T-Ray: How are you doing, sir?
Gene Bacque: I’m alright. I just found out the other day from Isao Takano in Osaka and also Kenji Ogawa in Tokyo that the person that I got into a rhubarb with, Arakawa, died. But he was 86 years old; he had a good life.
TR: I was going to mention that to you, I think he passed away yesterday or the day before. For sure, it was pretty big news here. He’s the one that they credit for giving (Sadaharu) Oh his unique stance at the plate.
GB: Yeah he did. He worked with Oh a lot. That I remember. The fight was just an incident that happened on the spur of the moment in the heat of a game. It was no big deal. If he wouldn’t have come at me with that kick, and tore off my pants, probably nothing would have ever happened.
TR: It seems to me that it was kind of uncharacteristic of you – a one and only incident in your career. It’s not like you were trying to incite the fight or anything like that.
GB: It doesn’t happen very often. I think the press worked it in, and it seems like that is the only thing that they remember.
TR: Unfortunately, that’s how people remember the end of your time with Hanshin but there’s there’s so many great moments too, like winning the Sawamura Award, and then you got that no-hitter against the Giants too. I’ve been reading a lot more Japanese books lately. I read one by Marty Kuehnert.
GB: Oh, I know him. He spent a couple of nights here with me over here. He and his family. He lives north of Tokyo in… Sendai. You know him?
TR: Just by email, thanks to Mike Solomko‘s daughter actually. She and also you actually encouraged me to get in touch with Marty. I didn’t know who he was until I looked him up on the Internet and I realized he’s actually he’s been in Japan for decades.
GB: For years and years, yes. He’s a native, really. He’s like Mike Solomko… well, I don’t know if Mike can write and read, but Marty goes further than that. I think he can read and write it, like you… right?
TR: Yeah. But I’m sure Marty is leagues ahead of me because he’s been here for a couple of decades longer than I have. It sounds like he’s he’s got a lot of knowledge of the language but also of the sport and business. I heard I had a bar in Kobe before the earthquake and apparently he was saying that his bar called The Attic was like the hangout for that the players in the 80s.
GB: All the foreign players used to go there. But hey, he’s a wheeler and dealer, you gotta watch him! (Laughs) He’s slick! (Laughs)
TR: So tell me, how did you get to know Marty anyways?
GB: From his bar in Kobe. We’d go up there, and I’d end up meeting him. He knew one of my friends from long ago, Cubby Baer… Cubby came back and went to Arizona State University… and Marty knew him, and I knew Cubby, and we would aways meet in Marty’s bar in Kobe after the game or on a day off…
TR: So, I wanted to ask you a little bit about some of the guys that you played with. I think last time we talked a little bit about Oh, Nagashima… but we didn’t get to your teammates on Hanshin. I know you’d mentioned that you did some off-season hunting with (Kazuhiro) Yamauchi, right?
GB: I went hunting in Himeji with Yamauchi-san. I’ve since heard that he died. He was a good friend. I stayed over the winter, and he would take me hunting up in the mountains, and I didn’t kill anything, but he ended up killing a deer. Yeah, he was a real good friend. But I tell you, I can’t say there was anyone on my team who didn’t show respect. They were all nice to me the whole time I was there. You could go from Koyama, Goro Toi… I saw him a few times when I went back. He had opened a bar in Osaka. He died. Then there was Mike, of course. Then there was Tsuji and Yoshida. Then when Yoshida sort of retired, a young boy by the name of Fujita came in, and from what I understand, he ended up with about 2000 hits. So he’s in the, what do you call it, Meikyukai? So we had Yoshida and then Fujita at short… to me they are the best shortstops that I ever played with. Then I had Kamata and Motoyashiki and Andoh at second… they would alternate but most of the time it was Kamata. The best hands I have ever seen in the world. I mean it looked like the ball didn’t even touch his glove. That’s why I got so many double plays. I basically threw a low pitch and a sinker. So I got a lot of ground balls. And those guys, I’m sure they led the league in double plays, probably.
TR: I’m sure they were doing something right, because they sure weren’t scoring a lot of runs at the plate, were they?
