Book Review – The Meaning of Ichiro

meaningichiroIt is hard to believe Robert Whiting waited 15 years after publishing the groundbreaking You Gotta Have Wa (1989), but with all the changes in professional baseball, The Meaning of Ichiro presents several new angles on the Japanese-American relationship as seen on and around the baseball field. Instead of looking at how Americans adjusted (or didn’t) to Japanese baseball, this number does the opposite. The book formerly known as The Samurai Way of Baseball shows us that this new age of baseball, one in which the Japanese game continues to gain ground on the American one, is just as exciting — and controversial — as ages past.

The book starts with a look at Ichiro’s childhood and baseball training, conducted largely by his father, and then his transition to the major leagues. Before Ichiro made his big splash in 2001, another pioneer of Japanese ball players moved to America. The man who put Japanese baseball on the map was Hideo Nomo, and Whiting covers his story just as thoroughly as Ichiro’s. From Nomo’s personality on-field exploits to the hype surrounding his debut in America, the reader can easily get a good idea of what both Japan and America were like in the mid 1990s.

Sandwiched between these two segments is a look at the history of baseball in Japan. It is not vastly different from what Wa has to say, but it is also not a copy-paste job, so it is an enjoyable read. It goes into a little more detail about the effect US teams’ tours of Japan had on the popularity of the game. Furthermore, it talks about how the first Japanese player to play in the majors (Masanori Murakami) got caught in the middle of a cultural misunderstanding about the interpretation of contracts. Quite eye-opening.

One particularly fascinating chapter covered the troubled lives of two “half” (biracial) players. Neither of these men’s stories is very well covered elsewhere (to the best of my knowledge), and neither could have been more emotionally heart-rending. Don Nomura, now a famous player agent, and the late Hideki Irabu, of New York Yankees infamy, have their stories told in ways that will help you appreciate the struggles that “impure” Japanese faced.

Other chapters talk about some of the alleged racism and discrimination that players experienced in Japan (such as the seeming unwillingness of Sadaharu Oh and all of NPB to have his hallowed home run record broken by Randy Bass, Tuffy Rhodes, Alex Ramirez and others). Also, Whiting gives more attention to the experiences of foreign managers like Don “Blazer” Blasingame and Bobby Valentine.

The penultimate chapter looks at some of the less hyped names that made their way to the USA in the late 1990s and early 2000s: Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Masato Yoshii, Tomokazu Ohka, Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Kazuhisa Ishii. Each has his own interesting story, and Whiting retells them with aplomb and give you an appreciation for the bravery (and at times naievety) of these men.

It could be said that Hideki Matsui (Yomiuri Giants, New York Yankees) was the first player to leave a “dream job” to test his skills in America. All others played for lesser-known brand names in Japan, and while they also sometimes went to small-time MLB teams, the glory they left paled in comparison with Matsui’s. The book’s last chapter follows him from his youth through his years with the Yankees.

Overall, Whiting caps his trilogy well. If you have read the first two books – before Wa is The Chrysanthemum and the Bat (1977) – this is a must-read. Perhaps if you are an MLB fan first and foremost, this will be the best of the three. Regardless, when it comes to reading about Japanese baseball history, no one writes as candidly and thoroughly as Robert Whiting. I can’t recommend this one more highly. Go out and get it, and be prepared for a newfound appreciation for Japanese baseball and its athletes.

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