Meet Japan’s Kohei Nirengi, Leading The Way For Major League Fans, Autograph Collectors

“I met with Mr. Bob Wolff and his wife, Mrs. Jean, in New York City in March, 2009, it was my second trip to the U.S. This HOF broadcaster invited me out to lunch as his first fan from Japan. I never forget that he brought my air mails and letters to him at that time. He was a first person who wanted me to become friend in baseball. I had a great time with both. He also hired a Japanese interpreter for me ! My hobby has brought many happiness to me.”
(Photo and words courtesy of Kohei Nirengi)

Some baseball fans collect autographs. Kohei Nirengi collects friendships.

I met Kohei (pronounced CO-hey) after an August e-mail. As a pen pal with former Cub Bob Will, he learned of this blog.

Instantly, I was impressed by the knowledge and passion of this fan from Japan. He was focusing his collection on retired players. Except, he was corresponding with them! It seemed like baseball families were adopting him.

Small wonder. He wrote thorough, insightful letters. He asked great questions. Retirees knew who he was, why he loved baseball and why he wanted THEIR autograph. Then, he’d send thank-you notes, even portraits that this talented artist created out of gratitude.

Kohei is TRI-lingual. He speaks and writes his native Japanese, English and baseball.

Q:. When did you first start collecting Major League autographs by mail? Who was your first?

A: I started it in October, 2004. Bobby Valentine, since he managed the Chiba Lotte Marines at that time. I thought it would be easy for me to get his autograph by domestic mail than by air mail after he would come back to the US.

Q: How did you learn about finding retired player addresses, SASEs and U.S. stamps? How common is it in Japan to collect Japanese player autographs by mail?

A: It was easy to find some good TTM websites by Japanese serious collectors on-line when I decided to start. So I could realize that I would find former player addresses, if I could purchase Harvey Meiselman’s baseball address lists. Much of Japanese collectors wrote about SASE on their websites, too, so that it was easily understand that I should enclose such a thing with my fan letter. U.S. stamps were very difficult to get early in my challenging, so I had to buy many expensive U.S. commemorative stamps via our Yahoo! auction. Then I found a Japanese trader who lives in the West Coast on-line, and I could buy many U.S. stamps from him, but, of course, I had to pay allowance to him. Nowadays I buy them as I have a chance to visit the U.S. This is the best way!

Well, needless to say, you must enclose SASEs with your letters to Japanese players by mail. Also I’m sure the most important thing is to send your passion for baseball and each players with your requests.

Q: Who offered the first response of something more than signing your card? Can you share an example or two of people responding with a letter or extra autographed items, wanting to befriend a fan from another country?

A: Phil Niekro offered his autographed HOF card of himself. Gary Kroll, former pitcher with the Mets, was very kind to offer very nice photos in baseball to me, and told me about a slugfest between the Cubs and Phils at the Wrigley Field. Dwight ” Red” Adams and George Elder responded with my questions by mail. George Green, former outfielder in the Negro Leagues had befriended me, I really appreciated his help to better understand their history.

Q: What percentage retirees (versus current players) do you write to? Why do you have a special interest in FORMER players, being such a young fan?

A: The percentage of retirees to current players on my requests is 90 to 10. Because I just respect the history of this greatest game of baseball, so I want to send my gratitude for each former player. Also I would love to investigate each story in baseball by themselves, all of them would be worth sharing.

Q: What is a typical letter like that you write? How often do you ask questions? What items do you ask to have signed — if any?

A: ” I believe that baseball is the most beautiful game all around the world.” This is my typical note to write on each of my requests, I really mean it. To be honest, I rarely asked questions on my letters until I found your awesome blog about not only collections but also such questions by letters. Then I try to ask a few questions to them often. In my case, I’ve enclosed each baseball card or original Index card which I made by myself to get their autographs by mail.

Q: Do any autograph signers note that they’re surprised that a fan from another country could know so much about American baseball? And how do you keep so well informed about baseball, past and present?

A: Yeah, in fact, few former players from the 1940’s, like Red Borom and Cy Buker, noted they pretty impressed on my knowledge of American baseball. Needless to say, I’m very honored. Well, it was very difficult to keep up with the updated news about MLB here in Japan before Hideo Nomo broke into the Big Leagues with the Dodgers in 1995, and then a couple of monthly MLB magazines in Japanese have published, although, one of them had to stop the publication four years ago. Anyhow, I can get much information about American baseball, past and present, by them. Also I could find many old baseball books in an used-book store in Tokyo. Nowadays I’m blessed to have the Internet to get many updates across the Pacific Ocean. Amazing!

