Early 1950s Japanese publication featuring Jackie Robinson. (Author’s collection)
There was a saying in Japan during the late 1950s: Kamisama, Hotokesama, Inaosama (God, Buddha, Inao). The 19-year-old Kazuhisa Inao was out there on the mound. The kid wasn’t that big, at least not by American standards – about 5-foot-9, 185 pounds. But he was strong – and fast. Stories claimed that his strength came from hauling nets on his father’s fishing boat from the time he was a young boy. Only a year earlier, he had been pitching for his high school and now had just completed his rookie season with the Nishitetsu Lions, winning 21 games and posting a league-leading 1.06 ERA.
Jackie Robinson strode to the plate, his familiar blue cap covering a head speckled with gray. At 38 he was thicker and moved slower than he had during his prime. But he was still the star, the reason many of the 12,000 Japanese fans had come out to Fukuoka Stadium on this cloudy Saturday in mid-November of 1956.
It was the final game of a long tour of Japan and an even longer, grueling season. The Dodgers had played 183 games since April; 154 during the regular season, 7 in the World Series, 3 in Hawaii, and another 19 in Japan. All season they had battled the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds, winning the pennant by a single game on the last day of the season. For the second consecutive season and the sixth time in the past 10 years, the Dodgers had faced the Yankees in the World Series. The series went to seven games, ending with a 9-0 Yankees victory in the finale.
The morning after the devasting loss, the Dodgers straggled into Idlewild Airport in Jamaica, Queens, to begin a four-week tour of Japan. The subdued party of 60 consisted of club officials, players, family members, and an umpire. Although participation was voluntary, most of the team’s top players had decided to take advantage of the $3,000 bonus that came with the all-expenses-paid trip.1
After a one-day stopover in Los Angeles, the Dodgers spent five days in Hawaii, attending banquets, sightseeing, sunbathing on Waikiki Beach, and playing three games against local semipro teams, before bordering an overnight flight for Japan on October 17. They arrived in Tokyo at 3:25 P.M. the following day, five hours behind schedule after mechanical trouble forced a seemingly endless stopover on Wake Island. “Man, we’re beat,” Robinson complained as he left the plane. “We were on the plane, off the plane, on the plane, off the plane.” “We are all very tired,” Duke Snider added, “but we’re glad to be here. If we have a chance to shower and clean up, we’ll feel much better.”2
Japanese dignitaries and 40 kimono-clad actresses bearing bouquets of flowers welcomed the Dodgers as a crowd of fans waved from the airport’s spectator ramp. During a brief press conference, Walter O’Malley proclaimed that “his players would play their best … and hoped that the visit would contribute to Japanese-American friendship.” “We hope to give the Japanese fans some thrills,” said Robinson.3
Despite the delay and relentless drizzle, thousands of flag-waving fans lined the 12-mile route from Haneda Airport to downtown Tokyo, where the Dodgers stopped by the Yomiuri newspaper headquarters before checking into the Imperial Hotel. A few hours later, they were out again. Yomiuri hosted a welcoming banquet at the Chinzanso Restaurant followed by “a giddy round of parties.” Many players staggered beck to the hotel in the wee hours of the morning.4
Exhausted from the trip and the late night, the players struggled to get out of bed the next morning for a game against the Yomiuri Giants at Korakuen Stadium. The opening ceremonies began at 1 P.M. with the two teams parading onto the field in parallel lines behind a pair of young women clad in fashionable business suits. Each woman held a large sign topped with balloons, bearing the team’s name in Japanese. The players lined up on the foul line for introductions before Matsutaro Shoriki, the owner of the Yomiuri newspaper and father of professional baseball in Japan, threw out the first pitch.
