Wednesday, June 23, 2010

34. Victor Starffin

Back in the summer of 1987 I was fortunate enough to have been selected to attend the New Jersey Governors School of the Arts, a summer-long program in Trenton that picked the 20 best artists, 20 best writers, 20 best dancers, etc. Besides being a great experience, being immersed with like-minded peers for the first time in my life, the other great thing about that summer was the access I had to a huge college library. I spent so many hours in there finding all the books I always wanted read, history, fiction... and baseball. Their baseball section was spectacular to a poor 16 year-old starved for knowledge. One of the great books I pulled off the shelf was "You Gotta Have Wah" by Robert Whiting about Japanese baseball. It was mostly about the post-1950 game and I was more interested in prewar baseball, but it exposed me to a whole part of the game I only had vague knowledge of.

One of the most unique players in all of baseball history has got to be Victor Starffin. The son of Tsarist Russian refugees who fled the old country with only their lives, Victor Constantinovich Starffin grew up in the northern Japanese town of Asahikawa in a perilous situation as a stateless person - a man without a country. At 6'-2" he was huge compared to the native Japanese and was encouraged to take up the game of baseball that was sweeping the country at the time. He excelled as a pitcher in high school and was a legend around the island of Hokkaido. In 1933 Victor's father was convicted of killing a young Russian girl who he employed at his tea room. The circumstances of the killing was murky, his father first admitting to the murder due to "sexual jealousy" and later claiming it was because she was a Soviet agent. He was sentenced to 8 years in jail and the family, already in a precarious position as refugees were now confronted with the threat of deportation back to Russia and a sure trip to the gulag.

At this time the Japanese government was putting together a National Team to play against the Major League All-Star team that was due to arrive on the islands in the fall of 1934. What better addition to the team than the 6 foot Russian fireballer from Hokkaido? Problem was Victor was thoroughly devoted to his home area team and the faithful fans rallied around their hero. The pressure from the government was such that the locals provided bodyguards to protect him from being kidnapped! Ultimately Japan threatened deportation and Starffin reluctantly went to Tokyo to join the National Team. His father's sentence was reduced to 2 years.

Starffin pitched against the All-Stars once in relief and rated a mention in the New York Times as a standout on the Japanese team. After the Major League Team left the island the National Team stayed together and toured the United States and Canada in 1935 and 1936. As the lone Caucasian on the team, North Americans automatically assumed he spoke English, leading to a few funny situations.

Japan started its first professional league in 1937 and the National Team formed the nucleus for the great Tokyo Giants team. Along with teenage sensation Eiji Sawamura, Starffin was at the forefront of it winning an average of 30 games each season from 1937 to 1942. In 1939 he won a staggering 42 games and in 1940 he won 38. He simply dominated the league and with the onset of the war and the military draft taking the better players from the league his record got better and better. But times were turning against him. English names and numbers were banned from the team uniforms and replaced by Japanese characters. Because he was a foreigner he was placed under surveillance as a prospective spy and to try to fit in to his adapted homeland he changed his name to Hiroshi Suda. But it wasn't enough. In 1944 the Tokyo Giants fired their best pitcher and he was sent to a detention camp where he contracted pleurisy. Weak and psychologically wounded after his wife left him, Starffin turned to drinking. After the war he turned down an offer from his old team and instead signed with the new Pacific team. He pitched until 1955 but he never was the same dominant pitcher as before the war. Starffin compiled 303 wins, the first in Japan to do so and died in a car accident in 1957 while driving drunk, a sad end to a truly unique player from baseball's past.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff- I think the greatest Starffin story is his hanging on through the '55 season, in which he would wind up 7-21, with the absolutely terrible Unions. Just so he could get his 300th win, a win that would not come until close to the end of the season but make him the first to win 300 in the history of Japanese Professional Baseball. With all the real heartache and sorrow in his life, all of the real tragedy, the fact that he needed that record shows something about how baseball ties everything together. We can see a pitcher today hanging on in the same way, just as a pitcher would have in the 19th century. As I said, great stuff, and great looking card. Also, check out this post on one of the games of that '35 tour of North America in which Starffin pitched and played: