Date of Birth: August 20, 1916
Date of Death: May 28, 1992
Positions: Third, Second, First, Outfield, Pitcher
Height: 173 cm (5’8”)
Weight: 79 kg (174 lb)
Wore: #10 (number retired in 1959)
Originally Signed by: Osaka Tigers, November 11, 1935
Made Tigers Debut on: April 29, 1936
Retired as Player in: 1958
Manager Career: Osaka Tigers (1946, 1950-57); Kokutetsu Swallows (1963); Toei Flyers (1964-65; 1967-68)
Career Achievements/Awards: Top average (1950); Most Home Runs (1936 fall, 1949, 1953); Most RBIs (1944, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1953); MVP (1949); Best Nine Award (1947-52); Hall of Fame Induction (1974)
Born in 1916 in Kure, Hiroshima, as the seventh of eight siblings, Fumio grew up watching his older brother play for the Kure Naval Arsenal baseball team, where is father worked. He starred on his (5-year) school (Gokoh High School, then known as Taisho JHS) baseball team, going to Koshien six times in four years. His team won the tournament in the summer of 1933, with Fujimura striking out 14 hitters in the final, including legendary (future) Giants player Tetsuharu Kawakami 3 times in a row.
The following year in the summer tournament, Fujimura set the record for most strikeouts in a single game with 19. The record stood until 2012 when it was broken by current Rakuten Eagles’ pitcher Yuki Matsui (22 strikeouts). Fujimura recorded 111 strikeouts in 12 Koshien tournament games as the school’s lone pitcher during his time on the team.
In the fall before his graduation, the Japanese Baseball League (JBL) was formed, with the first two teams being the Tokyo Baseball Club and the Osaka Tigers. Having been enthralled by his performances at Koshien Stadium during his high school days, the Tigers set out to acquire him as their star player. He was determined to play baseball in university (which was extremely popular in Japan long before the professional league started) at Hosei, but his father and older brother accepted the team’s offer to his chagrin. Apparently part of the deal was that Fujimura’s second eldest brother would be added to the team’s coaching staff. (Many felt like this decision was a huge mistake, as the unknown pro league was a less stable option than starring on a university team. Incidentally, one of Fujimura’s elder brothers went on to lead Hosei to four straight championships.)
Fujimura made an immediate splash in the pros, pitching a complete-game one-hit shutout in his debut, the first game in team history, on April 29, 1936. He would also go on to win the first game in club history against the Giants on July 15 of that year. Despite not getting enough plate appearances to win the batting title that fall, Fujimura led the league in home runs with 2 – the first of his three home run titles.
The following season, Fujimura started to play in the field, getting regular playing time at second base. Despite helping the team win both championships that season (the first three years of JBL had two seasons per calendar year), he played a minor role due to the team’s strong hitting lineup.
After four seasons lost to military service, Fujimura returned to the team in 1943 but did not fare well, having lost his hitting form in his time away from the diamond. However, in 1944 he came back strong, winning the RBI title and leading the team to another title. He also made the shift to third base, the position he played the most often in his career.
Once again his playing career was interrupted by war, this time with the entire league shutting down for a season. In the first official game after war’s end, Fujimura became the first player to hit a home run in this “new era” – an inside-the-park home run. The following year, 1946, saw Fujimura wearing nearly every hat possible – he played third base, batted fifth, pitched when needed and managed all at once. Nevertheless he excelled, hitting .323 and winning 13 games as pitcher. He gave up managing the team the following season, giving the reins to Tadashi Wakabayashi.
It was in the next years that his career really took off, though. As cleanup hitter in the next four years, he led the team to a championship (1947), recorded the most single-season hits in league history (1950 – his 191 hits remained a league record until Ichiro broke it in 1994), the most home runs in league history (1949 – 46 home runs, a record that stood until Sadaharu Oh broke it in 1964), and earned the league MVP award in 1949 despite the team finishing in sixth place.
His career continued in the years beyond, and he continued to play on the team while managing at the same time until 1957. His numbers and playing time decreased as his age increased. In his next-to-last season (1956), Fujimura the manager called his own number as pinch hitter with the team down a run in the bottom of the ninth. He would hit a walk-off home run, and it would be the final bomb of his career. He managed the next season before stepping down, and attempted a comeback in 1958, but was limited to just 26 at bats. His retirement was a quiet one, quite unfit for the man who was solely responsible for the team’s early success, but early in 1959 the team held a “retirement match” for him (it was an exhibition game) – the first in Japanese baseball history. His number 10 was retired immediately, and he would be the only man in team history to don the number.
Fujimura received offers from other clubs and was the hitting coach for the Kokutetsu (now Yakult) Swallows as well as the Toei Flyers (now the Nippon Ham Fighters). He left the game for good in 1968, and was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1974.
In 1988, Fujimura, who was known to love sweets, was diagnosed with diabetes and spent his final years fighting the disease in a nursing home. He died of kidney failure (related to diabetes) on May 28, 1992. The club flew its flags at half-mast in honor of his life and death.
Fumio Fujimura was the first – and in the eyes of many Tigers ex-players and fans, the only – “Mr. Tigers.” He became famous for his “laundry pole” bat, which, at 36-38 inches in length, was much longer than other players’ bats. He attributed the bat’s length to his success as a home run hitter.
Fujimura was also well known for his penchant for entertaining fans. At times he would circle the bases after home runs waving both hands in the air. One time as a pinch hitter with an injured leg, he hopped around the bases on one foot. He also bare-handed balls at third base when fielding. As a pitcher, he occasionally threw his pick-off to second base through his legs. These antics made him a local hero in the Kansai region, but obviously did not sit well during road games.
However, his passion for the game and ability to entertain the crowd served as an inspiration to perhaps the most famous third baseman in Japanese baseball history – Shigeo Nagashima of the Yomiuri Giants. He says that while everyone else on the field played the game so seriously, it was Fujimura’s light-hearted but passionate approach that inspired him to take up the game and become a third baseman.
His passion for the game often led to problems on the field, however. He was the first player ever to collide with a catcher at home plate. The catcher was unconscious and broke several bones and was hauled off the field on a stretcher. (Incidentally, he was called safe despite protests by the Giants’ manager, and the Tigers won the game on that run.) He also once refused to be pulled for a pinch runner by his manager. His rebellion was said to be one of the factors that led to the manager’s dismissal at season’s end.
Many have said that without Fumio Fujimura’s contributions to team history, there would be no Hanshin Tigers today. He is also one of the first men to set in place the Hanshin-Kyojin rivalry, with his superb timely play against the cross-country rivals. During his heyday, the baseball world referred to Kawakami in the east and Fujimura in the west – they were the two most prominent figures in baseball before and after World War II.