Masanori “Mashi” Murakami (wearing suit) celebrated the 50th anniversary of his Major League Baseball debut at San Francisco’s AT&T Park during Japanese American Heritage Night in 2014. He was joined by Kerry Yo Nakagawa of the Nisei Baseball Research Project.
SAN FRANCISCO — Did you know that baseball is both a national pastime and the number one sport in Japan? And that in 1964, the first Japanese to play Major League Baseball was Masanori Murakami?
“Diamond Diplomacy,” a new documentary now in production, is about U.S.-Japan relations through a shared love of baseball. It looks at how sports, although generally competitive, can build bridges and foster friendships internationally.
Masanori Murakami and his grandson at AT&T Park.
The film reveals a never-before-told story of how Babe Ruth, Lefty O’Doul, “Mashi” Murakami and Hideo Nomo – among other baseball players – became and continue to serve as influential ambassadors in their respective countries and beyond.
The story of baseball in Japan begins in 1872 during the Meiji westernization, when Civil War veteran Horace Wilson packs a bat and a ball into his steamer trunk and heads for Japan. More dramatic are the conflicts and resolutions surrounding World War II, when the two nations find common ground in their shared passion for the game.
On the diplomatic front, the ever-popular Ruth raises spirits during the 1934 U.S. Goodwill Tour, but these efforts fail to forestall war. While baseball and all things American are halted in Japan during the war, soon after, unofficial baseball ambassador O’Doul and Cappy Harada, a Japanese American lieutenant in the U.S. Occupation Forces, are called upon by Gen. Douglas MacArthur to implement the 1949 San Francisco Seals Goodwill Tour.
Filmmaker Yuriko Gamo Romer with the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Kenta Maeda.
Barely a generation post-World War II, a young Murakami becomes the first Japanese Major League Baseball player almost by accident. A contract dispute ensues over the second season and begins a 30-year standoff between the professional baseball associations of Japan and the U.S.
In 1995, Nomo finds a controversial loophole and signs with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He becomes the second Japanese major leaguer and opens the door for the now steady stream of players from Japan. The filmmakers note that among the final eight Major League Baseball post-season teams this year, there are four players from Japan.
In order to start the next phase of film production, public, corporate and individual support is needed. For more information, go to www.kickstarter.com/projects/bestrong/diamond-diplomacy. This Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign has been timed with the climax of baseball season and runs through Nov. 4.
The “Japan Wall” at Lefty O’Doul’s in San Francisco is covered with U.S.-Japan baseball photos, including one of Wally Yonamine. The 1949 San Francisco Seals Tour and Babe Ruth with the 1934 tour are also represented on the wall.
In conjunction with the campaign, baseball lovers and history buffs attended a free party on Oct. 17 at Lefty O’Doul’s Bar & Restaurant in San Francisco, where a sign welcomes Japanese visitors..
The director of “Diamond Diplomacy” is Yuriko Gamo Romer, whose most recent film, “Mrs. Judo: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful,” has traveled to more than 25 film festivals internationally, received the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary at the 2013 International Festival of Sport Films in Moscow, and was broadcast nationally on PBS. “Mrs. Judo” tells the story of Keiko Fukuda (1913-2013), the first woman to attain the 10th-degree black belt in judo.
Members of the Dempsey family — Con Jr., Mary Jane and Dave — at Lefty O’Doul’s in San Francisco. Con Dempsey, a pitcher for the San Francisco Seals, went to Japan on Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s postwar goodwill baseball tour and shot much of the 1949 archival film used in “Diamond Diplomacy.”
Based in San Francisco, Romer holds a master’s degree in documentary filmmaking from Stanford University and is a Student Academy Award winner for her film “Occidental Encounters.” Her other works include “Friend Ships,” a short historical animation about John Manjiro, the inadvertent Japanese immigrant rescued by an American whaling captain.
For more information about the film, go to www.DiamondDiplomacy.com.
Filmmaker Yuriko Gamo Romer points to a sign at Lefty O’Doul’s in San Francisco welcoming Japanese visitors. O’Doul has been inducted into the Japan Baseball Hall of Fame.