The Giants jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead, but Brooklyn battled back to take the lead in the fourth on five hits, including homers by Robinson and Gil Hodges. But that would be all for Brooklyn as relief pitcher Takumi Otomo stifled the Dodgers on 10 strikeouts. Homers by Kazuhiko Sakazaki and Tetsuharu Kawakami in the eighth gave Yomiuri the upset victory. Since the major-league tours began in 1908, the game was just the third defeat by a Japanese team against 139 wins. (The other losses came in 1921 and 1950.) After the loss, manager Walt Alston made no excuses, “They just beat us. They hit and we didn’t.” “We’ll snap out of it,” predicted Robinson. Pee Wee Reese agreed, “We don’t expect to lose any more. But,” he added, “we didn’t expect to lose this one either.”5
As predicted, the Dodgers bounced back the next day, winning 7-1 behind Roy Campanella’s two home runs.6 But the next afternoon, 45,000 fans watched the All-Japan team – a conglomeration of the top Japanese professionals – send Dodger ace Don Newcombe to the showers after just 17 pitches as the Japanese scored four in the first en route to an easy 6-1 victory.7
The Dodgers’ malaise continued in Game Four against the Yomiuri Giants. Twenty-year-old Sho Horiuchi shut out the visitors for six innings before the Giants ace Takehiko Bessho took over with another two scoreless innings. Meanwhile Carl Erskine dominated the Giants, scattering just three hits. In the top of the ninth, Duke Snider homered off Bessho to salvage a 1-0 victory.8 “The Dodgers’ ‘old men’ are tired,” noted Bob Bowie of the Pacific Stars and Stripes. “Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson and Gil Hodges and Duke Snider and Roy Campanella are so weary it’s an effort for them to put one foot before another. It’s been a long season and they are anxious to get back home and relax before heading for spring training in February.”9
Indeed, the “Boys of Summer” were aging. The core of the team had been together nearly a decade. The starting lineup averaged 32 years old with Robinson and Reese both 37. Their weariness showed on the playing field. After four games, the team was hitting just .227 against Japanese pitching. Robinson was batting a respectable .250 but had not yet thrilled the fans with a stolen base while Reese, at .091, was stuck in a rut.
Both management and fans knew it was time to consider changes. The team had plenty of young talent. At the top of the list were power hitters Don Demeter, who hit 41 home runs in 1956 for the Texas League Fort Worth Cats, and his teammate first baseman Jim Gentile who hit 40. Outfielder Gino Cimoli had ridden Brooklyn’s bench in 1956 and was now ready for a more substantial role. Smooth-fielding Bob Lillis from the Triple-A affiliate in St. Paul seemed to be Reese’s heir at shortstop while his teammate Bert Hamric would fight for a role in team’s crowded outfield. On the mound, knuckleballer Fred Kipp had just won 20 games for the Montreal Royals and looked ready to join Brooklyn’s rotation. The tour of Japan was an ideal chance try out these players. As the tour progressed, Alston moved the prospects into the starting lineups.
In Game Five, held in Sendai, Alston gave Kipp the start and backed him up with Gentile at first, Demeter in center and Cimoli in left. For seven innings Kipp baffled the Japanese with his knuckleball – a pitch rarely used in the Japanese leagues, while the hurler’s fellow rookies racked up five hits during an easy 8-0 win.10
Another rookie, future Hall of Famer Don Drysdale, started Game Six in Mita, a small city about 60 miles northeast of Tokyo. For seven innings the promising young pitcher dominated the Japanese, before the Japanese erupted for three runs in the bottom of the eighth inning, breaking a streak of 29 straight shutout innings by Dodger pitching. With the scored tied, 3-3, after nine innings, the Dodgers requested that they end the game in a tie so that the team could catch their scheduled train back to Tokyo.11 Although it was not a win, the Pacific Stars and Stripes called the result “a moral victory for Japanese baseball.”12 After six contests, the National League champions were 3-2-1 – the worst record of any visiting American professional squad.
Criticism came from both sides of Pacific. The Associated Press reported that “most Japanese fans have been disappointed in the caliber of ball played so far by the Brooklyns.”13 “The Dodgers are known for their fighting spirit,” noted radio quiz-show host Ko Fujiwara, “but they have shown little spirit in the games here thus far.”14 Masao Yuasa, the former manager of the Mainichi Orions, complained, “They are even weaker than was rumored … and we are very disappointed to say the least. It would not be an overstatement to say that we no longer have anything to learn from the Dodgers.”15
The US media picked up these criticisms, reprinting the stories in large and small newspapers across the country. “Japanese Baseball Expert Hints Brooks Are Bums,” screamed a headline in New York’s Daily News on October 23.16 Three days later, a Daily News headline noted, “Bums ‘Too Dignified, Say Japanese Hosts.” The accompanying article explained that some Japanese experts believed that the Dodgers were “too quiet and dignified on the playing field … and … were acting like they were all trying to win good conduct medals” rather than playing hard-nosed baseball.17
Despite the team’s poor start, about 150,000 spectators attended the first five games while hundreds of thousands more, if not millions, watched the games on television or listened to them on the radio.18 All of the sports dailies and many of the mainstream newspapers covered each game in detail – often including exclusive interviews and pictorial spreads of the players.
