Former Baseball: Japan ace Gene Bacque hasn't pitched in 50 years, but his name keeps coming up
GLENN GUILBEAU, USA TODAY Network, Published in the Advertiser, July 14, 2018
They keep bowing to Gene Bacque, a Cajun farm boy from Scott who won 100 games in Japan's professional baseball league from 1962-69 and left a lasting mark in more ways than one.
Now nearing his 81st birthday and living in Lafayette since 1970, only in recent years is Bacque's body of work being touched.
"Why do they keep bowing at me? It's strange," Bacque asked a fellow American player from Pittsburgh on the Hanshin Tigers in Japan back in the early '60s. "He told me the Japanese people really respected people older than them. There was so much respect from the younger people. It was like I was a god. That was the culture shock. If you were older, they'd bow. They'd do whatever you wanted."
Bacque played his first full season for Hanshin in 1963 and turned 26 that Aug. 12. A 6-foot-3, 195-pound right-hander who was a top pitcher in 1956-57 for Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette), he went 8-5 with a 2.49 earned run average in 1963 after an 0-3 start late in the 1962 season.
Bows became bountiful for Bacque in 1964 when he went 29-9 with a 1.88 ERA and a Hanshin team record for foreigners of 200 strikeouts in 353 and one-third innings. That record stood until 2014 when Randy Messenger of Reno, Nevada, struck out 226 for Hanshin.
Bacque received the ultimate nod from Japan for a pitcher after that 1964 season when he became the first American to win the prestigious Sawamura Award that has gone to the best pitcher in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) since 1947.
Named after Yomiuri Giants' ace Eiji Sawamura, who was killed in combat against the United States in World War II in 1944 at age 27, the Sawamura Award predates America's Cy Young Award that has gone to Major League Baseball's best pitcher since 1956 in honor of Young — 511-316 from 1890 to 1911. Sawamura was 63-22 with a 1.74 ERA from 1936-43 with Japan's first no-hitter in 1936 and two others.
Gene Bacque's Sawamura Award is displayed at his home in Lafayette. (Photo: Caitlin Jacob, The Advertiser)
Bacque proudly displays his Sawamura and a host of other memorabilia at his home in the Broadmoor neighborhood of Lafayette.
Sadaharu Oh, the world leader in home runs with 868 from 1959-80 for the Yomiuri Giants ahead of Barry Bonds' 762 from 1986-2007 in MLB, came up to Bacque during an exhibition game after the '64 season. He didn't bow, but he said, "You should have got the MVP, too."
Oh, who was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994, had won the first of his nine MVP awards in 1964 when he hit a career high 55 home runs.
"I thought that was nice of him," said Bacque, who had some power of his own as he hit seven home runs in the '64 and '65 seasons, including two in one game.
No American pitcher would win the Sawamura again for more than a half century.
In 2016, Hiroshima Carp left-handed pitcher Kris Johnson of West Corina, California, won the Sawamura after going 15-7 with a 2.15 ERA and 141 strikeouts in 180 and a third innings.
In just about every story about Johnson's feat, Bacque made the second paragraph as the previous American to win the Sawamura.
Gene Bacque is pictured during his playing days in Japan. (Photo: Caitlin Jacob, The Advertiser)
"When Kris won it and realized I had won it, I read where he said, 'I'm not in the same ballpark with this guy,'" Bacque said. "I appreciated that. Now, they pitch four or five innings, and they take you out whether you're ahead or not. When I pitched, we'd usually go nine."
Bacque pitched 240 innings or more in five straight seasons from 1964-68 and averaged 18 wins a year over that span. He threw a one-hitter in 1963 and tossed a no-hitter against Oh and the Yomiuri Giants in 1965.
"We'd throw 120 to 124 pitches a game, and we might get three days rest," he said.
Bacque went 18-14 in 1965 and 18-12 in 1967 before retiring after the 1969 season with Kintetsu at 32 amid some back issues with a career record of 100-80. He became the second American pitcher in Japan Baseball history to win 100 games after Joe Stanka of Hammon, Oklahoma, who was 100-72 from 1960-66 with the Nankai Hawks and the Taiyo Whales.
Bacque is the last American to win 100 games in Japan. But Messenger improved to 93-75 last week with Bacque's own Hanshin Tigers. Messenger has played for Hanshin since 2010 after brief stints with Florida, San Francisco and Seattle in Major League Baseball.
"I want Randy to get to 100," Bacque said. "He's a great pitcher. I'm hoping he can get the Sawamura, too."
Gracious yes, but Bacque, still jolly and a bit mischievous, threw a high hard one at Messenger when he reached 40 wins in Japan in 2013.
"Out of the blue, I got this letter through the team from some guy in Louisiana," Messenger said in a New York Times story early this month.
It was from Bacque, who wrote, "Forty wins is nice, but you've got a long way to go to match my record of 100."
The two have been pen pals ever since. Bacque sent a message to Messenger before this season with some old-school advice, according to the Times story.
