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Obituaries

Katsuya Nomura, star baseball player with rocky personal life

He spent 26 years at Nankai Hawks, racking up achievements

Yakult Swallows manager Katsuya Nomura is tossed in the air by his jubilating players at the Seibu Lions Stadium in Saitama after they capped thier 1993 season with a 4-3 victory over the Seibu Lions on Nov. 1, 1993.   © Kyodo

The sporting world in Japan is mourning the loss of one of its all-time stars, Katsuya Nomura, who died on February 11, aged 84, from a heart attack. Nomura was one of the most prolific batters in the history of Japanese baseball.

Over a 26-year career, spent mostly as a catcher with the Nankai Hawks, now the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, Nomura won the Pacific League Most Valuable Player title five times; became the first batter in the postwar era to win a Triple Crown in the Nippon Professional Baseball, in 1965; and, with 657 career home runs and 1,988 RBIs, is second only on the lifetime list to Sadaharu Oh.

As a manager, he led the Yakult Swallows to four Central League titles and three Japan Series championships. He was elected to the Japanese baseball Hall of Fame in 1989.

Raised in poverty in Western Honshu, Nomura joined the Hawks at age 18 after a tryout. At 5'9" and 185 pounds, and built like a fire hydrant, he was not physically imposing. His nickname was "Moose" for his long drooping face.

Daryl Spencer, a former major league baseball player for the Hankyu Braves and Nomura's chief competition for the home run crown in the mid-1960s, said: "He put you to sleep watching him. He would stand there in the batter's box like a wet dishrag. You'd feel like yawning, but then he would flick his bat out at a pitch and before you knew it the ball would go sailing over the fence."

Katsuya Nomura of the Nankai Hawks hits his 450th career home run at the Korakuen Stadium in Tokyo in April 1970. Nomura is second on the all-time home run list in Japanese baseball with 657.   © Kyodo

Critics might note that Nomura played in a tiny park, 280 feet down the lines, 350 to dead center, but his blasts tended to carry far beyond the fences.

It was Nomura's misfortune to play in the shadow of Oh and Oh's popular teammate on the Yomiuri Giants, third baseman Shigeo Nagashima. The Giants, who won nine consecutive Japan Championships from 1965 to 1973, dominated nationwide television; Nomura's team hardly ever appeared on TV.

Nomura was appointed player-manager in 1970 but left most of his managerial duties over the next eight years to American coach Don Blasingame, a former major league player who finished his career in Japan with the Hawks.

Nomura once told me that most of what he learned about managing, in particular the use of statistics, came from "Blazer." "If Blazer hadn't agreed to be my head coach, I never would have taken the job of playing manager," he said. "Having to catch and hit cleanup was pressure enough."

Katsuya Nomura and Shigeo Nagashima talk prior to the Japan Series at the Osaka Stadium in October 1961.   © Kyodo

In 1978 Nomura left the Hawks for the Lotte Orions under a cloud of controversy. He had left his first wife and taken up with an outspoken woman named Sachiyo Ito who inserted herself into the day-to-day operations of the team, ensconcing herself in the manager's office and barking orders to the players and coaches alike, alienating everyone in the process. Nomura's first wife attempted suicide. Shortly thereafter she contracted cancer and died.

Sachiyo was a former beauty queen and bar girl who had married a Tokyo-based American civil service worker. When she married Nomura in 1978 he adopted her two sons from her first marriage, Kenny and Don.

Nomura became a full-time manager in 1990, leading the Yakult Swallows to baseball dominance for the next nine seasons, following that with a three-year stint as manager of the Hanshin Tigers. He then managed the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles from 2006 to 2009, before retiring from managing at age 74.

He wrote numerous books about baseball and his managerial philosophy, "ID Yakyu," a concept borrowed from Blasingame: playing baseball with intelligence and collecting data on the opposition. He appeared frequently on TV and was known for his gruff appraisals of the game.

He also wrote a book about his wife, who had become a TV star known for her acerbic personality, entitled "My Wife Is A Doberman." Sachiyo Nomura ran unsuccessfully for the Japanese parliament and in 2002 she was found guilty of evading more than $2 million in taxes and given a suspended sentence of two years in jail.

Katsuya Nomura and his wife Sachiyo, pictured in June 1993.   © Kyodo

As a result, Nomura lost his job managing the Hanshin Tigers. He was quoted as saying, "I must be the only manager in history to lose two jobs because of his wife."

Katsuya and Sachiyo remained married until her death in 2017. Don Nomura went on to become a baseball agent responsible for bringing Hideo Nomo, Hideki Irabu, Yu Darvish and Kenta Maeda to the U.S.

Nomura was known for his disdain of American players, his relationship with Blasingame notwithstanding. He thought their attitude in general toward the practice and discipline required in Japan was lackadaisical.

During his career he axed many players, despite their sterling records. Larry Parrish led the Central League in home runs in 1989, playing for the Yakult Swallows. The following year Nomura came in and sent him packing, criticizing Parrish's defense at first base, which was not helped by a bad knee.

Rex Hudler, who played for Nomura in 1993 and was not invited to return, said: "Nomura was one of the strangest managers I ever played for. I said hello to him everyday when I arrived at the ballpark for a solid month stretch. Sometimes he would grunt. But most of the time, he ignored me. He just stood there frowning."

Then there was his run-in with American pitcher Darrell May at the Hanshin Tigers. Nomura benched May, one of his starters, for taking a trip to Guam to see a dentist during a weeklong suspension May had been serving for bumping an umpire.

Nomura blasted May for missing practice and ordered him to go to the farm team, a feeder club for the major team, declaring to reporters: "We don't need foreign pitchers." May refused to go and wrote a letter to all Hanshin fans accusing Nomura of being a xenophobe and requesting a release.

Katsuya Nomura, pictured in 1974, is the greatest catcher who ever lived.   © Kyodo

May, predictably, was crucified by the Osaka press, but his request was granted and he later signed with the Yomiuri Giants, where he beat the Tigers several times. He made a point of praising Giants manager Shigeo Nagashima: "Nagashima is very friendly. He talks to me all the time -- unlike Nomura."

Statistically, Nomura is the greatest catcher who ever lived. Catcher is physically by far the toughest position to play on a day-to-day basis, given all the kneeling and squatting and foul tips that slam into the body. Most catchers seldom make it to 2,000 career games at their position. Nomura played in 3,017 over his career and was a 19-time all star.

He is survived by a son, Yoichi, by his first wife; a son, Katsunori, by his second; his two stepsons; and seven grandchildren.

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