Hometown: Wakayama City, Wakayama
Date of Birth: October 19, 1947
Position: Shortstop, First Base
Height: 178 cm (5’10”)
Weight: 80 kg (176 lbs)
Threw/Batted: Right / Left
Wore #: 6 (as player), 80 (as manager)
Drafted by: Hanshin Tigers, 1965 (Round 2)
Made Tigers Debut on: April 10, 1966
Played Final Game on: September 20, 1984
Manager Career: Hanshin Tigers (1981-84 – Player/Coach, 1995-96 – Manager)
Career Awards/Achievements: Top Batter (1981); All-Central League Team (1967, 1969-71, 1973-75, 1981); Diamond Glove Award (1973, 1975, 1981); Comeback Player of the Year (1981); All-Star Game (1967, 1969, 1971, 1973-76, 1981); Meikyukai Induction (1983)
Taira Fujita was born on October 19, 1947 in Wakayama City. As a high school student, he helped his team reach the finals of the national high school invitational tournament at Koshien Stadium in the spring of 1965. In one of the games, he became the first player in the tournament’s history to record two home runs in one game. Though he had committed to attend Meiji University, family business problems and being selected in the second round of the 1965 draft by the Hanshin Tigers caused him to back out of his promise. (This apparently caused a rift between the university and the club that lasted several years.)
Managed by Shigeru Sugishita, who was brought in from outside the organization to make changes, Fujita made the top squad in his first year. The move was met by sharp criticism, and after Sugishita stepped down in August, returning manager Sadayoshi Fujimoto attempted to balance Sugishita’s rebuilding movement with appropriate playing time for veterans. Fujita’s rookie year was far from stellar, but he showed enough promise that Fujimoto told him he would get another chance at short the next year if he worked hard in the offseason. In 1967, Fujita pretty much supplanted Yoshio Yoshida as main shortstop. (Yoshida moved to second, at which point pitcher Gene Bacque said he had the best middle infield a pitcher could ask for.) That year, Fujita led the league in hits (154), doubles (30) and triples (10). He finished in the top 10 in batting average and also was named to the all-CL team.
Fujita continued to put up consistent numbers through the late 1960s and early 1970s, even clubbing a career-high 28 home runs in 1971. Though neither a power hitter nor a speedy runner, he compiled enough home runs to rank seventh all-time in team history with 207, and enough stolen bases to rank among the 20 best in team history. Perhaps his most impressive record came in 1978, when he went an incredible 208 plate appearances without striking out – a mark that stood until Ichiro Suzuki topped the mark 19 years later with 216. (The two are often compared when it comes to hitting style and ability to make contact with consistency.)
Unfortunately for Fujita, the 1979 season was a hard one. On April 17 while playing first base, he tore his left thigh muscle, and after undergoing surgery in the United States, missed most of the remainder of the season. He continued to play at first base when he returned in 1980 (Akinobu Mayumi took over at shortstop, while rookie Akinobu Okada eventually took over full-time at second base). While it was not an outstanding season, he did play in over 100 games and hit over .300. Perhaps the best season of his career came in 1981, though, when he won the Diamond Glove Award at first base, led the Central League in batting average with a .358 mark, and won the Comeback Player of the Year Award. He also took on extra responsibilities from that year, coaching on top of his playing duties. He would do so right until the end of his playing career.
In 1983, Fujita became the first player in Hanshin history to spend his entire career with the club and reach the 2000 hit mark – which gave him entry into the Meikyukai (Famous Players Club). He would retire the following year after seeing his playing time diminish severely – a certain American named Randy Bass would take over full-time at first that season. He still holds the franchise record for most career hits with 2064, and is just one of two players in Japanese baseball history to reach the 2000-hit plateau without winning a pennant. (The Tigers won one year before he was drafted and one year after he retired.)
After retiring, Fujita became a sports columnist for Daily Sports and a commentator for Asahi TV. He was present (and working) during the famous back-to-back-to-back home runs in 1985 as well as the pennant-clinching game. In the mid-1990s, he was hired as farm manager and eventually took over on the top squad when incumbent manager Katsuhiro Nakamura went on indefinite leave. He was extremely strict and did not ever gain the trust of his players. One day during the 1995 season, star center fielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo showed up over an hour late for practice. His punishment was to sit in seiza position for an entire hour. That offseason, Shinjo requested a trade (it was not granted). By the end of the 1996 season, Fujita was fired. He returned to his work as columnist and commentator until 2005.
In 2009, Fujita would end up back in his hometown of Wakayama, where he became the first manager of the Kishu Rangers baseball club of the Kansai Independent League. After just one season (the team finished in third place in the first half, but in dead last in the second half), he was released.
Playing alongside some of the all-time great hitters in team history (Koichi Tabuchi, Mayumi, Okada, Masayuki Kakefu, among others) meant Fujita was not always fully appreciated. Despite finishing his career in the top 10 in team history (including most career hits), his name is seldom mentioned as one of the all-time greats. He kept the number 6 on his back for 19 impressive years, after which it was donned by Yutaka Wada for 17 seasons, and after one forgettable season in which Derrick White took the number, it went to another future legend: Tomoaki Kanemoto. Any way you look at it, the unfortunate truth is that Taira Fujita will never be mentioned as the greatest shortstop, first baseman or #6 in team history. Still, until Takashi Toritani breaks the club record for all-time hits, Fujita will hold that one important title: best pure hitter the Tigers have ever drafted.