Roberto Barbon, Japan’s First Latin Baseball Player, Still Feels at Home
By BRAD LEFTON
ASHIYA, Japan — Many of the more than 900 foreigners who have played here over the 73 seasons of Nippon Professional Baseball have had careers analogous to the country’s famed cherry blossom: they burst open with an awing brilliance and then, just as suddenly, withered away. Some, despite great fanfare, never blossomed at all.
Then there is Roberto Barbon. He blossomed beautifully, stealing 49 bases and hitting 13 triples in his debut season. Fifty-five years later, Barbon, Japan’s first Latin player, is still in full bloom.
The eternally cheerful Barbon has trouble completing a sentence without contagious laughter. He entrances people here with his fluency in Japanese. At 76, Barbon runs youth clinics for the team that originally signed him and is a fixture at its home games. No one is certain, but he may be the longest continuously serving figure in Japanese baseball.
The man commonly called Chico San grew up imagining quite a different life. The youngest of 11 children from Matanzas, Cuba, Barbon came to Japan in 1955 at the age of 21. He planned to spend a few seasons sharpening his skills so that he could gain interest from a major league team in the United States.
Reminded recently that more than a few seasons had passed since beginning that quest, Barbon laughed loudly and said in English: “You know it. I stayed a lot longer than I ever imagined. Boy, did I ever.”
His life changed drastically when the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro broke out on Jan. 1, 1959. Diplomatic ties with the free world were severed, and Barbon was stranded in Japan. The security of a job made him appreciate what he had. He married a Japanese woman and has lived in Japan since.
Barbon’s unlikely journey has its roots in the relationship between Minoru Murakami, a longtime executive of the Hankyu Braves, and Abe Saperstein, the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, who was also active in the Negro leagues.
Through his friendship with Saperstein, Murakami pioneered the signing of black players in Japan. He signed the Birmingham Black Barons teammates John Britton and Jimmy Newberry for Hankyu in 1952 and several more black players in the ensuing years.
In 1954, Barbon was an infielder with the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Class C team in Bakersfield, Calif., where he remembered playing with Larry Sherry and Don Demeter, members of the Dodgers’ 1959 World Series champion team. Barbon was released after the 1954 season, and when Murakami was looking for another black player, Saperstein hooked him up with a Cuban connection who recommended Barbon.
Barbon laughed heartily as he recalled the plight of a young, naïve Cuban stepping off a three-day, seven-leg flight from Havana to Tokyo in February 1955.
“When I got over to the ballpark, it was snowing and everyone was practicing,” he said. “The Japanese were practicing baseball in the snow. I thought, no, it couldn’t be. I never seen snow in my life. Man, it was cold out there. I wanted to go back to Cuba already.”
But he did not. Like his Japanese teammates, Barbon warmed his hands over hot coals placed around the field and slept on a tatami mat with a hot water bottle stuffed inside his futon to warm his feet.
Barbon was unusual among the early foreign players; he adapted to the Japanese way so easily that he lasted 11 seasons. Most left after a season or two. Barbon became the first foreigner to reach 1,000 hits in Japan, and until recently his 1,353 games played was tops among foreigners.
Barbon, a second baseman, batted .241 and hit only 33 home runs, clearly a different kind of foreigner from the slugger Japan craves today. But Barbon possessed the desired skills of the day: agility in the field and speed. He stole 308 bases, the most of any Westerner in Japan, and led the league in steals for three straight seasons beginning in 1958. He is the last foreigner to steal 50 bases in a season.
Barbon’s career is an example of Japan’s transformation to a fascination with home runs. He became expendable when the former major league infielder Daryl Spencer became the first foreign player with back-to-back seasons of 35 home runs or more, in 1964-65 for Hankyu. Barbon played one final season with the Kintetsu Buffaloes before retiring to a career as an interpreter, coach and front office official for his original franchise, today’s Orix Buffaloes.
No matter the role, Barbon has felt at home in Japan (although he says he does not like sushi). He was so comfortable, in fact, that one of his vices once got him in hot water.
Certain that afternoon rain would wash out that evening’s game in Tokyo, Barbon ventured to the indoor site of his favorite spectator sport, sumo wrestling. “Around 4, they announced on the loudspeaker in front of everyone: ‘Mr. Barbon, there’s a game today at Tokyo Stadium. You must go back,’ ” he said. “I ran outside and there was no rain. When I got to the stadium, my manager was really mad.”
But no one stayed mad at him for long, and he has outlasted all other Westerners who have come here to play baseball.
“I get along with everybody here,” Barbon said. “I’m so happy here. Every place I go, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, I have friends. I love it here.”