Remembering Gene Bacque
Hanshin Tiger Great Gene Bacque passed away this week. In this memory I am reposting his story that I published in remembering Japanese Baseball.
Born: August 12, 1937 in New Iberia, Louisiana
Hanshin Tigers 1962-68, Kintetsu Buffaloes 1969
Gene Bacque is the most successful American pitcher in the history of Japanese baseball. With 100 career wins, Bacque is tied with Joe Stanka for the most wins by an American in Japan. Bacque finished his eight-year career with a 2.34 ERA and is the only American recipient of the coveted Sawamura Award. After leaving Japan, he became a teacher and now runs a ranch with about 70 head of cattle in Louisiana.
I started like all kids in the United States by playing little league ball. Afterwards, I played in high school, and then for the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. After my second year of college ball, I signed my first professional contract with the Detroit Tigers. I played six years in the Detroit minor league system, going from Class D ball to AAA. When I was optioned out to Hawaii, I really started hearing a lot about baseball in Japan. Bill Nishita, one of my teammates, had played in Japan and he started talking to me about possibly going over there. He became a good friend and introduced me to a wonderful man by the name of Angel Maehara, who had connections in Japan.
While in Hawaii, I got released from Detroit. So to keep in shape, I played in a semi-pro league. In the meantime, word got to Japan that I was available and some scouts came and saw me pitch. The first thing you know, Angel Maehara got me a try out with the Hanshin Tigers in Japan for a couple of weeks in July 1962.
I had just gotten married and my wife stayed in Hawaii while I went to Japan for two weeks. They treated me well and had an interpreter for me. I ended up trying out for the minor league team. I even hit a couple of balls out of the ballpark, and they said, “Are you sure that you’re not a hitter?” I said, “No, I want to pitch.” After two weeks of working out with them and playing inter-squad games, they decided to sign me. So I went back to Hawaii to get my wife and a commercial visa.
It was August before I was able to get back to Japan. As a matter of fact, I joined the club in Tokyo and right off the bat, they threw me against the Giants. I did pretty well that night. The first thing you know, we won the pennant. I really didn’t help them out too much. I think I ended up losing 3 games and not winning any. I did help them out a little bit in the Series against the Flyers. They put me in relief in Game 3 and I held them for four innings until the curfew. The game ended in a 2-2 tie after 14 innings. So right away I was sort of a celebrity. When you win a pennant over there, the people just go crazy. They root for you and stay in the ballpark two or three hours after the game is over--they don’t go home! It’s a wonderful experience to see people really enjoying the game.
Once I joined the team, a lot of guys took me under their wing and would take me out in the evenings or to eat after ball games. One of the Japanese who really helped me out was our star pitcher Masaaki Koyama. He was a good guy and taught me the bad Japanese words! Koyama-san had amazing control. He could pin point a ball. As a matter of fact, I enjoyed watching him and tried to imitate him to get more control. He also threw pretty hard--up in the high 80s, and had a good slider. He won a lot of games and probably could have pitched in the Majors. Then of course Yoshida-san, our little shortstop, was a lot of fun to be around. I really had quite a few friends on the team.
Of course, my American teammate Mike Solomko was instrumental in getting me around. He had married a Japanese girl and spoke Japanese fluently. As a matter of fact, he still lives in Japan. He interpreted for me all the time. I was probably a bother to him sometimes because I asked so many questions. On road trips, he was staying with the Japanese and I didn’t mind staying there. It was an adventure for me. I didn’t have any trouble in the Japanese hotels with the sleeping. I just couldn’t get that rice and gravy like I was used to here! But once I learned about the food and could call out what I wanted, I didn’t mind at all. I think the rest of the gaijin stayed at western-style hotels. By staying in the Japanese inns, I was able to learn a few more words and their culture a lot quicker. I also learned things that I probably would never have learned if I stayed in the western hotels, so it helped me get to know my teammates.
After the games, the players were pretty low-key. There wasn’t much boozing it up. They weren’t those kind of guys. After a game, we might go out and have a beer, have dinner, but we were always in by 12:30-1:00 AM. On the road, most of the players would stay right in the hotel. After games, I’d go to their rooms and they’d be watching TV, playing mahjong or Go, or reading a book.
The Japanese approach to the game took a little getting used to. One of the things that I thought was a bit strange was if you were warming up on the mound and you didn’t look good, they might change you before the game even started. I don’t know if it was their culture that makes them do that or if they could foresee how you were going to do in a game. I really don’t know. Also if they didn’t think that they were going to get too many runs off a particular pitcher, they would start bunting right away in the first inning. Things of that nature were a little bit weird. Otherwise, the game was pretty much the same as it was here. There were just a few little quirks and a few little things that I didn’t understand much at the time but after I knew their culture a little more, I more or less understood what was going on.
