Saturday, November 12, 2022

RIP Choji Murata

Hall Of Fame pitcher Choji Murata passed away yesterday from carbon monoxide poisoning following a fire at his home.  The 72 year old Murata, who spent his entire 23 year career with the Tokyo/Lotte Orions, is best known as one of the earliest NPB pitchers to undergo Tommy John surgery.

Murata was taken in the first round of the 1967 draft by the then-Tokyo Orions (I believe he was the last active player to have played for the Orions prior to their purchase by Lotte in 1969).  By 1969 he was a regular member of the Orion's pitching staff and by 1971 he was an All Star.  He threw a 10 inning complete game in Game 6 of the 1974 Nippon Series, beating the Dragons 3-2 to win a championship for Lotte.  His best season was probably 1976 when he went 21-11 with an ERA of 1.82 and 202 strikeouts.  He won his first 11 starts in 1981 en route to a 19-8 season.

After pitching in six games in 1982, Murata injured his elbow.  When it didn't respond to treatment, he took the then-unorthodox move of traveling to Los Angeles (with his wife as translator) to have Frank Jobe perform "Tommy John" surgery on him.  (Murata is frequently and erroneously reported as the first Japanese pitcher to undergo TJ surgery when it was actually his teammate Masaharu Mitsui who went under the knife in 1979.)  Murata's surgery was in August of 1983 and he returned to the mound in September of 1984.

One of the things Jobe told Murata was not to pitch as often and to rest six days between starts.  Murata earned the nickname "Sunday Choji" due to him now working one day a week.  He again won his first 11 decisions in 1985 and ended the season with a 17-5 record.  He would pitch five more seasons after that, notching his 200th career win in 1989 and retiring after winning 10 games as a 40 year old in 1989, the first player to have double digit wins in their 40's since Tadashi Wakabayashi did it in 1949.  He coached for the Hawks for three years in the mid to late 90's and was elected to the Hall Of Fame in 2005.

Murata led the PL in wins once (1981), ERA three times (1975, 1976 and 1989), strikeouts four times (1976, 1977, 1979 and 1981) and saves once (1975) (he appears to have frequently pitched in relief as well as starting during the 70's).  He won a Best 9 award in 1981 and the Comeback Player award in 1985.  He was an All Star 13 times (1971, 1974-1981, 1985-1986, 1988-1989).

Murata's first known baseball cards didn't come out until 1975, his eighth season with the Orions.  There are two reasons for the delay - the first years of Murata's career fall into the "dead zone" between 1965 and 1972 where there were very few baseball cards produced in Japan and Calbee did almost no cards of Lotte players until 1985.  His first cards in 1975 were in the Broder JA 5 set and the NST set as well as some game sets.  He did have an appearance on a Pacific League leaders card from Calbee in early 1976 (#404 in the "monster" 1975/76/77 Calbee set) and also appeared in several of Yamakatsu's sets in the late 70's.  Takara started doing cards for Pacific League teams in 1981 and he appears in every one of their Lotte sets until he retired.  His first Calbee cards were in 1985 (along with other Orions players) and he appeared in their sets each year for the rest of his career.  He was in both Lotte sets in 1989 and 1990.  Here's some cards of him from when he was an active player:

1975 Broder JA 5

1977 Yamakatsu JY 3

1981 Takara Orions #29

1989 Lotte #56

He appeared in several of BBM's OB sets in the early 00's - the 2000 20th Century Best 9, 2002 All Time Heroes and the 2004 Golden Arm and 70th Anniversary sets - as well as the 2004 BBM Marines set but after that he pretty didn't have any more baseball cards for about 15 years.  He had a couple cards in BBM-related magazines (a Baseball Magazine card in 2006 and a card in Shukan Baseball's "Legend Players" set in 2009), a card in the 2009 Epoch All Japan Baseball Foundation set and I think a Bandai Owners League card in 2011-ish.  But he didn't appear in several sets that you'd have expected him in including the 2008 Lotte 40th Anniversary, 2008 Back To The 70's, 2009 Back To The 80's and 2013 80th Anniversary Pitchers Edition, all from BBM.  He started appearing in sets again a few years ago, starting with the 2019 BBM Time Travel 1979 set.  He was also in the 2019 Epoch Lotte 50th Anniversary, 2020 BBM Time Travel 1985 and 2021 BBM Marines History 1950-2021 sets.  Additionally he was featured on a Ceremonial First Pitch card in BBM's 2020 Fusion set.  Here's some of his OB cards:

2000 BBM 20th Century Best 9 #377

2002 BBM All Time Heroes #181

2009 Epoch All Japan Baseball Foundation #63

2019 BBM Time Travel 1979 #55

2020 BBM Fusion #FP15

2021 BBM Marines History 1950-2021 #14

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