Los Angeles Dodgers - 1966 Japan TourBy Mark Langill
Ten years after their first visit to Japan, the Dodgers embarked on another goodwill tour following the 1966 season that blended familiar images with new faces on the international baseball scene. Sponsored by The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, it was a chance for Dodger President Walter O’Malley and his organization to renew acquaintances with Japanese baseball officials and monitor the progress made by the host country more than two decades since the conclusion of World War II.
The traveling party, which included Major League Baseball Commissioner William D. Eckert, arrived at the Haneda Airport in Tokyo under the same circumstances as the 1956 Dodgers, as reigning National League champions and one year removed from a World Series crown. Manager Walter Alston was still at the helm of the Dodgers — a position he would serve for 23 seasons until 1976 — but the 1966 Dodgers had a different makeup from the 1956 version.
That celebrated Brooklyn Dodger group featured a core of famous veterans in the autumn of their respective careers — shortstop and team captain Pee Wee Reese; infielder Jackie Robinson, catcher Roy Campanella and first baseman Gil Hodges, among others. The 1956 Japan tour would be Robinson’s last appearance in a Brooklyn uniform as the Dodgers posted a 14-4-1 record.
Robinson announced his retirement at age 37 following the tour and Campanella would play just one more season before a tragic automobile accident ended his career as the Dodgers prepared to relocate in Los Angeles in 1958.
Strong pitching became a Dodger trademark on the West Coast whether playing at the Los Angeles Coliseum — converted from a football and track stadium — or at Dodger Stadium, a sparkling showplace that became the standard for subsequent major league ballparks when it opened in 1962. The Dodgers captured World Championships in 1959, 1963 and 1965 as Alston became the first National League skipper to capture four World Series titles.
Emerging from a wild pennant race with San Francisco and Pittsburgh, the 1966 Dodgers staged a dramatic September rally, winning 21 of their last 31 games to qualify for another World Series. The pitching carried a Dodger offense that was shut out 17 times — the most by a pennant-winning team. As a staff, the Dodgers’ 2.62 ERA was the lowest by a N.L. team in 23 years and held opponents to two runs or less in 80 games, including 20 shutouts.
“It is our sincere hope that we will bring to Japan the 1966 World Champions of baseball,” O’Malley wrote in a letter to Japanese fans published in The Yomiuri magazine previewing the baseball tour. “As you know, we are headed for our own World Series clash with the Baltimore Orioles on October 5 in Los Angeles, California. You will know the results of our efforts long before we land in your country.
“Be assured, however, that whether we come out champions or not, our visit to Japan will be a highlight in the year of 1966 for all of us.
“Our hearty congratulations to your own championship team and our sincere good wishes that BASEBALL will long continue to be a meeting place for representatives of both our fine countries.”
The upstart Orioles, though, stunned Los Angeles with a four-game sweep as the Dodgers were outscored 13-2, and failed to score in the final 33 innings. Unlike the 1956 Dodger team that began its goodwill tour schedule on the same day of the final World Series game, Los Angeles had several days to regroup from its disappointing showing against Baltimore to prepare for its Japan journey.
But the season took its toll on the Dodger pitching staff and ace starters Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale — who combined for 40 wins and 597 innings in 1966 — opted for rest following the 1966 Series. Koufax would stun the baseball world a few weeks later by retiring at age 31 due to arm trouble. Rookie Don Sutton didn’t get a chance to pitch in Japan, either. The future Hall of Famer went 12-12 in his first season, but Alston used him sparingly in September after Sutton pulled a forearm muscle on Labor Day.
When the Dodgers traveled to Japan, the climate of its professional leagues had changed in terms of American participation, including former major leaguers who were extending their careers by playing overseas. Ex-Dodger infielder Daryl Spencer, for example, batted .273 with 20 home runs for the 1966 Hankyu Braves.
“We want to spread goodwill, but we also hope to beat the Japanese on the baseball field,” Alston said at welcoming ceremonies in Tokyo. “When we were here 10 years ago, we thought the Japanese ballclubs were well organized. They must be better now than then.”Pacific Stars and Stripes, October 22, 1966
The timing of the 1966 tour also coincided with the career choice of Masanori Murakami, a left-handed pitcher who became the subject of an international debate in the early 1960s. Murakami was one of three Japanese prospects that signed minor league contracts with the San Francisco Giants’ organization in 1964. Murakami’s surprising recall from Single-A Fresno to the Giants in 1964 and his subsequent success in 1965 pushed United States and Japan baseball relations into uncharted waters. Political pressure from his home country eventually led to Murakami’s decision to return to Japan for the balance of his professional career. It would be another 30 years until the Dodgers’ Hideo Nomo in 1995 became the first player from Japan’s professional leagues to appear on an American major league team.
The Yomiuri Giants of the 1960s were led by two of the most famous players in Japanese baseball history — first baseman Sadaharu Oh and third baseman Shigeo Nagashima. Oh would hit 868 home runs in a career that spanned from 1959-80. Nagashima, nicknamed “Mr. Giant,” hit 444 home runs from 1958-74. The Giants, Japan’s first professional team founded by Yomiuri newspaper publisher Matsutaro Shoriki in 1935, captured Japan World Series crowns in 1961 and 1963, and nine consecutive titles from 1965-73.
