Arturo López, a pioneer: first Puerto Rican to Play Professional Baseball in Japan

Art López

Outfielder Arturo (aka Arturito or Art) López Rodríguez was the first Puerto Rico-born baseball player who signed with the New York Yankees (in 1961) and actually played for them (1965). He is the first Boricua to play professional baseball in Japan, having done so, 1968-1973, before others from Puerto Rico, including Jaime “Jimmy” Rosario, Félix Millán, and 26 more. A follow-up blog will highlight accomplishments in Japan of Puerto Rico-born players. The author recently submitted Arturo’s 4,000-word SABR bio to their Bio Project Chief Editor, for review and feedback, covering his whole life. This blog will mention several details about his Puerto Rico Winter League years, including 1967-68, when the subject of Japan first came up, and his clarifying that he negotiated his own contract (and not the New York Yankees), with the 1968 Tokyo Orions. Arturo will be used in this blog, but not his surnames, or Art, or Arturito.

Puerto Rico Anecdotes,  pre-Japan

Arturo posted a .337 AVG for 1963-64 Arecibo, fourth-best, behind teammate Tony Oliva (.365), Ponce’s Walter Bond (.349), and San Juan’s Roberto Clemente (.345). He loved Arecibo; his maternal grandfather owned its first semi-pro baseball team. In 1963-64, Francisco “Pancho” Coímbre, a Ponce coach and Pittsburgh Pirates scout, complimented him, before an Arecibo Wolves-Ponce Lions game: “tu me acuerdas de mí con más poder,” (you remind me of myself with more power). López “felt like a million bucks.”(Coímbre’s .337 lifetime Puerto Rico AVG is second to Willard “Ese Hombre” Brown’s .350.) 

Four years later, playing for the Caguas Criollos, he received a phone call from Pedrín Zorrilla, doing some scouting for the New York Yankees. Zorrilla heard the Yankees received an offer for López’s services from a team in Japan. Would López “permit the Yankees to negotiate on his behalf?”  López asked the Yankees to kindly release him, so he could negotiate his own contract. Later that 1967-68 winter season, at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, prior to a Caguas-San Juan Senators contest, Joe Brown,  Pittsburgh Pirates GM, made a surprise visit to the visitor’s clubhouse. Brown introduced himself; told López: “If you have a good (1968) year at Columbus [Pirates Triple-A team], we split the Rule 5 Draft amount—half of $25,000 or $50,000—if you are selected by another team.”López replied: “I appreciate you and Roberto [Clemente], but I’m going to Japan.” Brown shook López’s hand and left, but López “was forever grateful to him and Roberto—who “must have put in a good word for me”—for their kindness.

Tokyo Orions (1968)

Somehow, the 1968 Tokyo Orions initially confused Arturo with Panamanian Héctor López. The Panamanian López played OF and IF positions but was eight years older than Arturo. Tsuneo “Cappy” Harada, a Japanese-American (Nisei) scout and former baseball player, helped Arturo—who batted and threw left-handed—connect with the Orions, and was asked if he could play 3B? The only time Arturo played 3B was during post-World War II sandlot games in Columbus Landing, Mayagüez, where he grew up, before moving to the South Bronx, July 1949. Arturo said, “yes, I can play 3B!” He always played RF for Tokyo, stating: “The culture in Japan would NOT permit them (Orions) to admit to mistakes,” said López. “I helped them save face.” Arturo’s favorite 3B, in Puerto Rico, was switch-hitting Howard Easterling, 1946-47 Ponce.

A 1968 pre-season highlight was two weeks of spring training in Maui, Hawaii. He enjoyed the presence and teaching of Junior Gilliam and Duke Snider, two spring training instructors, courtesy of the friendship between Orions and Dodgers ownership. Arturo saw Gilliam play 2B for Puerto Rico’s Aguadilla Sharks, 1948-49 season. When Arturo played stickball in the South Bronx, 1950-53, he recalled Snider (with Brooklyn Dodgers); Willie Mays (New York Giants) and Mickey Mantle (New York Yankees) were icons to him and fellow teenagers. Those from the Bronx defended and supported Mantle; Manhattan residents vouched for Mays; while those living in Brooklyn adored Snider.

Tokyo (67-63-9) finished third, of six teams, in the Pacific League, of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). Wataru Nonin, a native of Hiroshima, was Arturo’s first skipper in Japan. Arturo produced with a .289 AVG, 23 HR, and 74 RBI, in 137 games. Tokyo’s other import (“Gaijin”) was George Altman, who also batted left-handed. They were a powerful duo, during four NPB seasons. In 1968, Altman hit .320, with 34 HR and 100 RBI, in 139 games. Sadaharu Oh’s 49 HR for the Central League Yomiuri Giants was the top NPB figure for 1968.

