanori Murakami.
Romer started the project in 2014 after six months of research.
Completion of the film will depend on continued donations from the public and the production has reached what they call in baseball, the “Home Stretch.” Like earlier projects Romer has completed it is likely to be screened at film festivals and possibly on PBS (Public Broadcast System).
Baseball helped to bridge the cultural chasm of misunderstanding between the United States and Japan, and managed to survive the cataclysmic disruption caused by World War II.
A man named Horace Wilson, a Civil War veteran and a professor, was hired by the Japanese Government in 1872 to help modernize the Japanese school system during the Meji Restoration Period. Teaching English at the Kaisei Gakko (the forerunner of Tokyo Imperial University), Wilson decided his students needed physical exercise. One of the first baseball players in the United States, Wilson organized a pick-up game between Japanese students and their foreign teachers.
“The game caught on and became the number-one sport in Japan,” Romer said. “Now baseball is considered the national pastime just like here in the U.S. In Japan baseball is more popular than soccer.”
Film for the documentary has been shot and more will be added as the project moves along.
“We just completed a Kickstarter Campaign on Nov. 5 which raised $40,000 for the project,” Romer said. “There were 260 donors and some contributions were as little as $3. Right now we have a public trailer film clip you can view.”
A little over three minutes in length, the trailer is viewable at www.kickstarter.com/projects/bestrong/diamond-diplomacy.
Part of the film already shot includes an interview with the daughter of Babe Ruth, Julia Ruth Stevens. Babe Ruth journeyed to Japan on a barnstorming tour in 1934 along with Lou Gehrig and other stars from the American League who formed a team called the All Americans. The trip was a goodwill gesture and helped further popularize the sport in Japan, which by now had its own stars. However, the sport couldn’t prevent the outbreak of World War II. Japanese soldiers later vented their anger at Americans in battle by shouting “To hell with Babe Ruth!”
“When Pearl Harbor was bombed, for my father it was absolute mayhem,” Stevens recalled.
Romer said the Japanese retained baseball even though during the war they tried to purge it of its American influences.
“For example the language of the game was changed,” she said. “Instead of calling a pitch a strike, it was called “yoshi,” meaning good. Instead of a pitch being called a ball it was called “dame,” or bad!”
After the war with Japan in ruins, occupying U.S. forces sought a way to improve the morale of the Japanese. Tsuneo Harada, born in Santa Maria in 1921 and nicknamed “Cappy” by his friends, was a Japanese American assigned to occupation duty in Japan after the war. Then a U.S. Army Lieutenant, he recalled a meeting with General Douglas MacArthur in which Harada suggested forming local baseball teams as a possible uplift for the populace.
“What are you waiting for,” McArthur said. “Get started.”
The sport’s popularity soared and In 1949 the San Francisco Seals, a minor league team that played from 1903 to 1957 in what was then the Pacific Coast League, visited Japan and played 16 games with Japanese teams. The tour was a tremendous hit with the public.
Baseball helped bring the two countries together.
Murakami (Mashi) made baseball history when he became the first Japanese player imported to the Big Leagues in the United States in 1964. He started with the San Francisco Giants minor league team in Fresno playing at a ramshackle Depression-era John Euless Ball Park (condemned in 1988 because of termite damage). He then was called up to the majors for the Giants as a relief pitcher.
Murakami pitched so well the Giants refused to let him return to Japan and his former team. In the ensuing controversy the Japanese baseball commissioner ruled that he could play an additional season for the Giants before returning to Japan to play for the Nankai Hawks in 1966. In 1968 he won 18 games for the Hawks and played a key role in the team’s championship season in 1974.
It would be another 30 years before a second player from Japan entered the U.S. Big Leagues.
Mashi retired and pursued varied activities including pitching coach for the Giants and also teams in Japan as well as a sports commentator for NHK Major League baseball games in Japan.
Diamond Diplomacy contains interviews with the former star about his early days in baseball, and its influence. Last year Mashi journeyed to the United States on a book tour to promote a biography written about him by the author Robert Fitts titled “Mashi, The Unfullfilled Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major Leaguer.”
Romer, born in Tokyo, grew up in California where she worked in the advertising field before becoming interested in film production. She started in the field by taking a night class, eventually moving on to achieve a Master’s Degree at Stanford in Documentary Film Production.
She has directed films and short subjects including “Mrs. Judo,” which recounts the remarkable martial arts career of Keiko Fukuda, a Japanese woman who became one of the few female holders of the Black Belt in judo. Fukuda remained active in the sport right up until her passing in 2013 at the age of 99.
“This was my first feature-length film,” Romer said. “It ran about an hour and in 2014 aired on PBS. I’ve always wanted to direct films that will make a lasting impression on viewers.”
The successful completion of Diamond Diplomacy depends on private donations. People wishing to contribute may go to www.diamonddiplomacy.com and click on its “Donate” button (top right of page).