Dodger veteran shortstop Maury Wills was one of the tour’s headliners, but the speedster who swiped a record 104 bases in 1962 had trouble staying healthy in 1966. Wills stole 30 of his 38 bases that season by June 28 and had just one stolen base during a 45-game span in the summer. In his first World Series plate appearance, Wills singled and stole second base. But Wills didn’t get another hit and went 1-for-13 overall (.077).
Wills played in just four games on the Japan tour. On the trip, Wills told O’Malley that he needed to fly home for treatment of a knee injury.
However, O’Malley later learned that Wills had gone to Hawaii and was playing the banjo in a well-known nightclub and had not returned to Los Angeles. The veteran would later be dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates, part of an offseason roster shuffle that included the trade of longtime Dodger Tommy Davis to the New York Mets. The Dodgers reacquired Wills in 1969 and he finished his career in Los Angeles in 1972.
Wills’ departure from the Japan tour hampered a Dodger roster that already was missing many familiar names. In addition to Koufax, Drysdale and Sutton, first baseman Wes Parker didn’t travel to Japan, which gave a chance to rookie first baseman Tommy Hutton, a 20-year-old prospect with three career games in the majors and a 0-for-2 ledger at the plate. Other young prospects included pitchers Alan Foster, Nick Willhite and Leon Everitt; outfielder Al Ferrara, infielder Tommy Dean and outfielder Jim Barbieri.
On October 21, Baseball Commissioner Eckert presented Shoriki with a bronze plaque bearing an engraved message and signature from President Lyndon Johnson. After handing the message to Shoriki, Eckert also presented him with a World Series championship ring. It was the first World Series ring ever presented to a person not connected with a team participating in a World Series.
“I myself and other Japanese concerned would like to further continue to promote Japan-U.S. friendly ties and contribution to peace, through baseball,” Shoriki said.
Eckert and O’Malley later paid a courtesy call on November 6 to Prime Minister Eisaku Sato. During a five-minute meeting at Sato’s official residence, the Americans presented a baseball with Walter O’Malley’s signature and a badge good for all American and National League games for the 1967 season.
The Dodgers opened the Japan tour with a 16-5 victory over the Giants. But any thoughts of the Dodgers’ steamrolling through the schedule ended in the second game when Giants’ left-hander Akio Masuda pitched a three-hitter en route to a 5-0 victory.
That set the pace of the tour as the Dodgers finished with a 9-8-1 record. Oh paced the Giants with 21 hits on the tour, including five home runs. The Dodgers’ Jim Lefebvre, who hit a career-high 24 home runs in 1966, powered Los Angeles with five home runs on the tour and a .388 batting average.
Guests at the November 6 game at the Tokyo Korakuen Stadium included The Emperor and Empress, seeing their first baseball game in a number of years.
“The Dodgers may have drawn blanks elsewhere, but they are diplomatic successes in Japan,” reported Los Angeles Times sportswriter Frank Finch. “No matter where they go, to a shrine, a restaurant or a ballpark, they are besieged by the friendly grins of red-hot baseball fans. The official badge issued by Walter O’Malley to the touring troupe is like an open sesame. People who can’t read English instantly recognize the familiar ‘Dodgers’ name in its script form. ‘Doh-jars,’ with the accent on the second syllable, is one of the most popular words in Tokyo, Sapporo, Osaka, Sendai, Nagoya and other cities where the team has appeared.”Los Angeles Times, November 1966
While the players entertained overflow crowds, other members of the traveling party had a chance to see other sights. They spent three weeks touring the countryside and visiting everything from the 1964 Olympic facilities in Tokyo to the 330-foot cascade of the Kegon Waterfall near Lake Chuzenji.
Lela Alston, the manager’s wife whose family lived in a small town in Ohio, was also in Japan during the Dodgers’ tour in 1956. “Even from what little I have been able to see so far, I should say that Tokyo really has changed amazingly since that time,” she said.
During the final week of the tour on November 15, the Japanese government conferred on O’Malley the high honor for a non-Japanese of the Order of the Sacred Treasure Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon award, in recognition for his efforts to foster Japan-United States friendship through professional baseball.
Commissioner Eckert reached an accord on future American visits in discussions with the Japanese Baseball Commissioner and the two league presidents. The next full-fledged team visit would be in 1968 and at two-year intervals at the alternating invitations of the Mainichi and Yomiuri newspapers. The Yomiuri Giants would visit Dodgertown for spring training in 1967, the second of four trips to the Florida training complex.
At a farewell sukiyaki party at a restaurant in the Ginza, Yomiuri Shimbun Vice President Yosoji Kobayashi thanked the Dodgers for providing millions of Japanese fans the chance to see “fascinating” baseball. Kobayashi presented each of the American guests with a photograph album of the Dodgers’ Japanese tour.
Alston praised the level of competition, rating the Giants better than the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate, and suggested with a little more pitching, the Yomiuri squad could compete in the majors.
Giants Manager Tetsuharu Kawakami was pleased his team had won more games that he expected during the tour, but also understood the Dodgers’ position in terms of changing its World Series roster to accommodate many new players.
“The tight schedule and the absence of their ace pitchers like Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale might have helped bring on the unexpected results,” he said. “Anyway, I don’t believe the results truly reflect on the true strength of the Dodgers. But I’m glad to learn that the standards of Japanese baseball have risen tremendously in all aspects.”The Mainichi Daily News, November 17, 1966