Date of Birth: August 12, 1937
Position: Starting Pitcher
Height: 191 cm (6’3″)
Weight: 91 kg (200 lb)
Wore #: 4
Originally belonged to: Detroit Tigers
Joined the Tigers in: 1962
Left the Tigers in: 1968
Retired in: 1969
Gene Bacque was born in New Iberia, Louisiana, and played baseball as a child from a young age. He dreamed of playing professionally, and after finishing his degree at University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette, he was signed on by the Detroit Tigers organization. Through six years with the club, he moved from Class D ball all the way up to AAA, but was released while with the Hawaii Islanders AAA team. Asked to return to mainland to join the Detroit Tigers Class A club, he decided instead to follow a tip/set-up given to him by a friend (Angel Maehara) in Hawaii, and made his way to Japan, leaving his newlywed wife behind in Hawaii to try out for the Hanshin Tigers.
In July 1962, on a field outside of Hanshin Ogi Station, he threw the ball for scouts while manager Sadayoshi Fujimoto looked on. Though not completely impressive, Fujimoto is said to have said, “If polished off, he might even shine.” The team gave him a chance in spite of his obvious control problems. In the tryout, he even hit a few balls for them, sending some over the fence. Even though the team asked him if he wanted to play in the field and hit the ball for a living, he insisted on pitching. He returned to Hawaii and brought his wife with him back to Japan in August, at which time he immediately joined the team in Tokyo on their road trip.
He ended his first half-season with the club without recording a win and could not get out early innings in the few starts he got. The team won its first pennant since the NPB divided into two leagues, and Bacque was able to contribute a little in the postseason.
In 1963, after spending the offseason stateside, he improved slightly on his numbers. He even came one out from throwing a no-hitter in May. More important than his stats, though, were the ways in which his game took huge leaps in terms of form and physique. He learned a slider from pinpoint control pitcher Masaaki Koyama, ran countless miles in the shadows of incumbent team ace Minoru Murayama, and underwent strict training and pitching form reformation under coach Shigeru Sugishita. These three things (new pitch, stronger lower body, more consistent pitching form) led to better control and a brand new pitcher in 1964.
The team traded Koyama to the Tokyo Orions (now the Chiba Lotte Marines) for slugger Kazuhiro Yamauchi, at last giving the team some offense, though not much beyond that. Still, as one of the top three starters on the team, Bacque compiled a 29-9 record in 1964 with a 1.89 ERA and 200 strikeouts (a club record for foreigners until Randy Messenger broke it in 2014 with 226). He became the first foreigner (only Kris Johnson in 2016 has done it since) to win the Eiji Sawamura Award, given to the top pitcher in Japanese baseball each year. His strong final week (in which he won 4 games and helped the team erase a 3.5-game deficit to win the pennant) has gone down in Tigers history as one of the great performances by a pitcher. It has been thoroughly recorded in Yoshio Yoshida’s book “Hanshin Tigers”. He and Murayama accounted for 51 of the team’s 80 regular season victories. In the Nippon Series that year, Bacque won Game 2 by throwing a complete game, but took the loss in Game 6 as Nankai Hawks ace foreigner Joe Stanka shut out the Tigers bats.
Bacque was able to follow up his award-winning season with another amazing accomplishment in 1965: on June 28 at Koshien Stadium, he threw a no-hitter against the team’s arch rivals, the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants. Bacque says there were a few close calls, like Shigeo Nagashima’s hard line drive to third, and that the team made sure to keep their distance from him after the sixth inning, at which point the possibility of a no-hitter dawned on him. When the final out was recorded, he leapt for joy but remembers the crowd’s excitement more than anything. It would be the last no-hitter thrown against the Giants by a Hanshin pitcher.
The next three seasons would see Bacque record double digits in wins, extending his club record for foreigners to 5 consecutive seasons (still unmatched to date). In 1968, having already recorded 13 wins by September, Bacque was called to start against the Giants at Koshien Stadium. After giving up several runs in the opening innings, he faced legendary home run hitter Sadaharu Oh with two outs and a runner on second. With first base open, the plan was to walk Oh – or at the very least, to not give him anything to hit out of the park. The first pitch whizzed by his face, and the second came in at his knees. When the third one nearly took his head off, Oh took steps towards the mound, bat still in hand. Players from both clubhouses also poured onto the field, and Giants coach Hiroshi Arakawa went as far as to kick Bacque. The retaliating right jab resulted in a knocked out coach, pandemonium, and ejections to both combatants. It also resulted in a complex fracture to Bacque’s right thumb. He would not pitch again that season. (Incidentally, the Tigers brought in reliever Masatoshi Gondo, who plunked Oh with his first pitch, sending the king off on a stretcher and clearing the benches again. The next batter, a steel-eyed Shigeo Nagashima, hit a fatal 3-run home run out of the park, all but ending the game.)
That offseason, Bacque was traded to the Kintetsu Buffaloes, where he played part of the season before rupturing a disc in his back. He would not record a single win, in part due to some peculiar managerial decisions by Buffaloes skipper Osamu Mihara. Once he even pulled Bacque after 4 innings despite the Buffaloes having a healthy 5-1 lead. This prevented Bacque from being the winning pitcher, from recording his 101st career win, and becoming the all-time wins leader for foreigners in NPB history. After one bout of frustration, he even left the dugout mid-game, took a train cross-town and blew off some steam with his former Tigers teammates at Koshien. His back injury was serious enough that he was hospitalized, and despite being asked back by the Buffaloes, he vowed to leave the game – and Japan – behind upon leaving the hospital.
Gene Bacque and his wife absolutely loved Japan. They had three children while in Japan, and did all they could to fit in with the team, the fans, and the community. Gene was said to be a very amiable and comical guy, cracking many jokes with teammates and coaches, and enjoying several offseasons hunting with Yamauchi and others. He was a fierce competitor, using the inside of the plate like no other pitcher in the game at the time. He even once scuffed more and more dirt on the rubber until it became invisible to the umpire, and then proceeded to creep closer and closer to home plate as he delivered each consecutive pitch. He was also known to talk to the opposing players in the batter’s box, trying to knock them off their game. When they replied to him in Japanese, he would speak back in French, adding more confusion. All this was done to get a psychological edge in the game, but Bacque was also good friends with several players from other organizations. Despite blending in well in Japan, Bacque was known to let his temper get to him after bad games, sometimes smashing fans or kicking hibachi (heaters) and sending flaming coals flying in the dugout. Most of all, though, teammates and fans alike remember him for being a joy on and off the field.
Since retiring, Bacque returned to his home state of Louisiana, where he became an industrial arts teacher and a rancher.
Podcast Episode 14 (November 26, 2015)
An Interview with Gene Bacque (May 6, 2015)