GB: Well, we didn’t have a good hitting ball club. When we’d get a run, I don’t remember if it was Yoshida or Koyama sitting on the bench. They would say, “We got you a run in the first inning. You better hold ’em!” So I had to pitch a shutout! I got an e-mail the other day from somebody saying that another American got the Sawamura Award, guy from Hiroshima.
TR: Kris Johnson.
GB: Yeah, Johnson. He said, “I’m way way behind your record. My record wasn’t as good as yours. But he’s a good pitcher. I saw a clip of him. He pitches a lot like me, although he’s a left-hander. But he keeps the ball down, he doesn’t walk too many people. He’s a good pitcher.
TR: He’s got long limbs, too, and I think he uses that to get a lot of movement and lateral motion on his pitches.
GB: Yeah, and he pitches in and out.
TR: Yeah he’s got good control. There was controversy this year about the Sawamura. As you know, it has seven benchmarks, right? Levels that they want the winners to attain: ERA, wins, win percentage, strikeouts, innings pitched, shutouts (complete games)… but because of how the game is played now, most pitchers don’t get a chance to go all nine innings. When you played, you were always expected to go nine.
GB: At least eight and a half. Yeah, there was not so many good relief pitchers. They were good, but not like it is now. I mean, today, you take a starting pitcher that can go 5 or 6, and throws 90 miles an hour, then they come in with a reliever that throws 100-101. So it’s a much better situation, therefore nowadays, the starting pitcher won’t get that many innings pitched, that many complete games, that many strikeouts or anything.
TR: I kind of feel like the numbers need to change, or they need to change the benchmarks for the Sawamura. It’s so unpredictable these days. I think the league leader this year in complete games had 5. And the benchmark for Sawamura is 10. I think Kris Johnson had 3, and that’s not his fault. It’s just the way the game is played now.
GB: Yeah, and you gotta realize too, some of the managers just make a change to make a change. You can leave the guy in there. They made a bad mistake, I think, in the States in the World Series. The guy, he was pitching a helluva a game. He had thrown 5 2/3 innings, had a four run lead, but the minute he walked a guy, they took him out!
TR: Ah, Kyle Hendricks, for the Cubs.
GB: For me, I’d have let him pitch to another guy. And then take him out if he’d got on. They’re too quick to go to the bullpen. I wouldn’t want to be a starter anymore.
TR: Looking back at 1964, at the end of the season, Minoru Murayama went down, he had some family issues, and the team ended up riding your back to the pennant.
GB: Well I hate to say it, but if I hadn’t won that game against the Whales, in the double header, and then again back at Koshien against the Whales again, if I hadn’t won those games, we would have never won. I’m not bragging. It happened. Murayama-san was as good as I was, if not better. He ended up winning 25 games. Between he and I, we were the only two pitchers that won!
TR: That’s well over half of the team’s wins right there.
GB: They never had a hitting ball club until Randy Bass and Masayuki Kakefu and those guys. They’d score some runs, from what I understand. I met Randy Bass one time on a trip back to Japan for some old timers games. A real nice guy, and from what I understand, he’s in politics now in Oklahoma. He’s a politician now.
TR: Back to your team in the 60s. I was looking at the records. Masaaki Koyama won the Sawamura in ’62, Murayama won it twice, you won it once, and Yutaka Enatsu won it once, and I think that was all in a 7 or 8-year span. Four different pitchers from the team won the Sawamura 5 times total. Definitely a pitchers’ paradise for Hanshin.
GB: To me, Hanshin goes for pitching more than they go for hitting. They go for defense and pitching. Now they need to get the same thing, but they need to get a few hitters that will score runs, or at least get guys on base. Didn’t they just have a big trade recently, or draft a bunch of guys?
TR: They picked up the biggest free agent of the last 5 years, Yoshio Itoi, who was playing with the Orix Buffaloes. The old Kintetsu team. He’s a big-name outfielder, and should bring some speed, a bit of power, and consistency in everything. Hopefully he’ll bring the team more success than they had in 2016.
