Hanshin Tigers: 1965-1978

In a way, the book title says it all – this is a complete summary of the Hanshin Tigers’ 1965 through 1978 seasons. But actually, it starts the tale in the fall of 1958, when the team signed the best pitcher in its history – Minoru Murayama. After brief recaps of the first seasons in Murayama’s storied career, the true tale begins the season after Hanshin won its second pennant in three seasons.

How is it that a team that had such incredible pitching – along with Murayama, the team had the first (and for 52 years, only) foreigner to win the Eiji Sawamura Award in Gene Bacque – could struggle so much in the seasons that followed? Author Yusuke Nakagawa recounts everything that the club went through, both during the seasons and in the winter months between campaigns. Using sources such as “Hanshin Tigers: Showa no Ayumi” (a team-released encyclopedia covering the team’s start all the way through the end of the Showa Era in 1988), Nakagawa complements that information with the memoirs of many former Hanshin players, including Murayama, Yoshio Yoshida, Yutaka Enatsu and Koichi Tabuchi. His skillful weaving of officially released publications with players’ accounts and newspaper reports gives us this splendid recollection of a period in team history that was filled with heartbreaking losses, near-pennant-wins, and complete disasters. It also goes into deep detail about the how and why surrounding the retirements of Murayama and Yoshida, as well as the trades of Enatsu and Tabuchi. He doesn’t go into deep detail about the playing career of Taira Fujita, though he does get mentioned as one factor in the early retirement of Yoshida.

Some of the more interesting things I learned (or re-read, as I had previously read them and since forgotten)…

Hanshin nearly won the pennant in 1970. With Murayama playing while managing, there were times he could not make all the decisions that a manager would. Case in point – late in the year with the pennant on the line and the Tigers facing the Giants, Enatsu was on the mound but struggling. He needed to get out of a bases loaded jam with the team up 2 runs late in the game. But he was tiring. Murayama knew that the only pitcher who could be counted on to relieve Enatsu in this tight game was himself. So off to the bullpen he went to warm himself up. Meanwhile, Enatsu walked Sadaharu Oh on pitches that he thought should have been strikes. Rattled by not getting the calls, and now up just one run, this would have been the perfect time for a pitching change. But Murayama was not able to watch the game and know what was going on, and the coaches left on the bench did not make the decision. Enatsu gave up a game-losing hit to Shigeo Nagashima. Ultimately, the pennant was lost by just two games.

Hanshin nearly won the pennant in 1973. With just two games left, they needed a single win. The first game was to be played in Nagoya, where Jiro Ueda was a better choice of pitcher. However, the team also hoped to have its ace on the mound for the pennant-clinching game. So Ueda sat and Enatsu started. Never mind that he had a poor track record against the Dragons. Also never mind the fact that the front office had talked to him the day before, basically encouraging him to lose the game and see the Tigers settle for second place. (The only written account of this encounter is in Enatsu’s memoirs, so while it may not be true, no one ever came out and denied its veracity.) Long story short, Enatsu fell behind 1-3 in the fifth inning and was pulled as the team hoped to rally back. They lost the game 1-5. (Legend also has it that the Giants were traveling to Koshien by Shinkansen for the season finale, and the train stopped in Nagoya just as the game ended – the station is right next to the stadium – and that the players saw that the Tigers had lost and were fired up for the winner-takes-all showdown the following day.) When the Tigers lost at Koshien 0-9 to the Giants, the stadium erupted and fans rioted on the field. Hanshin’s bitter rivals had just won their ninth straight pennant.

Hanshin nearly won the pennant in 1976. This team boasted a powerful lineup of Fujita, Mike Reinbach, Hal Breeden and Tabuchi, and young Masayuki Kakefu. However, the team was filled with such dissent under manager Yoshida (and post-Enatsu trade) that they were unable to pull together to defeat the Giants. They ended up finishing just two games back, and the pennantless drought would reach 12 seasons. (It would go another 9 years after this.)

Hanshin actually got decent return on the Enatsu trade in 1975, which yielded pitcher Takenori Emoto, who went down in team history in 1981 as the guy who yelled out “I can’t play this game because the bench is filled with idiots!” (Despite making signs to the bench to pull him from a start in which he was struggling and his pitch count was getting high, they did nothing. He would retire at the end of the season.)

Hanshin also made out well in the Tabuchi trade in 1978. In return we got a couple of role players, but more importantly, future slugger and leadoff man Akinobu Mayumi. He was one of the important pieces in the 1985 Nippon Series win.

On the whole, I enjoyed this book thoroughly. At times it made too many mentions of Murayama and Enatsu’s wins and losses, but because this book revolved around them and Tabuchi, it was bearable. If you want to learn more about this team’s history, I would suggest you read through this one, which will take you on the journey of a team that was solid but just not quite good enough (because of scouting, coaching and at times, bad luck) to win any pennants during this long stretch.

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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.