Teams in Japan adhered to a tight schedule. López nearly starved during the initial 1968 season road trip when he and roommate Altman fiddled with chopsticks while their teammates picked up “great food from a huge bowl containing all kinds of fish and meats.” The players ate “a mile a minute” and the team bus was “waiting” and we [Altman-López] had eaten almost nothing. It did not take us long to learn how to use those sticks to perfection!”

Lotte Orions, 1969-1971

Arturo produced, 1969-1971, for Lotte—same franchise, new ownership. Mr. Nagata, Lotte’s owner, was a good friend of  Horace Stoneham, San Francisco Giants owner.

In 1969, Arturo led Lotte (69-54-7) with 23 HR, two more than this trio: Altman (21), Hihachi Enomoto (21), and Michiyo Arito (21). Arturo’s 81 RBI trailed Altman’s team-high of 82. Arturo’s .301 AVG tied for Lotte’s second-best, with Hiroyuki Yamazaki. (Takenori Ikebe led Lotte with a .322 AVG.) Fumio Narita (22-13, 2.73 ERA and nine SHO) led a pitching staff, with a 3.11 ERA. Lotte finished third in the Pacific League.

The Orions facilitated private school education for Arturo’s four children. They lived in a nice house. There was no need for Arturo to play winter ball. His key takeaway from Japan was that “Japanese respect your privacy; space is sacred.”After signing post-game autographs, fans let him walk to the train station, staying behind him. He liked Japan’s “group mentality over individual” philosophy; shorter distances of baseball stadium fences; two cut-off throws, not a long throw. Two cut-off throws allowed him to play RF more effectively, with less strain on his left arm. For road games, Arturo stayed in the best Western-style hotels.

Lotte defeated the San Francisco Giants, 10-6, March 29, 1970, in the Giants’ final game of their nine-game spring training series in Japan. Enomoto’s first-inning two-run HR off Gaylord Perry propelled the Orions to this win. Coincidentally, Arturo went hitless against Perry, who threw him spitballs. They had a good laugh about this. And Arturo hit an HR off Juan Marichal during one of these spring training games! The Giants were the first MLB team to play a series in Japan BEFORE the regular season. San Francisco went 3-6 in Japan, the first time an MLB team lost the majority of its games in that country. https://www.nytimes.com/1970/03/30/archives/giants-end-japanese-trip-with-6th-loss-in-9-games.html

This momentum continued into the regular season, as Lotte won the Pacific League with an 80-47-3 record, 10.5 games ahead of the Nankai Hawks. Five Orions hit 20+ HR, with López hitting 21, but Yomiuri Giants (79-47-4), Central League winners, won the Nippon Series, four games-to-one, with Oh and Shigeo Nagashima leading the way. He was chosen, by fans, for both 1970 All-Star Games, and recalled leading off, and hitting an HR  in the first one, but excused himself from the second one, due to the birth of Christopher, the family’s fifth child. López appreciated the fans for twice voting him to play in the All-Star Game.

In 1971, Lotte spent part of spring training in Scottsdale, Arizona, working out/playing against San Francisco. Arturo noted that Altman and country singer Charley Pride, from Mississippi, served in the U.S. Army together. “He [Pride] practiced with us,” said López. “He loved baseball and looked like a great singer.” A highlight was getting to know Willie Mays, who played for the 1951 and 1954 New York Giants when Arturo lived in the South Bronx. “I played with Mickey Mantle (1965); spent time with Duke Snider (1968 spring training) and Willie Mays (1969 spring training),” recalled López. “And I was on a first-name basis with Willie and Mickey.”

Lotte’s 80-46-4 mark in 1971 was second in the Central League. The Orions clubbed 193 HR, the equivalent of 240 round-trippers, in a 162-game season. Arturo cracked 24 HR in 128 games (508 AB), for one HR every 21.2 AB.  Altman’s 39 HR led the team, followed by Arito’s 27, Shinichi Eto’s 25, Arturo’s 24, and Yamazaki’s 21. The team scored 654 runs (five per game). Arturo’s .301/.339/.500 slash line, with .839 OPS, was superior to Lotte’s team slash line: .270/.329/.447 and .776 OPS.  In four seasons with the Orions, he hit 91 homers with 301 RBI, and a .300 AVG. Table I includes his 1968-1971 Orions hitting stats. He wore #9 for the Orions.

