What he did: When I launched this column in June, I considered featuring Ichiro right away. I initially envisioned him as a Deadball Era star with his excellent contact hitting, speed, defense, and rifle arm, but the idea never developed. A number of Hall of Famers might have excelled in baseball’s early days, Roberto Clemente for one, and I don’t know what would make Ichiro that much more spectacular or unique back then. But if Ichiro played a decade or two into the Live Ball Era, he might have been iconic.
Era he might have thrived in: Ichiro probably would thrive in any era. For our purposes, we’ll look at the “Gashouse Gang” St. Louis Cardinals in the early 1930s when general manager Branch Rickey could have made Ichiro baseball’s first Japanese player. Ichiro’s style of play would have been perfect for Rickey and St. Louis, and his presence in baseball may have changed history.
Why: The 1930s were an interesting time for US-Japanese relations. Despite World War II looming a decade beyond, Major League Baseball launched multiple goodwill tours of Japan. Lefty O’Doul visited with an American All-Star team in 1931 and told Lawrence Ritter in The Glory of Their Times that he returned the following year, taught baseball at six universities, and helped found its professional league. He even named the Tokyo Giants, who were originally going to be called The Great Japan Tokyo Baseball Club.
Biographer Richard Leutzinger quoted O’Doul saying, “I’ll venture to say there are at least 20 players in Japan who are good enough fielders to play in the major leagues today. I remember that during our tour in 1931, Japanese outfielders made more spectacular catches in the 17 games than I had seen in any one year of major league baseball.” But O’Doul said Japanese players were so timid at the plate that he returned to coach hitting. And the majors of the 1930s, when hitters reigned supreme, had no place for an all-glove, no-bat outfielder.
Enter Ichiro, the Gold Glove standard in right field; he’d offer less power than most great 1930s hitters but on the right team, he might hit .400. The Baseball-Reference.com stat converter has Ichiro’s 2004 season translating to a .389 batting average with 267 hits for the 1935 Cardinals. And who knows how O’Doul’s tutelage would boost Ichiro’s natural abilities, seeing as the Father of Japanese Baseball made a hitter out of Dom DiMaggio in the Pacific Coast League.
Prejudice might hinder Ichiro playing stateside in the ’30s, but I doubt it would have been insurmountable. After all, no gentleman’s agreement kept Asians from the majors until Masanori Murakami debuted for the San Francisco Giants in 1964. I think it was more an issue of no all-around Japanese offensive player being available. I doubt one would have gotten past Rickey, who made Jackie Robinson baseball’s first black player in 1947. Interestingly, Rickey reportedly considered recruiting from Japanese internment camps during World War II.
I emailed Lee Lowenfish, who wrote a 2009 biography of Rickey. Lowenfish told me, “I do think that Rickey would have been enamored of Ichiro. He loved guys who could run because as he said it so trenchantly, speed helps you on both sides of the ball. Ichiro’s hitting down on the ball and covering a lot of ground in the outfield with a fine arm would definitely have appealed to Rickey. His last St. Louis team of 1942– the so-called St Louis Swifties– all could run like the wind.”
Lowenfish disagreed on Rickey being willing to sign Ichiro, saying the 1930s “would have been too early.” Still, I think Ichiro would have been worth a public relations risk. Could he have changed history? My friend Sarah, who shares an interest in history, said business was a major reason for war, that an oil embargo hurt Japanese interests. Perhaps conflict was unavoidable. I doubt Ichiro would have hurt matters, though. At worst, he would have been side-by-side O’Doul in the years after Hiroshima, helping promote goodwill and Japanese baseball once more.
Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.
Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Dom DiMaggio, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, George Case, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays