A couple of weeks ago, I was able to chat on FaceTime with Tigers’ legend Gene Bacque. As a rookie Tigers’ fan, I only found out about Mr. Bacque by accident when I was researching the history of the Eiji Sawamura Award. A few Google searches later I found a way to contact him, and we have been corresponding since last September. He is living in Louisiana, where he was born and raised. Here are some of the main highlights of our conversation.
You’ve been back in America for a long time now, but I know you have come back to Japan on a few occasions since then. When is the last time you were here?
We got invited over there probably 15 years ago, I guess. I left Japan in 1968, and it was about 10-12 years when I got invited back, and I went back probably 4-5 times after that. And I remember we went back when they had that doggone bad earthquake in Kobe (in 1995). We visited a lot of school children and wished them well, you know. Then I think I went a couple of times after that for some old timers games.
How often to those old timer games come up?
They were every 5 or 6 years, I guess. They’d have about 18 ball players from the US that had played ball in Japan, they would invite all of us and our wives, it was a fantastic trip for us. Now where do you live?
I live in Ashiya, not far from the stadium…
That’s where I lived when I was there, in Yamate-cho.
Oh yeah, up on the mountain. I used to work in that area. Anyways, I heard from you awhile back that your friend (and former teammate Kingo) Motoyashiki lives in Ashiya as well.
Yeah, he lives in Ashiya. If you see him or get a hold of him, you tell him hello for me. I think about them all the time. I visited him and his wife in his home when we went over for one of those old-timer games.
I was thinking, it would be fun to do a FaceTime session between you and him.
That would be great. He doesn’t speak much English and I don’t speak much Japanese, but we got along really well. He was the guy that played second base when I pitched that no-hit no-run game. He was the one who caught the last out when Oh hit that last pop fly.
So the final out of that game was Sadaharu Oh?
Yeah. I didn’t realize I had a no-hitter until about the sixth inning. And then most of the players, I could notice they weren’t talking to me too much. I guess they didn’t want to break the routine or something. Then finally in the ninth inning I realized, yeah I have a no-hitter. The closest I came to not having it was when Nagashima hit a line drive to the third baseman. It was right at him, thank God, otherwise it would have been the first hit. I was very lucky.
Nagashima and Oh were a pretty deadly back-to-back punch that the Giants had, eh?
Oh, they were excellent ball players. I mean, Nagashima was one of the best third basemen I have ever seen. And a good hitter. Oh was a little bit more powerful than him, and of course Oh was left-handed compared when I’m pitching I’m right-handed, I preferred pitching to Nagashima than Oh because of the fact that Oh was left-handed, whereas Nagashima was right-handed.
Would you say Oh was the hardest hitter you ever faced or were there other guys who made it really hard on you throughout your career?
The guy that was the most difficult for me to get out was a guy with the Taiyo Whales, by the name of Gondo. The way he swung the bat, I don’t know if it distracted me or what, but he always got a hit off me, or two or three! He was also a left-handed hitter.
I read in Robert Whiting’s book The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, that you liked to talk to the batters while you pitched to them…
Yeah, I tried to psych them out. And then the catcher, I would tell the catcher to try to talk to them a little, too. I’d brush them back quite a bit. I tried to come inside. Because in Japan, very few pitchers did… now it’s different, but when I was playing, very few pitchers would pitch inside. But I felt like if you could pitch them inside get them away from the plate, then by the time you threw the ball on the outside part of the plate, you had a little bit better chance of getting them out. I’d talk to them, sort of laugh at them, try to have them think differently about what they were doing.
Now did a lot of them talk back to you, or did you feel like “Yeah I’m really getting under this guy’s skin!”
Some of them would talk back. A lot of times they’d talk to me in Japanese, and I didn’t understand Japanese, and being from Louisiana, I spoke French, so I would talk back to them in French, so they didn’t know what I was saying, I didn’t know what they were saying.
So about your time in Japan, you came over with your wife, and did you have any kids when you came over?
No. We came in August ’62 and we got married in April ’62 in Hawaii. I was with the AAA ball club with the Detroit Tigers with a team called the Hawaii Islanders. They released me and made me a free agent. That’s when I decided if I got an opportunity I’d go to Japan. And this really good friend of mine in Hawaii, he was able to get me a tryout in Japan. And that’s how I got to Japan.
Was your friend in Hawaii affiliated with the Hanshin Tigers, then?
Not really, he wasn’t affiliated with the Tigers or anything. His name was Angel Maehara. He had a semi-pro team there in Hawaii. And I was lucky enough to get on with this team and help him out with his ball club. As a matter of fact, we were able to win the pennant in the summer league with his ball club. Then he got me a tryout in Japan. When I got there, they thought I had come over there as a hitter! Yeah, I could hit! I wasn’t a hitter, but they wanted me to hit the ball for them. I remember one time when I hit a home run against the Giants, and I was rounding first base, I said to Oh, “Anata to boku wa home run onaji desu ne!” We were the same type of home run hitters. He laughed. He was a good guy. He was a nice guy. Even after the altercation we had (see photo below), he was a nice guy. It was just one of those things that happened in a ball game. But he was a wonderful guy. Him, Nagashima, Kaneda, all those guys were real professionals.
So were you able to get to know them through the old-timer games?
Yeah, we got together at banquets before or after that game. It was nice, it was wonderful. I enjoyed it.
Did you have an interpreter with you to help with communication?
Yeah, most of the time. Well, when I first got to Japan I didn’t have an interpreter. I was fortunate enough to get with a guy who had been there awhile and he had married a Japanese girl. He was in the army and had signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. His name was Mike Solomko, and he still lives in Japan to this day. He lives north of Tokyo if I’m not mistaken, built a beautiful home on his father-in-law’s property, I think. I talk to him whenever he comes to Hawaii. If ever you see Mike Solomko, please convey my regards to him.
If you can find out from me, someone told me he died, but I wonder what happened to my friend Yamauchi-san. (Editor’s Note: Kazuhiro Yamauchi passed away in 2009.) He used to take me deer hunting in the offseason when I didn’t go home in the offseason. Another guy is Koyama. He’s the one who taught me the bad words in Japanese. And then of course Yoshida, my shortstop. I was very fortunate to have two of the best shortstops when I was playing there. Yoshida and Taira Fujita. Then another guy with the Hiroshima Carp, he was a nice guy, I can’t remember his name, though. (Editor’s note: He’s talking about Sachio Kinugasa.) He played in… I don’t know how many consecutive games. (It was 2215 games, from 1970-1987.) He was like Cal Ripken over here. I don’t know how many consecutive games he played without getting hurt or without coming out of the game. Him and Koba, I remember from Hiroshima. Koba was a good player, too. I think he played the outfield.
Sounds like you met a lot of great people throughout your career in Japan.
I had the most wonderful time in Japan. I always wanted to play ball since I was nine years old. And I was fortunate enough to sign here in the States out of my university with the Detroit organization. But I played with them for six years in the minor leagues, then they released me and wanted to send me back to Class A-ball, and I said, no after six years, they’d given up on me. That’s when I decided to give it a try in Japan. That’s the best decision I ever made. The wife enjoyed it, she really loved it in Japan. She was one of the few wives who liked Japan. She tried to learn the language, she raised four kids in Japan. We had some wonderful times.
You mentioned about spending off-seasons here… did you spend all your off-seasons here, or just parts of them?
No, the first year I came back, and then in ’63 I stayed over and instead of coming back, the wife and I took a little vacation to Hong Kong, I think. Then in ’64 I had the really good year when I won 29 and lost 9, and I think we came back that year. And then we went back, I hadn’t signed my contract, so we came back and negotiated my contract for ’65.
Now, in ’64 when you won the Sawamura Award, did you know at the time you were the first foreigner to win it?
I was the first foreigner and as far as I know, I’m the only foreigner to ever win the award. I have it here. It’s the most prestigious thing I’ve ever had in my life. And to think that this award was given to me… of course, this is what Oh said. Oh that year hit 50-some-odd home runs. And he came up to me and said, “Bacque-san, you deserve the Sawamura Award, but you also deserve the MVP because you were instrumental in having Hanshin win the pennant that year.” I said to him, “Well Oh-san, maybe so, but that’s how they voted, and I’m completely satisfied. I’m more satisfied with this award than the MVP.” This means more to me knowing that this man (after whom the award was named) fought for his country, died for his country, and that our country was basically instrumental in terminating his life, and yet, I was able to know that he would probably agree that I win this particular award. It was heart-warming for me. It was really… it was very, very special. And I hope that somebody later on can win that award, and I’m so thankful that I am the first and only [foreigner] so far to win the award. I was there in ’62… the war had been over for awhile, and there was no animosity or anything, but they sometimes talked to me about how hard it was after the war. How they didn’t have any paper… one of the coaches said, “Man I’m glad the war ended. I was next in line to go bomb those ships…” What do you call it? Kamikaze?
Let’s change the subject a little. What kind of food did you like while you were here?
The grapes in Himeji, we always stopped on our way to Hiroshima to enjoy the huge muscat fruit, the 20th-century pears, man they take such good care of their fruit in Japan. The peaches were good too… pretty much any fruit that they had was great. My wife would cook really good. We ate donburi, okonomiyaki, and the steaks, ohhhh man. If ever you’re in Kobe, you have got to go to a place called Miyasu. It’s expensive but let me tell you, their steaks, bar none, are the best. If you ever go there, you tell his son (who’s now running the place) that Bacque says hi.
The conversation went on from this point for another 15 minutes or so, but instead of talking baseball, we exchanged information about each other’s families, he chatted with my wife and son for awhile, and he even extended me an invitation to visit and stay with him down in Louisiana sometime. It was such a wonderful time, just getting to know a man who left a mark on the Japanese game 50 years ago but still holds a special place in the hearts of Hanshin Tigers fans.
Thank you for taking time to talk with me, Mr. Bacque. I hope we can do this again sometime soon. I wish you all the best and continued good health.