Rich Gale got off to a great start pitching for the Hanshin Tigers in 1985. Twice, he beat the Yomiuri Giants, the “New York Yankees of Japan.” How good was he? Too good, it turns out.
“The third time I pitched against them,” said Gale, the Giants’ manager talked to the umpires before the game and, according to Gale, “tried to throw me off my game.”
Gale, who broke into the major leagues with the Kansas City Royals, had a ritual he used to “get a grip” on the ball. “I would get a little sweat off my left wrist. I wasn’t loading it up, I never threw (doctored) balls and stuff, but I was using the sweat to get a better grip. Well, because I shut them out in back-to-back games, they thought I was doing something or they wanted to throw me off my game. Well, it wasn’t so much that,” he said, “but, the strike zone, let’s say that game it was a little smaller than (the other team’s).”
Even if he was squeezed at the plate, Gale went on to have an excellent season. In 1985, Gale went 13-9 for the Tigers, leading the team in wins, and he helped lead the Tigers to the playoffs for the first time in 21 years.
There are two leagues in Japan, the Central and Pacific, with the winners facing each other in the Japanese World Series. Hanshin won the Central, while the Seibu Lions won the Pacific.
“The Tigers had always had plenty of offense and hitting,” said Gale. “They were an offensive juggernaut; but pitching, especially starting pitching, is where they needed help and that’s how I ended up over there.”
Getting over there put Gale in the history books. He went on to become the first American to pitch in both the US World Series and the Japanese World Series.
He appeared in two games in the 1980 World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies, and five years later pitched in a pair of games in the 1985 series in Japan.
“I was aware of that at the time” of being the first to pitch in both World Series, he said. Gale also has another “first” when it comes to appearing in both World Series.
“I’d be willing to wager a fair amount that I’m the only guy, only pitcher, to start the sixth and deciding game in both the American World Series, the major league World Series, and the Japanese World Series,” said Gale, who now lives in South Carolina.
A New Hampshire native, Gale entered the University of New Hampshire on a basketball scholarship. The university had no baseball scholarships, but Gale made it clear to college basketball recruiters he would only consider their school if he could also play baseball. He was a fifth round choice of the Royals in the 1975 draft. Gale made his major league debut on April 30, 1978 against the Milwaukee Brewers, pitching seven scoreless innings in a 3-0 victory.
In 1980, he went 13-9, making 33 starts and earning one save for Kansas City, as the Royals won the AL West and swept the Yankees for the pennant. He started game three of the World Series (the first World Series game ever played in Kansas City by the Royals) against the Phillies, pitching the first two innings.
With the Phillies leading three games to two, Gale started game six, and took the loss, as Philadelphia clinched its first-ever World Series championship.
During the 1981 baseball strike, Gale had a job as a bartender at a Kansas City hotel, and was working there when two skywalks collapsed. 114 people died and more than 200 were injured, and Gale thought his life was in danger. While he mentioned being at the scene of the incident, a friend said Gale saved many lives that day. In an interview with a Manchester, N.H. Radio station in 1981, Gale said, “’It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen or imagined.” He said, “I helped move a few people away from it. One gentleman was quite seriously injured and we saw some others that we just couldn’t help, we couldn’t get to.”
When the strike was settled, Gale completed the season with Kansas City and was then traded to the San Francisco Giants. Following the 1982 season, he was traded to Cincinnati. Becoming a free agent after the 1984 season, his agent and a consultant, Sam Perlozzo (who later managed the Baltimore Orioles), hooked him up with Japan’s Hanshin Tigers.
Rich Gale - 1980.
The game in Japan is similar in featuring three outs to an inning, nine innings to a game, etc. But Gale found out there are many differences in how the game is played overseas.
“The Japanese have a very different philosophy, approach about pitching. And I was fortunate that my, for lack of a better word, agent, my representatives – I was with Ron Shapiro out of Baltimore – and they had a client, Sammy, who had, I don’t know if he played or coached in Japan, and he gave him some real good insight and advice so that when we were negotiating my contract with the Hanshin Tigers, that we wanted to be sure that I would be in charge, in control, of my throwing program because they throw their guys a whole lot more. And they said, ok, but we, we want you to write down the schedule, (the) typical five-day, you know, rotation, what you know, what you do. So I went through the whole thing. I know I pitched Monday, what do I do Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday? And then I pitched on Saturday or Sunday. So that was very, very helpful for me,” said Gale.