Many features focused on Jackie Robinson – revered in Japan for both his aggressive style of play as well as his historic role in integrating the major leagues. “Japanese fans want to see Robinson steal bases and steal home,” noted Tetsu Yamaguchi of the Pacific Stars and Stripes.19 Robinson appeared on the covers of magazines and in full-page newspaper pictorials. A shot of an airborne Robinson as he turned a double play dominated the cover of a 16-by-11-inch, eight-page booklet on the Dodgers tour inserted into the October 19 issue of the Yomiuri newspaper. At the ballparks, he often “received the biggest ovation when he was introduced during the pre-game ceremonies.”20
Even in Japan, Robinson was more than just a ballplayer. Prior to the trip, a governmental official told him, “Your own presence in Japan will make a contribution [to international diplomacy], the value of which cannot be estimated.”21 During the tour, Jackie met with officials and diplomats and even spoke about race relations in the United States at Tokyo’s American School. “I hope,” he told the audience, “people will look back at the success in baseball [integration] and realize that what can happen in baseball can happen anywhere.”22
Perhaps sparked by the ongoing criticism, perhaps finally rested, the Dodgers began winning in late October as the rookies led the way. On October 27 in Kofu, Gentile hit two home runs and Demeter and Cimoli each hit one out during a 12-1 romp over an all-star squad of players drawn from the Tokyo-area professional teams. The following day Gentile went 5-for-5 with another home run as the Dodgers beat All-Japan 6-3 in Utsunomiya. On October 31 Kipp pitched two-hit ball and Gentile and Demeter each homered to pace Brooklyn to a 4-2 win over All-Japan. During these games the players began showing a little fighting spirit. Somehow, they learned the Japanese word “mekura,” meaning “blind,” and began shouting it at the umpire after questionable calls.23
On the evening of October 31, the team arrived in Hiroshima. The next morning the Dodgers visited the Peace Park and in a solemn ceremony before the start of the 2 P.M. game, presented a bronze plaque reading: “We dedicate this visit in memory of those baseball fans and others who died by atomic action on Aug. 6, 1945. May their souls rest in peace and with God’s help and man’s resolution peace will prevail forever, amen.”24
The emotion from the morning boiled over during the game against the Kansai All Stars. In the bottom of the third inning with the Japanese already up 1-0 and one out and a runner on second, future Hall of Fame umpire Jocko Conlon called Kohei Sugiyama safe at first on what looked to be a groundout. Incensed, Jackie Robinson walked over to first to protest the call. “Everybody knew Jocko had missed the play because he was in back of the plate and couldn’t see clearly,” Robinson explained.25 Conlon, of course, did not reverse his decision so Robinson persisted, eventually arguing “so loud and so long” that Conlon tossed him from the game. “I never told him how to play ball,” Conlon said after the game, “and he, or anybody else, can’t tell me how to run a ball game.”26 Kansai would pad its lead to 4-1 before Brooklyn tied the game in the sixth on Roy Campanella’s three-run homer and went ahead in the seventh on a steal of home by Gilliam and another home run by Gentile.27
After the Dodgers won 14-0 on November 2, the Japanese squads rebounded. On the 4th the Dodgers and the All-Japan team entered the eighth inning knotted 7-7 before Brooklyn erupted for another seven to win 14-7. The following day, Japanese aces Takehiko Bessho and Masaichi Kaneda held the Dodgers to just one run for eight innings as the hosts entered the ninth winning 2-1. The Dodgers rallied in the ninth as Snider led off with a 480-foot home run to tie the game. Two outs later with the bases loaded, Robinson tried to steal the lead with a surprise two-out squeeze play. But Jackie missed the bunt and Demeter was tagged out on his way to the plate. In the bottom of the inning, Tetsuharu Kawakami, the hero of the opening game, came through again with a bases-loaded single to win the game.28