GB: To me, the pitching wasn’t that bad, it’s just that they wouldn’t score. I don’t know what the pitchers’ ERAs are, but it was anywhere below 3, they should have won some games.
TR: I think we had the second best ERA in the Central League, but also among the fewest home runs, low average…
GB: Run production was bad.
TR: How much do you watch the current Tigers?
GB: Just what I get from you guys. But the other day I got a newspaper clipping of Arakawa and Oh. And of course they had to show that damn fight between me and Arakawa. I don’t care, but to me that’s past. They should try to forget that. I mean it was a big deal at the time, but that was in ’65! (Actually it was 1968.)
TR: But because it happens so seldom, it becomes a memorable moment in the game when it does happen. So you ended up moving to Kintetsu that offseason…
GB: I hurt my back. I would have probably stayed a couple more years, but when I had that surgery on my back, when I ruptured that disk. They wanted to sign me again for the same money. I said “I appreciate it, but I feel like I would be stealing your money. I don’t know if I can pitch again.” And every book my wife and I read, and she was a nurse, whatever you were doing when it happened, forget about it, don’t do it anymore. And I had my teaching degree, and I knew I could get a job the moment I came back over here. Which is what happened. I wasn’t getting paid like I was getting paid over there, though. When I got my first paycheck teaching school here, I said, “Oh no, they have made a mistake!” The principal grabbed my check and said, “That’s right.” So I said, “Oh, OK… they pay by the week.” And he said, “No, that’s for the whole month.” What I liked about Japan is that they paid in an envelope, all in cash. I loved that.
TR: They continued that even through my first few months here in Japan back in 1998. Of course now it’s auto-deposit. For me, it was really exciting to get that big fat envelope with all those bills…
GB: And I didn’t pay taxes either, Trevor. If I stayed 18 consecutive months, which I did when I stayed over for the winter, then I didn’t have to pay taxes over here. So everything I got there was tax-free, thank God. It was a blessing. Give me some more questions.
TR: You were teammates with Solomko. Who were some of the other import players that you had on the team. I think in your last year with Hanshin, the team had Willie Kirkland already?
GB: Oh yeah, Willie. He was the last guy that I played with over there. The first was Mike Solomko. Then they brought in three other guys. No, two other guys. Reno Bertoia, who was with Detroit, and Pete Burnside, a left handed pitcher. They only stayed a year. Maybe Pete stayed for two. Then there was a young guy, a third baseman by the name of Frank Jaciuk. I remember playing with him here in the States, we were all with the Detroit organization. Then after that, I was by myself for a year, and then that’s when they brought in Kirkland in my last year over there. Willie was playing right field.
TR: What was Willie like as a teammate?
GB: Fantastic. I mean, easy-going, wouldn’t bother him no matter what they said. He agreed. He was such a nice guy. With him, there was a guy who wasn’t worth a damn. Um, Weatherspoon was his last name. A black guy. Willie got on his case one day. He was the most racist guy, and Willie told him, “Hey! We’re the foreigners here! These are all Japanese!” Willie got on his ass about that. But he only lasted six or eight months, and then he was gone. Willie stayed about eight years after I left. He was a good ball player! He played ball with the Giants organization. He was in the outfield, if I’m not mistaken, with Willie Mays and Willie McCovey. He was a good player. Good arm, good power, I think he hit 20-25 home runs every year he was over there.
TR: Are you in touch with him at all now?
GB: No, I don’t hear from him. I have no idea. I know he lives in Detroit, but I don’t have any connection with him at all. A friend of mine that lives in Tampa Florida, he played with the Nishitetsu Lions. Carl Boles. He calls me up every now and then. And then some of the other guys. Jack Bloomfield (Kintetsu, Nankai), Joe Stanka (Nankai) and those guys. I keep in touch with them. But Pete Burnside, I have no idea what happened to him. Reno Bertoia, I don’t know. Frank Jaciuk, I have no idea. No.
TR: Woudln’t it be nice to get in touch with them, talk about old times?
GB: It would. But I have no idea where they are right now. Now Daryl Spencer, who played with the Hawks… my wife and his wife, even though we played in different leagues, they were good friends.