Something else that I didn’t understand was when the Japanese would strikeout, they would smile and nonchalantly put the bat away. I couldn’t understand how they never showed any emotion. I’m not proud of it but I would get P.O.ed when I’d get knocked out of a game. If they had a fan in the dugout, I’d throw that fan around and raise hell. I was just mad at myself. I remember one time when I got knocked out of a game, it was cold and they had hibachis in the dugout. Well, I kicked over a hibachi and hot coals went flying everywhere. There were guys jumping all over the dugout trying to get away from the hot coals. They were screaming, “Bacque no, no! Bacque No!” They couldn’t understand why I just couldn’t control that anger. Although it took a long time, I learned how to deal with it. That was when I became more of a control pitcher and more relaxed. That helped me think better out there and helped me become more successful.
I came back to Japan in 1963 and did fairly well. I pitched in a few games and won eight. Then in 1964, they traded Koyama-san and made me one of the top three starters. That gave me an incentive to do better and I just started out with a bang. I won 10 or 11 straight and from then on I’d lose one and then win another four or five, then lose another and win five or six more. It was just one of those years that no matter what you did, you knew you were going to win. It was also sort of mind boggling because I pitched 353 innings and I didn’t have a place on my body that hurt. I ended up winning 29 and losing 9 with a 1.89 ERA. It was just one of those fantastic years that you dream about.
We won the pennant with a ball club that didn’t have much hitting. Pitching was more or less what carried us over. Minoru Murayama ended up winning 22, so between us we won 51 of our team’s 80 victories. He also had a fantastic ERA. Of course, he had to have a good ERA because we didn’t hit! Murayama-san was one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever seen. He gave his all in every game and on every pitch that he threw. We were rivals but for the betterment of the team. When he’d win a game, I wanted to do the same and do as well as he did. When I won one, he wanted to do the same and do as well as I did. I think that’s why in ‘64 we both had such great years. We each tried to out do the other and ended up winning the pennant. Murayama-san could have probably pitched in the big leagues. He would have had to learn a little bit about pitching inside. Over there, they didn’t pitch inside much. They mostly pitched outside. But if he could have learned to come in a little more and get the hitter off the plate, he could have played Major League ball.
When my friend Koyama-san got traded to the Orions, we got Kazuhiro Yamauchi in return. He was a good hitter and helped us to the pennant by hitting 31 home runs. He was the only one on our club that had the power to get the ball out of the ballpark. He also became my hunting buddy. He loved to hunt and I enjoyed hunting, so I stayed in Japan after the season and we went hunting in Himeji and had a wonderful time. He was fun guy to be around and he loved to talk baseball. Yamauchi-san was also a natural teacher and he loved to teach the younger kids about hitting and about baseball.
Another key to our success that year was our shortstop Yoshio Yoshida. He was as good a double play guy as you’d want. He had good power for a little guy and was quick. Yoshida-san was a good baseball player but I think that his size kept him from being a great baseball player. I’d still take him as the shortstop on my team any day.
Our home ballpark, Koshien Stadium, is really a historical place—it’s like Yankee Stadium. Every summer, they have the big high school tournament there. So, clinching the pennant there just made us feel great. It was just a wonderful year for me and for the Osaka fans. Of course, I’ll cherish that.
At the end of the season, they chose me to be the recipient of the Sawamura Award. Then they told me about Eiji Sawamura and I said that this is probably the greatest honor that I’ll ever have. I think that I’m the only American who has ever won that award. It was just a great year, and like I said, you just dream of these years and hope that you can have one.
Our biggest rivals were the Yomiuri Giants. At each position, they were all good defensive ball players. They could hit the ball and they had good pitching. They had Kunio Jonouchi and Tsuneo Horiuchi and guys like that who threw the ball over the plate hard. They were just real strong at each position. And they weren’t just one deep, they might have been two deep. They always had two or three good catchers. They always had five or six pitchers that were around the plate and threw hard all the time. They had good players at second base and shortstop, good power in Sadaharu Oh and Shigeo Nagashima. You never knew when Sadaharu Oh would hit one out. He could hit to the opposite field. If you pitched him outside, he’d go with you and hit a home run out to left field. I respected Nagashima-san quite a bit, but I normally could get him out. He got a home run or two off of me but I normally had an easier time with him than I did with left-handers. Oh-san and Shibata-san were the guys that gave me a little trouble. Isao Shibata was a little pesky, aggravating son-of-a-gun. He would just get on base and he was quick, so you know he’d run. He didn’t have to hit the ball that far or that hard, but he would just get on base so many times. Even Mori-san, the catcher could hit it out, you know. They were the prima donna team of that era--just a good ball club. It was very difficult to beat them. They all had good baseball sense. And of course the manager, Tetsuharu Kawakami, was a big name in Japan and those guys really respected him.
