Japan’s Hall of Fame Goes Global With Induction of Foreign-Born Stars

In a move without precedent in Japan’s long baseball history, players from Oklahoma and Venezuela were inducted into the country’s Baseball Hall of Fame on Wednesday. For the inductees, Randy Bass and Alex Ramirez, the event was yet another in a long line of opportunities to exceed all expectations for players from the Americas in Nippon Professional Baseball.

Bass, famous in Japan for his blondish beard and back-to-back triple crowns, led the Hanshin Tigers to the franchise’s only championship in 1985. Ramirez, who struggled to get playing time in Major League Baseball, is the only foreigner to attain 2,000 hits in an N.P.B. career, reaching the coveted milestone in 2013 with the Yokohama DeNA BayStars.

“The Japanese Hall of Fame was never on my radar growing up in that little town of Lawton, Oklahoma,” said Bass, who played only six seasons in N.P.B. but made an indelible mark on the game there. “I’m just grateful to the Hanshin organization that despite the way it ended, all these years later, they still consider me like family and I’m sure this honor wouldn’t be possible without them supporting it.”

The road to election for Bass and Ramirez was complicated by a system of baseball in Japan that has, at times, been unkind to players born outside the country, particularly to those with no Japanese heritage.

The sport was brought to Japan in the late 1800s, flourishing at the amateur level until a pro league was formed in 1936. And the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame opened in 1959. Since then, more than 200 people have been elected to the Hall, including the people most responsible for developing the sport there and those who excelled at it in N.P.B.

Alex Ramirez, second from left, is the only foreign player in Nippon Professional Baseball to reach 2,000 hits.Credit…The Yomiuri Shimbun, via Associated Press

But until now, the only player inducted who had no Japanese heritage was Victor Starffin, who was the first pitcher to win 300 games in Japan. Starffin’s family fled the Russian Revolution through Siberia, finding refuge in rural Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. Matsutaro Shoriki signed him as a teenager to pitch as an original member of his team, now known as the Yomiuri Giants, when a pro league formed in 1936.

Starffin was Japan’s first inductee in the player category, in 1960.

Lefty O’Doul, a Californian, was enshrined in 2002 for his help with the early development of Japan’s pro game and a year later, the Mainer Horace Wilson went in as Japan’s “father of baseball,” credited with being the first to teach the game in 1872.

O’Doul and Wilson, though, were elected as builders, which had left Starffin as the only foreign-born player to gain induction with no Japanese heritage. That is a key distinction because early on most foreign players were second- or third-generation Japanese from Hawaii. Two such players, Tadashi Wakabayashi and Wally Yonamine, are Hall of Famers.

Over the years, more than 1,000 foreign players with no Japanese heritage have played professionally in that country, but until this week Starffin stood alone in the Hall of Fame.

“It’s nice to see Japan is opening up and perhaps they’re being a little fair now,” Marty Kuehnert, a longtime baseball and sports executive, said by phone from his home in Japan. “I think the way Ichiro was treated when he came to America in 2001 and was pitched to when prestigious records were on the line — that had an influence on people here about fairness and the way foreign guys should be treated.”

Bass’s plight is foremost in Kuehnert’s comment. Drafted by the Minnesota Twins, Bass, a journeyman first baseman, played for five M.L.B. teams from 1977 to 1982, but he immediately broke out as a star after signing with Hanshin for the 1983 season. He led the Central League in 10 different offensive categories over his first four seasons, including the triple crown categories — batting average, home runs and R.B.I. — in both 1985 and 1986. He was named the most valuable player in the regular season and the Japan Series in 1985.

For all his accomplishments, though, Bass is often remembered for the one he did not attain: Sadaharu Oh’s record of 55 home runs in a single season. Bass had 54 with two games left in 1985. But the Giants, managed by Oh, refused to challenge him, walking him six times in his final eight at-bats of the season.

The record was eventually toppled by another foreigner, Wladimir Balentien of Curaçao, who did it for the Yakult Swallows in 2013. Balentien reached 55 with 22 games left in the regular season, leaving opposing pitchers no choice but to challenge him. His total of 60 home runs stands as the record.

Bass had an unfortunate end to his time with Hanshin, but he and the team have reconciled in the years since his release.Credit…Kyodo, via Associated Press
Ramirez was encouraged to find stardom in Japan by Charlie Manuel, a baseball lifer who had also played there.Credit…Junko Kimura/Getty Images

Bass’s ascendant career, however, was cut short when he left Hanshin during the 1988 season to care for his 8-year-old son upon the discovery of a brain tumor (his son ultimately survived the tumor and now has a family of his own). Attitudes in Japan at the time prioritized work above all else and the Tigers eventually released Bass. He was hitting .321 at the time, but even so, no other team would defy Hanshin to sign him and his career in Japan ended abruptly at the age of 34.

Despite such adversity from management and opponents, Bass won fans over with his perseverance and lack of condescension. He has remained highly respected and wildly popular 35 years later.

His reaction to the news of his induction, in which he shared credit with the team that cut him, showed humility. But Kuehnert was more than happy to make the case that Bass earned everything he received.

“Yes, he played only six seasons in Japan,” Kuehnert said. “But his career is kind of like Sandy Koufax — short but spectacular. He’s the fastest to hit 200 home runs in Japan history, he still holds the highest single-season average of .389 in 1986, and he’s one of only three players to have back-to-back triple crowns and the other two are already in.”

Alex Ramirez had a far different story. Originally signed by Cleveland as a 16-year-old amateur free agent in 1991, he was regarded as a talented hitter who did not have a defensive position. He played parts of three M.L.B. seasons before signing with Yakult for the 2001 season, beginning what would become a 13-year career in Japan.

Ramirez said it was his great fortune to have a baseball lifer, Charlie Manuel, as his hitting coach and manager in the Cleveland organization. Manuel himself starred in Japan for six seasons, outhomering Oh from 1977 to 1980 — 166 to 152 — despite playing 53 fewer games.

“One day Charlie told me, ‘Alex, you’re a million-dollar player,’” Ramirez recalled. “‘But not in the States. Go to Japan.’” I said, ‘Japan? I thought that was for the players who are about to retire.’ He said, ‘No, no, with your ability to hit, you’ll get to play every day there and you’ll stay a long time.’ He was right and I’m so thankful to Charlie for encouraging me to go.”

“Rami chan,” as he is affectionately known in Japan, retired in 2013 with 2,017 hits. With roughly 20 fewer games in a season than in M.L.B., Japan embraces 2,000 hits with similar reverence to 3,000 in America. As the only foreigner to reach the mark, Ramirez was voted in by writers in his fourth year of eligibility; Bass had his eligibility with writers expire and was elected by a special committee.

Bass and Ramirez both hope their honor opens the door for other foreigners to gain entrance into Japan’s Hall of Fame. Among those they mentioned are the Americans Karl Rhodes (known by many as Tuffy), whose 464 home runs over 13 seasons are the most by a foreigner, and Leron Lee, who was a terrific hitter over an 11-season career in Japan and whose .320 batting average remains the highest lifetime mark in N.P.B. history.

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