After a day of rain, the Dodgers squeaked out a 3-2 win over the All-Japan squad in Nagoya. Gil Hodges, however, stole the headlines. Alston started the normally staid first baseman in left field and to keep himself amused Hodges “pantomimed the action after almost every play for five innings. He mimicked the pitcher and the ball’s flight through the air, the catcher and the umpire. When a Dodger errored, Hodges glowered and pointed his finger. He made his legs quiver, shook his fist, stamped on the ground, swung his arms, frowned and smiled in the fleeting instant between pitches.” The fans loved it, cheering him so loudly as he left the game in the eighth inning that “(y) ou would have thought it was Babe Ruth leaving.”29
During the game, Jackie Robinson entertained a special guest. Twenty-three-year-old Shigeyuki Ishikawa had been writing fan letters to the Dodgers for five years in an effort to improve his English. The team’s front office read and responded to each of his 24 “adoring letters and notes of advice.” Robinson invited the Nagoya native to sit with the team during the game even through spectators were usually barred from the dugout. “We’ve got to get him in or it will destroy his confidence in us,” argued Robinson. “Baseball is built on guys like him.”30
Robinson was enjoying Japan and the Japanese people. Rachel Robinson told her husband’s biographer Arnold Rampersad, “What was unusual about Jack in Japan was that he tried new things eagerly, which was not always the case at home. There he was, dressing up in kimonos, trying gamely to eat all kinds of unfamiliar food. We had a lot of fun watching the geisha girls try to make him comfortable, because he literally could not sit down with his legs out, his leg muscles were so tight and large. But he tried; he was in high spirits most of the time. I think he saw the tour of Japan as a culmination of his Dodger career, especially after the World Series victory the year before. I think he knew the end was in sight.31
The Dodgers and All-Japan met again on November 8 at Shizuoka, a small town at the foot of Mount Fuji, where 22 years earlier, 17-year-old Eiji Sawamura no-hit Babe Ruth and the All-Americans for five innings before losing 1-0 on Lou Gehrig’s seventh-inning home run. Once again, the Japanese team thrilled the fans of Shizuoka, this time breaking a 2-2 tie in the bottom of the ninth for a walk-off victory.32 With their fourth loss, criticism of the Dodgers’ performance continued. An International News Service article headlined, “Fans Debate Reasons for Dodger Losses” asked, “Are Japanese baseball teams improving, major leaguers getting careless or the Brooklyn Dodgers just getting old?”33
A day later, the Dodgers returned to Tokyo for a rematch with their hosts the Yomiuri Giants. Once again the game was tight. With the score tied, 2-2, Gilliam led off the bottom of the 11th with a single and two outs later stood on second base as Robinson strode to the plate. Robinson had not hit well during the tour. He had started slowly, hitting just .214 (3-for-14) after the sixth game, but he had improved to .278 (10-for-36) with just one home run and no stolen bases at the start of the game against the Giants. So far that night, he had walked and scored a run but otherwise had been hitless in three at-bats.
On the mound Takehiko Bessho stared in for the sign. Bessho had been one of Japan’s top pitchers since his debut as a 19-year-old in 1942. Unlike many Japanese pitchers, who nibbled at the corners of the plate with pinpoint control, Bessho was aggressive, coming straight after hitters with a blazing fastball and biting curve.
Catcher Shigeru Fujio flashed the sign for an intentional walk. Bessho shook his head. The catcher trotted out to the mound to explain that the order came from manager Shigeru Mizuhara. Bessho refused, sending Fujio running to the dugout to relay the pitcher’s message. After “a hurried conference with the manager, the catcher dashed back to the mound.” Bessho still refused. A reluctant Fujio moved back behind the plate.34
Jackie jumped on Bessho’s first pitch, pounding it foul “far over the left-field stands.” On the next offering, he “drove a hot grounder through the pitcher’s box,” bringing Gilliam home to win the game.35 The win seemed to energize both the Dodgers and Robinson. They won the next two games easily, 8-2 and 10-2, as Jackie went 2-for-5 with two runs and two RBIs. After the game in Tokyo on November 12, the Dodgers flew to the southern city of Fukuoka to make up a game that had been rained out on October 30.
Fittingly, the final meeting of the 19-game series was tight. Kazuhisa Inao and Kipp dueled for eight innings, each surrendering one run. The score remained tied as Duke Snider led off the top of the 11th with a groundball to first, which the usually sure-handed Tokuji Iida muffed, allowing Snyder to advance to third base.