Q: How difficult is it to get American baseball cards — past and present — to get signed?

A: I think it is easy for any Japanese MLB fans to get current American baseball cards on-line. We have some sports’ cards shops over here, they handle not only Japanese sports’ cards, but MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL. Also if you can get into an auction site like Yahoo!, probably you could get past American baseball cards, but it would be expensive often. Our shops or such auction website also handle so many signed baseball cards, so you can get them here in my country.

Q: You mentioned that your parents are fans of Hideki Matsui. Have you had success writing to Japanese major leaguers here in America? Have you written to them in Japanese? I think every collector would love an Ichiro autograph.

A: Yes, fortunately, I could succeed in getting Hiroki Kuroda, Masumi Kuwata, and Koji Uehara, not many, but I love these autographs ! Yes, of course, I’ve written to them in Japanese. I’ve tried to get Ichiro’s autograph in the mail, but failed, however I’ve seen that one of major Japanese collector got one from this future HOFer by mail ! Many collector would envy his success-haha.

Q. You are a special fan of the Philadelphia Phillies. Why? How are the Phils a specialty in your collection? Who are some of your favorite signatures?

A: Since I did enjoy the 1993 World Series between the Phillies and Blue Jays, this series were my 1st televised MLB games in my life. As far as my collection, the Phils are not special, I’ve treated all responses alike.

Q: Phillies or not, who are some favorite autographs of yours?

A: I venture to pick some of my favorite signatures: Virgil “Fire” Trucks, Curt Simmons, Roy Sievers, Greg Luzinski, and Harmon Killebrew.

Q: What hobby goals do you have?

A: I just want to keep sending my requests to the U.S. along with my appreciation for this greatest game as long as I am able.

Q:. What advice do you have for other collectors?

A: Well, I would make conventional remarks, ” patience” is the most important thing to keep doing this hobby, for instance, I had had to await for getting a response by Vin Scully for 6 years! By the way, Japanese baseball fans enjoy collecting autographs via TTM. That’s good for baseball, also hope that more baseball fans in our both countries just enjoy this wonderful hobby in the future.

Thank you, Kohei. And, thanks for reminding us that, no matter who we are, or where we are, baseball is a universal language.

Taming The Temper of Ted Williams

Broadcaster Bob Wolff excelled as a journalist, maintaining objectivity while enjoying friendships with players. That tightrope walk worked even with Ted Williams. Without Wolff’s intervention, Williams may have become the first silent star, a 1950s predecessor to Steve Carlton.

Wolff wrote:

“Ted Williams was an individualist — and such a great hitter that, when he took batting practice before a game — players on both sides would pause what they were doing to watch him in action. If he didn’t do well, being anxious to perform well, I let him cool off before making a connection with him. When Ted got into a problem in Boston and was booed there for criticizing some press members and fans, he vowed never to do another interview. He had promised me that he would go on with me in his next trip to Washington and I mentioned his promise to him when he came to town.

‘Ted,’ I said, ‘you promised to do an interview with me, but as a friend, I’ll forget that if you want to back out. You see, my job, if you go on, is to ask you about the incident in Boston. That’s my responsibility as a reporter. If I don’t do that, my management will get on me for not doing what I should do. But as a friend, I’m giving you the choice to back out — so it’s up to you.’

Ted said, ‘I’ll be there with you and ask anything you want.’

Ted did the show, said he felt remorse about his actions and said he had exploded because some of his critics had given untrue versions of his good relationship with his team. he concluded his interview with me by saying, ‘and Bob, I’m delighted to go on with you because you’ve always been so fair to me.’

I think today’s journalists, if they took the time to understand him, would have received the same treatment. He was a likable guy who loved speaking baseball, not controversy.”

I can’t wait for Wolff’s new book: Bob Wolff’s Complete Guide to Sportscasting: How to Make It in Sportscasting (With or Without Talent)

Bob Wolff on the Birth of Minnesota Twins

Broadcaster Bob Wolff saw Senators become Twins overnight. He broadcast Minnesota’s first season from Metropolitan Stadium.

I asked him to compare the ballpark to Washington’s home. I confessed that I had limited adjectives for my trips to “the Met,” with the words “cold” and “windy” appearing most frequently. Wolff replied:

“My memories of Metropolitan Stadium were very positive. I loved the large crowds, and their response to the team. the team was on the rise. Sitting in the TV or radio booth there, I was pretty well-shielded from ‘cold’ and ‘windy.’ In Washington, it was ‘hot’ and ‘hotter.'”

