Japanese baseball hero Murakami still sees Fresno as second home

For Masanori Murakami, Fresno is more than just another spot on the map — it has special meaning as a home away from home.

That showed when he made it a priority to stop by Sanger Cemetery on Wednesday and pay his respects to Kyoto and Fumi Saiki and their son Howard. The Saikis, along with the Osaka family, hosted Murakami during his time as a professional ballplayer in Fresno in summer 1964.

“Japan is my first home,” Murakami said through a translator, “but Fresno will always be my second home.”

After visiting the burial site, a small luncheon was held at the home of Janis Saiki, the Saikis’ daughter.

There they caught up and recalled stories of their times together, a side benefit of Murakami’s stop on a book-signing tour with Robert Fitts, author of “Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, Japan’s First Major Leaguer.”

About 300 people gathered later for a forum at the Fresno Buddhist Temple, where they saw a film on Japanese baseball history and heard stories from Murakami’s playing days.

Rick Walker was in attendance and remembers at age 12 playing catch with then-19 “lean and buff” Murakami in the yard. Murakami threw a curveball that broke so hard, Walker says, it started at his shoulders before dropping down to his ankles.

“I was stunned,” Walker said, “and Mashi was just standing there laughing.”

After that, he would watch Murakami play with the Fresno Giants at John Euless Park. How was Walker to know that two short months later, Murakami would make major league history.

“I didn’t connect the dots,” Walker said. “To me he was just a kid from Japan.”

Murakami joined the San Francisco Giants but didn’t play long in the majors, forced to return to Japan in 1966 under terms of his contract. To this day, Murakami says his biggest regret is not staying to play longer in the U.S.

Thirty years would pass before another Japanese-born player reached the big leagues: Hideo Nomo with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995.

Murakami and Nomo, the panelists reminded, were just two of the more recent figures in a rich baseball tradition among Japanese-Americans that dates to the early 1900s, when Nisei (first-generation Japanese) leagues began popping up across the Western U.S.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan in 1941, the internment of those of Japanese ancestry in America followed. Historian Kerry Yo Nakagawa believes that if that had not happened, a Japanese-American might have broken into the majors even before Jackie Robinson smashed baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

“They had the tools and talent,” Nakagawa said, “but not the opportunity.”

Baseball thrived in the internment camps. It was glue for a group of people that had little else in the way of entertainment.

“It was the only thing we could do,” said forum panelist Satoshi “Fibber” Hirayama, who was kept at the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona.

Once released, Hirayama and other Japanese-Americans such as Kenshi and Howard Zenimura starred first at Fresno State College. Within a few years, Hirayama and Bulldogs teammate Kenshi Zenimura became the first Japanese-Americans to play in Japan’s professional league.

Murakami’s arrival in Fresno and rise to the majors topped it all. He debuted with the Giants on Sept. 1, 1964, at Shea Stadium — home of the New York Mets.

“I was so proud,” Hirayama said. “(Murakami) was a phenomenon. After him, things started opening up.”

Angel Moreno: 559-441-6401, @anhelllll