Robinson strode to the plate – unknowingly for the last time in his professional career – and readied himself for Kazuhisa Inao’s pitch. Jackie swung, grounding a single between third and short to score Snider and give the Dodgers the lead. After two outs and a walk, Don Demeter singled and Robinson crossed home plate for the final time. Immediately after the 3-1 victory, the Dodgers flew back to Tokyo and after a day of rest, returned to the United States. Within a month, Robinson decided to leave baseball.
Back in the United States, Robinson praised the Japanese as ballplayers and hosts. He told reporters that he was “dead tired” but he “enjoyed every minute of the trip.” “The All-Japan team would do quite well in the Pacific Coast League. … (T)hey have good control pitching and they know how to pitch.” The Japanese people “did everything pleasantly and went all out to make things comfortable and pleasant for us.”36
“I know I gave it all I had over there,” he told The Sporting News. “And I think that goes for every Dodger player. We lost more games than the Yankees, but if our record in Japan suffers by comparison with theirs, I think the credit should go to the Japanese for their big improvement in all-round play and baseball techniques. I looked at some pretty good pitching over there. In fact, it amazed me.”37
Jackie’s brief visit to the Land of the Rising Sun left a lasting impression. United States ambassador John M. Allison thanked him for “what you have done while in this country,” noting that his “magnificent sportsmanship” helped strengthen the ties “between the people of Japan and the people of America.”38
A former archaeologist with a Ph.D. from Brown University, ROB FITTS left academia behind to follow his passion – Japanese Baseball. He is an award-win- ning author and speaker, and his articles have appeared in numerous magazines and websites. He is the author of seven books on Japanese baseball: The Pioneers of Japanese American Baseball (2021); Issei Baseball: The Story of the First Japanese American Ballplayers (2020); An Illustrated Introduction to Japanese Baseball Cards (2020); Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major Leaguer (2015); Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, & Assassination During the 1934 Tour of Japan (2012); Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball (2008); and Remembering Japanese Baseball: An Oral History of the Game (2005). Fitts is the founder of the Society for American Baseball Research’s Asian Baseball Committee. His honors include SABR’s 2013 Seymour Medal for Best Baseball Book of 2012; the 2019 McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award; the 2012 Doug Pappas Award; and the 2006 Sporting News-SABR Research Award. He has also been a finalist for the Casey Award for best baseball book of the year in both 2012 and 2020, and a silver medalist at the Independent Publish Book Awards. You can learn more about Rob’s books and current projects at www. RobFitts.com.
1 “All Dodgers’ O’Malley Gets Is Ride,” New York Daily News, October 13, 1956: 36.
2 Associated Press, “Bums Arrive in Tokyo,” Herald-News (Passaic, New Jersey), October 18, 1956: 46.
3 “Japanese Fans Defy Rain to Hail Dodgers,” New York Daily News, October 19, 1956: 155.
4 Vin Scully, “The Dodgers in Japan,” Sport, April 1957: 92; Bob Bowie, “Actresses, Flowers, Cheers Welcome Tourists to Tokyo,” The Sporting News, October 24, 1956: 9.
5 SP3 Mel Derrick, “Alston Explains ‘They Hit, and We Didn’t,’” Pacific Stars and Stripes, October 20, 1956: 23.
6 Bob Bowie, “Dodgers Belt Central Loop Stars 7-1,” Pacific Stars and Stripes, October 21, 1956: 23; Japan Times, October 21, 1956.
7 Bob Bowie, “All-Stars Rout Brooks 6-1,” Pacific Stars and Stripes, October 22, 1956: 23-24.
8 United Press, “Brooks Nip Giants 1-0 on Snider’s Home Run,” Pacific Stars and Stripes, October 24, 1956: 24.
9 Associated Press, “Sportscaster Disagrees with Yuasa, Japanese ‘Can Learn from Brooks,’” Pacific Stars and Stripes, October 24, 1956: 22.
10 “Brooks Whitewash All-Kanto Nine, 8-0,” Japan Times, October 25, 1956: 8.
11 Associated Press, “Kanto All-Stars Tie Dodgers 3-3,” Pacific Stars and Stripes, October 27, 1956: 24.
https://sabr.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/research-collection4_350x300.jpg300350sabr/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/sabr_logo.pngsabr2021-12-21 14:20:022021-12-21 14:23:32Sayonara Jackie Robinson: How An American Hero Finished His Career In Japan