Book Review – Best “Gaikokujin” Players Then and Now

kuehnert2As a relative newcomer to Nippon Professional Baseball, it has been a lot of fun learning of ex-pats who have come to know the game and its history well. Among those I look to for wisdom that extends beyond my time in Japan (and even my entire life, for that matter) are Robert Whiting, Jim Allen, and most recently, Marty Kuehnert. Mr. Kuehnert was at one time the General Manager of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, and although he has since left that post (he became a Visiting Professor at Waseda University, then at Tohoku University, and is currently professor of Sports Management and Vice President at Sendai University), he remains with the club as senior advisor. Completely fluent in Japanese and baseball, experienced to the gills in business, sports and education, he is definitely a man I could stand to start emulating.

The first of three books of his that I bought is called “Best ‘Gaikokujin’ Players – Then and Now” – though the Japanese title differs slightly in nuance: 愛すべき助っ人たち (Aisubeki Suketto-tachi = Helpers Who Should Be Loved). Written in 1998, the book’s premise is that statements made by nationalist baseball commentators – that NPB would be best off without foreigners – are completely wrong. Mr. Kuehnert’s argument is nineteen-fold, and would be even more had he not limited himself to choosing a “best 9” all-import team for each league (plus DH in the Pacific League). Among his Central League choices are three legends that played most of their Japanese careers with Hanshin: pitcher Gene Bacque, first baseman Randy Bass, and third baseman Tom O’Malley.

The book literally is a “then and now” as each chapter gives a look at each player’s beginnings in baseball (most were fringe MLB players), how they made the transition to NPB, what their exploits were here, how they were released (many of these stories are unfortunate mistreatment so of stars), as well as what they are doing now. There is even contact information for nearly every player at the end of each chapter! (As the book is nearly 20 years old, it is entirely possible that some addresses are no longer valid. Such was the case with Randy Bass, but Mr. Kuehnert was kind enough to give me his current address. I am still waiting for a reply from the Oklahoma State Senator…)

In many ways, this book resembles what I have been doing on my own website this past year – providing thorough biographies of players whose excellence is worthy of recognition and remembrance from fans. There are a few big differences, though. Mr. Kuehnert has personal contact with everyone he wrote about. I do not. He also has a fairly consistent writing style and pattern to his biographies. I do not. Finally, there seems to be an agenda in what is written here: the foreign players written about in this book, like them or not, have bettered the game, and, despite mistreatment and some prejudice, they shone like stars during their time in Japan.

Incidentally, I have been in touch with Mr. Kuehnert by e-mail for a couple of months, and was told the following interesting things: 1) He writes his books in English, has them translated into Japanese and read back to him sentence by sentence for his approval. (His level of Japanese is surely almost equal to that of native speakers!) 2) He has had them published in Japanese only because his target audience is, you guessed it, the Japanese people. 3) While the book’s Japanese title implies these guys should be loved, there are two that he does not particularly like. I’ll keep that between him and me, though I will assure you, none of them (that he mentioned to me) played for the Tigers!

All in all, this was a fabulous read. If it were published in English, I am sure a lot of people would snap it up. It may not have the mass appeal of Whiting’s You Gotta Have Wa, but it educates readers (while taking a real anecdotal, easy-to-read tone) of the many amazing athletes that have passed through Japan as baseball players.

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T-Ray is the founder, chief writer and Junior Executive Vice President of Hanshin Tigers English News (H-TEN). Find him on Twitter @thehanshintiger.