TR: If I remember right from Marty’s book, Spencer got kind of annoyed at the other teams’ pitchers, because they kept pitching around him, so he held his bat upside down in the batter’s box…
GB: He’d get pissed off. Yeah, I remember that. Other things we did… some of the things those gaijin did, they wouldn’t have done that here. They would have gotten thrown out of the game. One time, I thought the umpire was screwing me around. “That was a strike!” So I called the catcher over, I said “What’s the matter with him?” After about the second inning, I got the guy out, they threw the ball around the infield. As they were doing that, I picked up the rosin bag behind the mound, put it in my glove. Nobody knew I had the rosin bag when I got the ball. The catcher called for the pitch, and I wound up and I threw it, went over the hitter’s head, over the umpire’s head, and it hit the backstop. At first the umpire said “Dame yo!” I said, “Kore wa strike chigau yo. The other ones were strikes!” From then on, he would call a pitch that much outside a strike. I shook him up. I guess you could say I intimidated some of them. But that was the game. But I enjoyed it. I just had a good time.
TR: So you played in the 1964 Japan Series against Nankai, and Joe Stanka was on that team.
GB: He won the MVP. They gave him a car!
TR: And you won the Sawamura. You both had really good years. Now I read that Joe’s son passed away while they were in Kobe. Joe’s son was 15 years old.
GB: Oh that was sad. Back in the day, when you were in the shower and turned the water on, there was a coil. The fire would go on, the hot water would hit the coil, and it would really steam up. He was in there too long, and he suffocated. They went to check on him after awhile, and he was passed out. He died. That was sad. Oh my god. That was a real sad situation. At that time, I didn’t know them that well… I just knew about him.
TR: Tell me a little more about your time with the Buffaloes.
GB: I had a teammate, a pitcher named Suzuki. Whoa, was he ever a good pitcher. Left-hander. But the manager I had at the time… worst manager I had in my life. Mihara was his name. He’d pull a pitcher out in the third inning. He’d have them bunt in the first inning with the runner on first. I mean he did some of the most stupid things. And yet they all liked him. But he never won.
TR: Yeah, you were saying he pulled you out of one game, you were up 4-1, and it was the fifth inning and you had one more out before you get credit for the win, and he pulled you for no reason.
GB: Yeah, I had four innings pitched. I just needed one more inning. If I had pitched the fifth, and got them out, I’d have had the win, and it would have given me 101 wins instead of 100. What I was trying to do was beat Joe Stanka, because I knew Joe had 100, and I had 100. If I could have won that game, I would have had 101. But he took me out. I was pissed. And the reporters knew I was pissed. I told him off to the reporters. I shouldn’t have done that. He was terrible, though. But that’s baseball.
TR: Yeah, you’re not going to win with every manager, right? Speaking of which, who was your manager when you were with Hanshin?
GB: The whole time I was there, it was Fujimoto. His nickname was Tanuki. He looked like a raccoon, I guess. I don’t know where they got that. It wasn’t me. It was Koyama and Yoshida. Not to his face, they wouldn’t call him that, mind you. Koyama always taught me bad words.
TR: Koyama got traded for Yamauchi though, right?
GB: Yeah, Mike and Koyama went to the Daimai Orions, and then we got Yamauchi and I think there was a third baseman, but he wasn’t that good. I think they caught him throwing games. Like one when I was pitching, and a grounder came to him, and he didn’t throw it right away. Anyways the coach called him on it after the game, and I think they fired him after that. They let him go. I don’t even remember the guy’s name. Well Yamauchi was a good home run hitter. But they shouldn’t have traded Mike Solomko, he hit 22 home runs that season.
TR: It seems to me, there was some kind of issue between Koyama and management…
GB: Yeah, Koyama and the general manager at the time, guy by the name of Tozawa, they didn’t get along. For some reason. I don’t know why. That was part of the reason for the trade.
TR: Well Gene, it was nice talking with you again. Hope we can do this again sometime.
GB: Call me anytime, Trevor. You got a few minutes to kill, you call me up. I love talking with you.