Well, I always tried to make fun of the opposing batters, and especial Oh-san and Nagashima-san, to get them mad and get their minds off of the game. I tried to intimidate them enough to where they’d get mad, so mad that they couldn’t hit! But they’re both nice guys. It was just that during those games, I wanted to win. I didn’t care how I won, as long as I won. I’d have tried anything. A matter of fact, one day, the umpires weren’t watching the pitcher’s mound too closely, and over there the grounds are all skin, you know, no grass. So every inning, I’d just cover the pitcher’s mound and cover the rubber until I had it all covered up. Then I started creeping up on the mound until I was about four or five feet in front of the rubber! In fact, one of the guys on the Giants said, “Gosh, Bacque is throwing fast tonight.” Even our catcher didn’t know that I was cheating about six feet, so he says, “Yeah, he’s got good stuff tonight!”
The highlight of my career in Japan was pitching a no-hit, no-run game against the Giants at Koshien Stadium in 1965. I can remember it as plain as day. Normally in Japan, the TV coverage cuts off around 9:30 but that particular night they left it on. I think that it was the only game shown from the first inning to the ninth inning throughout its entirety while I was in Japan. During the game, my teammates would not say anything in the dugout. Of course, I knew that I had a no hitter going, but they wouldn’t say anything. They didn’t want to say, “OK Bacque, one more inning.” They didn’t want to talk to me! So it was sort of funny at the time, you know. They just didn’t want to jinx me, I guess. In the ninth inning, the second to last out was Sadaharu Oh but he popped up to Motoyashiki-san playing second base. It was the thrill of my life, pitching a no-hit, no-run game. It was fun for me, but also for the Japanese fans. I think that my teammates enjoyed it even more than me because they were all happy and jumping up and down.
I’m a good-natured fellow but I’d try to intimidate them a little bit, you know. I was a fairly big guy and I liked to pitch high and inside, and once in a while I’d hit somebody. They wouldn’t really know if I was actually throwing at them or if I was just trying to brush them back. Well, that led to that little altercation I had with Sadaharu Oh and the Giants in 1968.
The tying or winning run was on third, Oh-san was up and I had a base open and two outs. So the situation called for me to walk him. I told myself that I wasn’t going to give him anything good to hit. I wasn’t going to let him beat me that day. I got ahead of him and then threw the second pitch inside. So I was 1-1, and I thought that I’d come back inside because it was okay if I walked him or even hit him. So I came back inside again. By doing it a second time, I guess he thought I was throwing at him, and he got a little riled up. He never swung at me or anything, he just talked. I couldn’t understand what he was saying but I figured that it wasn’t something nice. But when he started talking to me, his dugout started coming on to the field and one of the coaches started doing all that karate stuff and knocked me down! I thought, “Man, they’re going to stomp all over me!” So I got up and started defending myself. I hit the guy who had given me that karate chop and broke my thumb. Then, everything went haywire. After they separated everybody, they brought Masatoshi Gondo in to relieve me, and he bopped Oh-san in the head and it started all over again!
It was just one of those altercations that happens in a game. To me, it wasn’t a big deal. But to the Japanese, it was quite an incident. We ended up going in front of a judge and paying a fine of about 320 bucks. In 1969, I got traded to the Buffaloes and I’ve always felt that the reason I got traded was because of that altercation with Oh-san the year before.
The manager I had my last year (1969), Osamu Mihara, would pull some stunts! He was liable to pull you out with a ten run lead, or do some of the strangest things, like bunt when you are behind, or steal when you’re behind four runs, and things of that nature. If you went three for three and you came up in a key situation, Mihara-san would take you out because he figured you had your three hits and you were not going to get another one! Well, he took me out of one game when I was ahead 5-1. I wasn’t pitching that good but hell I was ahead 5 to 1. I had just finished the fourth inning and was thinking that if I could get another inning in here, I’d get a win. So I got ready to go pitch the fifth inning and he pulled me back and he said, “Bacque, we’re going to change you and let the other guy go in.” I said “What!? No, you got to be crazy!” He said, “No. We’re going to let the other guy pitch.” Then I understood why none of the players--Japanese or American--liked the guy. He was just a funny type of character and that’s the way he was.
I only played for him a few months because that year, I ruptured a disc. I was told that I shouldn’t go back to baseball because it could happen again. So I promised that if after the operation, I could walk out of hospital then I’d just give up the game. That was probably the most difficult thing that I ever had to do. We really were enjoying life in Japan. It was like home for us. My first eight years of my married life were in Japan and my children were born there. My wife loved it over there. I don’t know who was more disappointed, my wife or me. I think that’s why when it was time to leave, I didn’t really tell anybody. I got my ticket and just took off, hoping that I would get back over there someday but not expecting to.
But I get to go back every few years for the old-timer games. They’re a lot of fun and they treat us like royalty. We stay in some of the best hotels; we have fantastic breakfasts; the last time we had a couple of banquets--it was major league. It’s pretty great to be back. Japan was just a wonderful experience for me. So, every time I go back, I just cherish the moments.
The only thing I could say is, I wish I was 24 years old again and back in Japan!