Gale had one American teammate, Randy Bass, “a big Oklahoma farm boy,” who he knew from the Royals organization. Bass had an amazing 1985 season, hitting 54 home runs, batting .350 and driving in 130 runs in 128 games, and was named the MVP of the regular season and the World Series. Bass had played two seasons in Japan, and knew the cultural differences between American and Japanese baseball, and he also learned some of the language. When the two were away from the ballpark, they were easy to spot, Gale being 6’7” and Bass having blonde, flax-like hair and a big beard. Japanese students would stand beside Gale and place their feet next to his for comparison. The fans were very polite, said Gale, and often asked for autographs. (In four full seasons with Hanshin, Bass slugged 163 home runs and won back to back Triple Crowns. This past July, Bass was the first American-born player with no Japanese heritage to be inducted into Japan’s baseball Hall of Fame.)
Gale said his Japanese teammates grew to respect him when they saw how hard he worked and how professional he was. There was an interpreter, he said, but he later discovered that person learned English by watching American soap operas on TV.
He knew playing in Japan would be different, but he saw how very different it would be when he arrived there.
“The first thing that struck me was that when I landed, there in Osaka, the media reception was unbelievable. I mean there were 200 members of the media, all kinds of TV stations and cameras and all that. I didn’t realize what a big deal it was gonna be.”
If the media were frenzied, Gale was in for a bigger surprise when he started pitching in front of Japanese fans.
“I’ve said this many times, but I was joking that Noah Webster had the Japanese baseball fan in mind when he wrote the definition of ‘fanatic,’” said Gale. “We averaged just over 40,000 per game and the Giants’ average (was) just over 45,000 per game. They opened the gates four hours before game time, and within 10 minutes, 15 minutes, there were 20,000, 25,000 fans in the stands. Guys with big banners and headbands running through the (stands), they had choreographed chants and songs …for every single individual player. It was a tremendous atmosphere.”
Americans have been playing professional baseball in Japan for nearly 100 years. The first players were on all-star teams that played exhibition games, as Japan’s professional baseball was in its infancy. What has struck me was how Black players from the United States were very well received by Japanese society.
According to Ted Knorr, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research who has done extensive research on Negro League players, “Prior to 1927, American baseball teams of all levels had made 37 trips to Japan, winning 90.7 percent of those games. These squads were, as would be expected, all White.”
In 1927, the 1926-27 California Winter League champion Philadelphia Royal Giants toured Japan, going undefeated in 24 games. The Royal Giants were all Black.
“The (1926-27 Royal) Giants were led, in California, by a roster that included six Hall of Famers,” said Knorr. They were: (Norman) “Turkey” Stearnes, (Wilber) “Bullet Joe” Rogan (.328 and 6-2), Willie Foster (6-0), Willie Wells (.181), Andy Cooper (5-2) and (Raleigh) “Biz” Mackey (.316). “Only Cooper and Mackey stayed with these Giants for the Japan tour,” said Knorr.
“Also on the team was my favorite Negro Leaguer (Herbert) “Rap” Dixon, who batted .349 that winter while leading the circuit in doubles” said Knorr, who has been spearheading a campaign to have Dixon inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The most famous “tour” was the 1934 trip to 12 cities in Japan, in which Connie Mack managed the All-Star squad that included Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Earl Averill, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez, Moe Berg, and other American League players, as the National League refused to allow its players to participate. That squad won every game it played.
The first successful professional team in Japan was Dai Nippon, established in 1935, said Bill Staples, chairman of the Asian Baseball Research Committee for SABR. “There were attempts in the early 1920s (to form a professional league), but they failed for various reasons. On that 1935 club was Japanese-American outfielder Jimmy Horio of Hawaii. He is recognized as the first American to play professionally in Japan,” said Staples, who added that the first Japanese league was established in 1936.
The following year, it is recognized that James Bonner was the first Black player to play professionally in Japan, said Staples.
Mickey Cochrane in a Phildelphia Athletics uniform poses for a cover photo in 1932 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo Reproduction by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
A native of Louisiana, Bonner’s arrival was heralded in the Japanese media. He had played for Negro League squads in California, and was recruited to join the Dia Tokyo club. In the United States, Bonner played several positions, including pitcher, and one Japanese newspaper raved how he struck out 22 batters in a game. Unfortunately, because of the smaller ball used in Japan, Bonner struggled as a pitcher, and despite hitting more than .400, he was cut from the squad, and never played in Japan again. He died in 1963.
I thought Bonner’s reception, as well as the reception of all African-American players, was interesting, as pre-war Japan seemed to be a rather xenophobic society.
Regarding Bonner being accepted in Japan, Staples noted how the Philadelphia Royal Giants made three tours of the country “and won the hearts and respect of Japanese fans and opposing players,” said Staples.
He wrote about a 1937 visit to Japan by African-American educator, social scientist, and author W.E.B. DuBois. “His comments reflected the acceptance of African Americans in Japan – and the connection between Japanese Americans and Blacks here in the U.S.,” said Staples.
“Du Bois not only saw a shared struggle between people of Japanese ancestry and African Americans; in his mind, they were ‘colored’ brothers,” wrote Staples. “After his trip to Asia … Du Bois said that he viewed Japan as ‘a country of colored people run by colored people for colored people.’ He added that none of the Japanese people whom he spoke with classified themselves as White,’ but instead felt a brotherhood with ‘Chinese, Indians and Negroes.'”
Many American players and pitchers have gone on to become superstars in Japan. “If playing means ‘signed a contract with a Japanese pro team’, then the most-celebrated American “superstar” would be Henry “Bozo” Wakabayashi of Hawaii,” said Staples. “He joined the league in 1936 and had a Hall of Fame career. It is my understanding that he was so revered as a pitcher that his number18 is given to the ace pitcher on Japanese teams to this day, and explains why many Japanese pitchers in the U.S. request 18 if it is available.”
Staples said the most celebrated American ballplayers in Japan before WWII were Biz Mackey and Rap Dixon, along with Harris McGillard (AKA Bucky Harris) and Babe Ruth during his 1934 tour.
After WWII, the list of revered Americans, according to Staples, included Wally Yonamine of Hawaii, who is a member of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and was Sadaharu Oh’s favorite player growing up.
Several players from the Negro Leagues became stars in Japan in the 1950s, such as Jimmy Newberry, Jonas Gaines, and Larry Raines. Don Newcombe and Larry Doby were respected in Japan after their MLB careers were over; and Joe Stanka, who after appearing in two games with the Chicago White Sox signed with the Nankai Hawks, posted a record of 100-72.
George Altman. (Getty)
George Altman had the distinction of playing in three very different leagues: the Negro Leagues, the major leagues and the Japanese League. He signed with the Chicago Cubs, at the urging of Cubs coach and former Negro League star Buck O’Neill. He was a two-time All-Star in Chicago, but was hampered by injuries and was demoted to the Cubs’ AAA team in Tacoma.
While there, Altman met Tsuneo “Cappy” Harada, a Japanese-American who was the GM for Tacoma. Harada asked Altman if he would consider playing in Japan, and he said yes.
Altman broke in with the Tokyo Orions in 1969 at the age of 35 (the team was renamed the Lotte Lions after being purchased by a Korean firm called Lotte). He played until he was 42. In seven seasons in Japan, he batted .309 with 213 home runs and 680 RBIs.
Along with Doby and Newcombe, the most successful American to sign with a Japanese team was Goose Gossage. After pitching in 897 games through 1989, Gossage was out of work, despite being effective. He appeared in 42 games for the San Diego Padres and New York Yankees. When he received no offers, he signed with the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks in July of 1990. In 28 games, he was 2-3 with eight saves. In 1991, he signed with the Texas Rangers, and after beginning the season at the team’s AA club, he pitched in 44 games, earning one save. He spent the next three years with Oakland and Seattle as an effective set-up man before retiring after the strike-shortened 1994 season at the age of 42. Gossage and Doby are the only members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. to play with teams in Japan.
Japanese fans appreciate international ballplayers, but it’s hypothesized that they don’t want to see them do too well against native ballplayers. Even so, Tigers manager Yoshio Yoshida selected Gale to start game three of the 1985 series. Then, with the Tigers leading the series three games to two, Yoshida tapped Gale to start the pivotal game six, five years after he had started another pivotal game six of a World Series in 1980 against Philadelphia. This time, he won.
Did that victory and championship help ease the pain of the 1980 series?
“No, didn’t help make up for it,” said Gale. “I’ve said this to a lot of people over the years that I started Game Six, the deciding game, and got a decision. I won in Japan, but I would gladly trade a lot of accomplishments to have swapped and won the World Series here. You try to win wherever you are, that’s where I was and we won the championship. So, you know, that was great. But it would have been better if we had beaten the Phillies.”
Gale’s second season in Japan was affected by a players’ strike, and he was 5-10 for Hanshin, who played .500 ball and did not make the postseason. He then returned to the United States, hoping to resume his career in the major leagues.
“In 1987, I went to early minor league spring training with the Orioles, with the promised opportunity to pitch in some MLB games,” said Gale. “Turns out their definition of games was different from mine, and they let me go at the end of big league spring training. I went home and tried to get a job with someone, offering to go back to A or AA, to prove I was healthy, but no offers. So I hung ‘em up! Went back to UNH to finish my undergraduate degree. Then I started coaching at AA with Boston in 1989.”
These days, Gale has gone over “to the dark side” and is an umpire. “I do high school in South Carolina and also the last two years have gone up to New Hampshire after our South Carolina season is over or almost over,” he said. He recently officiated at two games on a Saturday and Sunday. Between mild winters in the Charlestown, SC area, and excellent facilities, baseball is a year round sport there, and keeps Gale busy.