Wolff inspired me to give Metropolitan Stadium one more chance (in my imagination, at least). I scoured the ‘net for a nice ballpark bio. Too many read like obituaries. Then, I discovered that “The Met” has its own Facebook page. Want to see a ballpark come alive again? Check this out!

Broadcaster Bob Wolff, Senators BP Pitcher!

Imagine Vin Scully shagging flies or Harry Caray fielding grounders. Broadcasters working out with their teams?

Mind you, we’re not talking about a player-turned-announcer. Just consider seeing someone go from the pressbox to the practice field.

Bob Wolff did it regularly for the Washington Senators, from 1947-60. Yes, he’s the colorful announcer who named his memoir It’s Not Who Won or Lost the Game – It’s How You Sold the Beer. (Out of print, but available from used booksellers.) Wolff rose to fame in the 1960s, graduating from the inaugural Minnesota Twins broadcasters to NBC Game of the Week. He won the Hall of Fame’s Ford Frick Award for career achievements in baseball broadcasting in 1995.

Who knew that this athletic play-by-play man may have been wearing a baseball uniform, if not for two crucial breaks. Here’s how the one-and-only Bob Wolff described it on paper to me:

“Breaking my ankle playing baseball at duke University proved to be a big break in my career. Considered a top prospect in high school, I went to Duke because, at that time, they sent more collegians into pro baseball than any other school. When injured, the local CBS radio station asked me to sit in on their game broadcasts. I soon had my own shows on the station and helped to work my way through college as a broadcaster.

After World War II, at age 27, when I was hired as Washington D.C.’s first television sportscaster, broadcasting the Washington Senators, I wanted to keep in shape by playing ball and the team – and the players – were pleased that I had the ability to pitch batting practice to them. They also let me do some hitting for the fun of it before going up to the TV booth. I became ball-playing friends with the players, we talked baseball together, ate together and they were delighted to be on TV and radio pre-and post-game shows as my friends. The same was true with visiting players and eventually I formed my own company doing interviews with all – the pre-game shows before Yankees games, Red Sox games, Kansas City and elsewhere as well as Washington, of course. My playing helped my relationships. All the stars and non-stars seemed to enjoy chatting with me – and this helped my career tremendously.

As a player, I was fast, had great defensive ability, threw well, had a .583 batting average my last season in high school, was a line-drive hitter, but lacked the power to be a center fielder, didn’t have enough home runs. My Duke coach wanted to shift me to shortstop but a broken finger on a bad hop sidelined me again – so I went back to the radio and eventually TV booth and since then watched my children – my wife Jane and I have three – excel as ballplayers.

I don’t know of any other broadcaster who worked out with the team. It wasn’t a publicity stunt – I contributed to them an d enjoyed doing it. Most of the writers then and other broadcasters were older men – some had been players – and I was through with my workouts before they arrived at the ballpark. they,  too, were good friends and seemed to enjoy my proving that it’s possible to have athletic as well as journalistic skills. I’m fortunate to have both and I never sensed any concern about my dual role.”

Tomorrow: Wolff, as the voice of the first-year Twins, compares Minnesota to Washington, D.C.

Coming Soon: A HOFer (?) + Stan Williams!

Do you mean a REAL Hall of Famer?!?

I heard from a Ford Frick winner, tireless broadcaster Bob Wolff. The writers and announcers have brought such baseball joy to me, I struggle to put an asterisk by their name. Technically, their name gets added to one huge award in Cooperstown. They aren’t enshrined with their own plaque.

Once I read Wolff’s DETAILED memories, I was sure he deserved some kind of HOF recognition. His revelations were jewels I had never found in any published history.

The same goes for pitcher Stan Williams. He returned a two-page letter full of amazing stories. The gritty pitcher is scouting for the Washington Nationals this year, he wrote. Quick, someone write him for an account of Stephen Strasburg. Does he seem glimpses of himself?

What Williams lacks in career stats, he makes up for with jaw-dropping insights. I think book publishers would race to get a memoir out of the former relief ace.

Additionally, I’ll have a great account of two “cups of coffee” from 1950s abbreviated careers, one from the Cincinnati Reds and the other with the Detroit Tigers. There’s no July vacation here. Superb baseball memories are sizzling on the grill.

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