Table I: Arturo López Hitting Stats, Orions, 1968-to-1971

SeasonGABRH2B3BHRRBIAVGOBPSLGOPS
1968137561811622732374.289.328.471.798
1969122459611381632381.301.341.499.840
1970120457651432002169.313.344.495.838
1971128508821532142477.301.339.500.839
Totals5071,985289596841091301.300.336.490.826

Kind Deed for José Feliciano

Arturo did a kind deed for singer José Feliciano, when the latter was in Tokyo, for concerts. Feliciano’s suitcases were lost in transit, but López had his own tailor at the New Japan Hotel in Tokyo, and arranged for suits to be made for the singer, a native of Lares, Puerto Rico. Feliciano moved to New York City at age 14 and is completely bilingual (English-Spanish), as Arturo is. (Arturo first met Feliciano circa 1965 when Yankees teammate Tony Kubek pointed him (Feliciano) out at a restaurant in Chicago.)

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Yakult Atoms, 1972-73

The Atoms were in the Central League. In 1972, they were 60-67-3, fourth of six teams. Arturo played in 126 games, hitting .286, with 14 HR and 61 RBI. Dave Roberts, the team’s other import, hit a team-leading 22 HR and drove in 63, also a club-high. Then, Arturo concluded his NPB career with 1973 Yakult (62-65-3) playing in 117 games, with 11 HR, 39 RBI, and a .233 AVG. Ex-Yankees teammate Joe Pepitone briefly, was, Arturo’s 1973 Atoms teammate. Arturo enjoyed the Orions more than the Atoms, but Japan, overall, was “immensely glorious.”

NPB and Other Career Stats

Arturo’s complete NPB and minor-league stats are at https://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.fcgi?id=lopez-002art. In Japan, he played 750 games, in six full seasons, with a .290/.334/.470 slash line, and .804 OPS, 122 doubles, 13 triples, 116 HR, and 401 RBI. In U.S. minors: .287 AVG, 49 HR, and 311 RBI. In his five Puerto Rico Winter League seasons, .284 AVG, with 186 hits/655 AB, 95 runs, 25 doubles, 14 triples, nine HR, and 79 RBI.

Arturo’s Legacy as First Boricua to play in Japan’s Pacific and Central Leagues

Arturo is proud and honored to be the first professional baseball player from the Island of Puerto Rico to play professionally in Japan. Jaime “Jimmy” Rosario, from Bayamón, followed Arturo, with the 1977 Crown Lighter Lions, nearly a decade after  Arturo’s debut with 1968 Tokyo Orions. Table II lists the first Caribbean/Latin American players with each of the 12 Japanese Central and Pacific League franchises. Three preceded Arturo, and they were born in Cuba—Roberto “Chico” Barbón, Chico Fernández and Ramón Mejías. Leo Gómez, from Canóvanas, Puerto Rico, is the only other Boricua on this list. As noted in the first paragraph, a follow-up blog will highlight all the players from Puerto Rico who played for a Japanese professional baseball team. So, stay tuned for this upcoming blog!

Table II: First Caribbean/Latin American Players, 12 NPB Franchises, 1955-1997

PlayerPositionTeam and SeasonCity/Country of Birth
Roberto “Chico” BarbónIFHankyu Braves (1955)Matanzas, Cuba
Roberto “Chico” BarbónIFKintetsu Buffaloes (1965)Matanzas, Cuba
Chico FernándezSSHanshin Tigers (1965)Havana, Cuba
Román MejíasOFSankei Atoms (1966)Abreus, Cuba
Arturo LópezOFTokyo Orions (1968)Mayagüez, Puerto Rico
Andre RodgersIFTaiyo Whales (1969)Nassau, Bahamas
José VidalOFNishitetsu Lions (1971)Batey Lechuga, El Seibo, Dominican Republic (DR)
Tony GonzálezOFHiroshima Carp (1972)Central Cunagua, Cuba
Zoilo VersallesSSHiroshima Carp (1972)Havana, Cuba
Luis SánchezPYomiuri Giants (1986)Cariaco Sucre, Venezuela
Bernardo BritoOFNippon Ham Fighters (1995)San Cristóbal, DR
José NuñezPFukuoka Daiei Hawks (1996)Jarabacoa, La Vega (DR)
Leo Gómez3BChunichi Dragons (1997)Canóvanas, Puerto Rico

Sources: Akihiro Kawaura and Sumner La Croix. “Integration of North and South American Players in Japan’s Professional Baseball Leagues.” International Economic Review, Vol. 57, No. 3, 2016: 1107-1126; https://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/1973_in_Japanese_Baseball, plus many other season-by-season sources for Japan’s Professional Baseball Leagues (NPB).

Grateful acknowledgment to Arturo López Rodríguez for March-April 2021 phone interviews and e-mails, Ike Futch, a friend from their days in the Yankees organization, provided Arturo’s contact information. Jorge Colón Delgado, Official Historian, Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League, furnished Arturo’s Puerto Rico Winter League (PRWL) stats.

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