In a move unprecedented in Japanese baseball’s long history, players from Oklahoma and Venezuela were inducted into the country’s Baseball Hall of Fame on Wednesday. For the recruits, Randy Bass and Alex Ramirez, this event was 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 blond 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 hit 2,000 hits in his NPB career, reaching the coveted goal 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 just six seasons in the NPB but made an indelible mark on the game there. “I am just grateful to the Hanshin Organization that despite the way it ended, after all these years, they still consider me as family and I am sure this honor would not be possible without their support.”
The path to Bass and Ramirez’s election was complicated by Japan’s baseball system that was, at times, harsh on players born outside the country, especially those without Japanese heritage.
Brought to Japan in the late 1800s, the sport thrived on an amateur level until a professional league was formed in 1936. The Japan 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 the development of the sport there and those who excelled at it at the NPB
But to date, the only player inducted who does not have Japanese heritage is Viktor Starvin, a Russian pitcher who was the first to win 300 bouts in Japan. Fleeing the Russian Revolution through Siberia, the Starfin family finds refuge in the countryside of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. He was signed by Matsutaro Shuriki as a teenager to play as an original member of his team, now known as the Yomiuri Giants, when the AFL formed in 1936.
Starffin was Japan’s first recruit to the player class, in 1960.
Lefty O’Doul, a native of California, was dedicated in 2002 to aiding the early development of the Japanese professional game and a year later, Mainer Horace Wilson entered Japan as the “Father of Baseball,” credited with being the first to teach the game in 1872.
Despite this, O’Doul and Wilson were elected as builders, making Starffin the only foreign-born player to receive the induction without Japanese heritage. This is a key distinction because most of the early foreign players were second or third generation Japanese from Hawaii. Two of those players, Tadashi Wakabayashi and Eli Yonamin, are inducted into the Hall of Famers.
Over the years, more than 1,000 foreign players without Japanese heritage have played professionally in this country, but until this week, Starffin stood alone in the Hall of Fame.
“It’s good to see Japan opening up and maybe they’re just a little bit 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 shown when prestigious records were at stake — it had an effect on people here in terms of fairness and the way foreign men should be treated.”
Bass’ plight comes first in Koineert’s commentary. Drafted by the Minnesota Twins, Bass played for five MLB teams from 1977 to 1982, but immediately broke out as a star after signing with Hanshin for the 1983 season. He led the Central League in 10 different offensive categories during his first four seasons, including the Triple Crown categories — batting average, home runs and RBI — in both 1985 and 1986.
For all his accomplishments, though, Bass is often remembered for the feat he didn’t: Sadaharu Oh’s record 55 home runs in a single season. Bass had 54 with two games remaining in 1985. But the Giants, led by Oh, rejected his challenge, walking him six times in their final eight games of the season.
The record was eventually dropped by another foreigner, Vladimir Ballentine of Curaçao, who did it with Yakult Swallows in 2013. Ballentine hit 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 the record.
However, Bass’s rising career was halted when he left Hanshin during the 1988 season to care for his 8-year-old son upon the discovery of a brain tumor. Attitudes in Japan at the time prioritized action above all else, and the Tigers eventually released Bass. 321 at the time, but even so, no other team challenged Hanshin to sign him and his career in Japan ended abruptly at the age of 34.
Despite these adversities from management and adversaries, Bass won over audiences with his tenacity and lack of empathy. He remains highly respected and popular 35 years later.
His reaction to the news of his agitation, in which he shared the credit with the team he cut off, showed humility. But Kunnert was more than happy to prove that Bass earned everything he got.
“Yeah, he only played six seasons in Japan,” Kuhnert said. “But his career is sort of like Sandy Koufax’s—short but spectacular. He’s the fastest 200-home run hit in Japanese history, still holds the single-season career-high of . 389 in 1986, and is one of only three players to claim back-to-back Triple Crowns and the other two already.”
Alex Ramirez’s story was completely different. Originally signed by Cleveland as a 16-year-old amateur free agent in 1991, he was seen as a talented hitter who did not have a defensive position. He played parts of three MLB seasons before signing with Yakult for the 2001 season, beginning what would become 13 years in Japan.
Ramirez said it was his great fortune to have baseball player, Charlie Manuel, coach and hitting director for the Cleveland organization. Manuel himself starred in Japan for six seasons, partnering Oh from 1977 to 1980 – 166 to 152 – despite playing 53 fewer matches.
“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 this was for players who are on the verge of retirement. He said, “No, no, with your hitting ability, you’re going to play every day there and you’re going to stay for a long time.” He was right and I am so grateful to Charlie for encouraging me to go.”
“Rami Chan,” as he is known in Japan, retired in 2013 with a 2017 song. With nearly 20 fewer games played in an MLB season, Japan holds 2,000 games with a reverence similar to the 3,000 in America. As the only foreigner to reach the mark, Ramirez was voted out by the writers into his fourth year of eligibility; Bass was elected by a special committee.
Both Bass and Ramirez hope their honor will open the door for other foreigners to be inducted into the Japan Hall of Fame. Among those mentioned were Americans Carl Rhodes (known to many as Tuffy), whose 464 home runs over 13 seasons are the most by a foreigner, and Leron Lee, who was an outstanding hitter over 11 seasons in Japan and whose . 320 batting average remains the highest lifetime mark in NPB history.