"You've got to toughen up and brush them back by coming inside more or they're just going to pick and peck you to death," Bacque said.
Bacque should know. He wasn't afraid to brush back the world's home run leader back in the day.
Known as "arguably the most successful American pitcher in the history of Nippon Pro Baseball," according to Baseball-Reference.com, Bacque is also infamous for instigating a brawl between his Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants in 1968 at the Tigers' Koshien Stadium and televised throughout Japan. It was a hot September pennant race, and Bacque trailed Oh's Giants by a game and a run.
"We were down 1-0 in the fourth, and they had two runners on base with two outs," Bacque said. "Our team didn't score much, and Oh is at bat. I wasn't going to give him anything good to hit. I wanted to walk him. The first pitch was inside, and he went back. He didn't do anything, didn't say anything. He rarely did. So the next pitch, I threw it in the same place by his head, and it backed him up again. So then, he got a little pissed. He put his bat down, walked two or three steps and stopped. I didn't think too much of it, but then the damn bench, and a guy by the name of Hiroshi Arakawa, who was Oh's batting instructor, hit me with one of them karate kicks with his spikes and tore my uniform up. That really pissed me off."
And it was on. A mob of Giants' players swarmed around Bacque, who withstood some blows.
"But I kept my eye on Arakawa, and when he came back around, I let him have it," Bacque said in his thick Cajun accent. "I cut his forehead, and it made a 'V.' I mean, it made a perfect 'V.' And he went to the bench. But I broke my thumb when I hit him. I mean I broke it bad when I hit him."
Order was not restored for nearly an hour. Then Hanshin reliever Masatoshi Gondo hit Oh in the head with a pitch and sent him to the hospital for three days.
And Bacque went to court.
"Over there, when you get in an altercation in front of a lot of people, the commissioner has nothing to do with it," Bacque said. "You've got to go in front of a judge. I laughed about it. I told my interpreter this happens all the time back home. And he said, 'You're not in the U.S.'"
Arakawa, who passed away in 2016 at 86, arrived to appear in front of the same judge and walked up to Bacque.
"How's your thumb?"
"Not bad," Bacque said. "How's your head?"
Before Arakawa could answer, Bacque noticed the 'V' was still there. "I said, 'Ohhh, V for Victory.'"
Oh's team won that game, the pennant and the series championship. Bacque missed the several weeks of the season with his thumb injury, finishing 13-14 with a 2.19 ERA for his first losing campaign in a full season in Japan. Then he was traded to the Kintetsu Buffaloes.
"All the newspapers were for me," Bacque said. "Everyone was against this guy Arakawa, but Oh was such a big man over there that I thought they were going to send me home. So they traded me. Then I hurt my back."
He was 0-7 with the Buffaloes in his last season.
"It was time to retire," he said.
Gene Bacque is interviewed at his home in Lafayette, La. on June 26, 2018. (Photo: Caitlin Jacob, The Advertiser)
He returned to Scott with a job as a teacher at Scott Elementary, where he remained for decades before retiring. On the side, he helped coach the pitchers at then-USL from 1971-80 for head coaches Bob Banna and Don Lockwood and partnered to run the Cowboys nightclub on Ambassador Caffery for several years beginning in 1982.
Bacque was inducted into the UL Athletics Hall of Fame in 2013 and has been nominated for consideration to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
Mel Didier, longtime baseball executive and former UL baseball coach and athletic director, shown here talking baseball with UL Hall of Famer Gene Bacque (seated), will be returning to Lafayette this weekend for a baseball reunion with his former players from the early 1980s. (Photo: Advertiser file photo)
Through MLB scout and Marksville native Mel Didier, who died last year, Bacque was signed by the Detroit Tigers in 1957 and bounced around the minor leagues through 1962, struggling to a 25-40 record. His last stop in Detroit's organization was with the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders in 1962, and the club wanted to move him back to Single-A. But he happened to meet a Japanese scout and passed a tryout for Hanshin.
And the rest is Japanese-American-Cajun history. After finishing off his bachelor's degree at USL and marrying Doris Ann Hruzek of Rosenberg, Texas, in 1962 in Hawaii, the couple made Japan their home and had their middle three of five children there.
Bacque's wife of nearly 50 years, Doris Ann passed away in 2011, and was survived by Gene and the children — Rita, John, Michelle, Suzanne and Andrea.
"We loved Japan. The kids loved Japan," Bacque said. "But I think I could've pitched over here. That's my thinking. I could've pitched here."
When Bacque started to have success in Japan after developing a slider and knuckleball, ABC's Wide World of Sports did a segment on him.
"People back in the States saw it," he said. "I heard talk that, 'This guy should go back to the States and play.' But I wouldn't have gone back anyway. I enjoyed it too much in Japan. My wife loved it. I was making very good money and no taxes. They would pay my airfare back home. We vacationed in Hong Kong. We loved the food. We'd go back after I retired. And they'd always bow."
Click here for Gene's Athletic Network profile.