Book Review – White Ball Crosses the Pacific

My worst subject in school was history. By a long shot. I could memorize the numbers and dates without a problem, but I couldn’t get excited about what people did centuries before I was born.

Masaru Ikei’s book 白球太平洋を渡る (White Ball Crosses the Pacific) is a history book in the truest sense. I bet if I didn’t like baseball, I wouldn’t have survived the first few pages. But this book answers a lot of questions that I would have never thought to ask.

How did baseball get its beginnings in Japan? In 1871, an American professor wanted to give his students exercise outside, and taught them a fun game he knew.

Why do most sports have “anglicized” names but not baseball? An English book published in Japan called “Outdoor Games” was translated into Japanese. All sports got “Japanized” names but very few of them stuck. Baseball was called “Dakyu Gokko” (Playing Hit the Ball). Later in 1894, some students of the game thought up of yakyu (field ball), which has been the game’s name ever since.

What sort of people/events contributed to its development? Too many to list here. One of the more impressive developments, though, was that Albert Goodwill Spalding (founder of the great equipment manufacturing company) sent a bunch of equipment to Japan as a goodwill gift.

When did Japan and America first “cross paths” on the baseball diamond? The first game took place in Japan, between American amateurs who happened to be living in Japan (or landed in Japan – fresh off the boat, if you will). The Japanese team trounced them, 29-4.

Who went to visit whom first? Japan did – Waseda’s baseball team went to America in 1905 and played 26 games. They went 7-19.

How did professional baseball start in Japan? Monbusho (the ministry of education, culture, sports etc.) made a decree that stipulated that university baseball teams (the highest level of ball in Japan at the time) were forbidden to play in games at which admission fees were charged. With American teams coming to Japan to play, and a need to cover their expenses, there needed to be a way to form clubs that could play against these teams. They were first called “vocational baseball” players. 

What’s the deal with the Babe Ruth plaque at Koshien Stadium? Already in the twilight of his career, he was asked to join the tour of professionals coming to Japan. He refused. The Japanese sent a representative to America (in part to finalize details, but also to talk to Ruth). They talked to him at a barber shop during his haircut, and he was adamant about not going over to Japan. (He was in the middle of personal issues, too, and was not in great spirits.) When they showed him the poster that had been prepared for the arrival of the team, a poster featuring the Babe alone, he cracked a smile and said, “Alright, I’ll go.” The tournament, which featured games across Japan, also made a stop at Koshien.

How did World War II affect the Japanese/American relationship on the baseball field? Obviously it was not a good time for the two countries and their relationship. However, despite some people’s beliefs that Japan would not want to resume playing an “American game” so quickly after the end of the war, the demand for baseball was high, and the game actually helped lift the spirits of the decimated nation. It really wasn’t long before American teams were back to visiting Japan on baseball tours.

What is the true story behind the first Japanese baseball player to play professionally in America? Again, long story… but in 1964, Masanori Murakami was sent to America by the Nankai Hawks to get a baseball education, ended up impressing the San Francisco Giants (whose farm team was “teaching” him) and he ended up playing in the majors for half a season. He was so good that the Giants wanted him back for the following season. The Hawks were incensed, believing the agreement they had reached with the Giants was being abused. The long and short of it was that Murakami played the 1965 season out with the Giants before returning to Japan and struggling for a few years to adapt his pitching game to the Japanese way of playing. (Note to self: I have to buy and read Murakami’s biography!)

To be honest, a decent chunk of this book was already part of my knowledge base, but only because Robert Whiting used this book as one of his primary sources for You Gotta Have Wa (which, if you have not read, you must). The truly interesting thing about this book is that despite being Japanese, Ikei does not write this story with any hint of bias towards his countrymen. (This comes out in stories of violence against an American spectator at a game, the World War II portion, the misunderstandings in Murakami’s contract fiasco, and more.) In fact, Ikei talks of how he grew to love the game and desired more than anything to understand the American game more and more. The final two pages of the book talk about his quest for knowledge and understanding, and definitely gives this book a more personal feel.

There is little doubt that if I had the right textbooks in middle school and high school, i.e. this one, I would have liked history a whole lot more. My hat goes off to Mr. Ikei for writing such a brilliant recap of the history of the game in Japan. If you can read Japanese, this is one book you must add to your collection.

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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.