Did you know that there is an ethnic Russian baseball player enshrined in the Japanese Hall of Fame? His name is Victor Starffin. After a nineteen year career he was elected into the Japanese HOF in 1960 as very first foreigner.
Victor Starffin was born as Viktor Konstantinovich Starukhin in the Urals region in what was then the Russian Empire in 1916. After the the Russian February-March revolution, things started to become dangerous for the former Czar’s army officers, so his parents fled the country and settled on the northern Japanese island of Hoikkaido. Overthere, he attended Asahikawa Higashi High School. After leaving high school, Starffin wanted to attend Waseda University. But in 1934 he was scouted by Japanese media mogul Matsutaro Shoriki, also owner of a Tokyo based baseball club, the Tokyo Kyojin. This club turned out to become the Yomiuri Giants. Shoriki wanted Starffin to join a Japanese All Star team to face the MLB All Star team that toured Japan in 1934.
Starffin was reluctant to turn pro as there was a regulation stating that high school baseball players who played professionally forfeited their eligibility to enter higher education.
Shoriki started to blackmail Starffin as Starffin’s father was in jail because of involuntairy manslaughter. Shoriki threatened to use his connections at the Yomiuri Shimbun to publish details about the case. WIth his father in jail, the family was without financial income and thus could be deported, especially because the family had entered Japan on a transit visa.
Falling for the blackmail and to save the family’s financial situation, Starffin signed with the Tokyo Kyojin and debuted with the team in 1936.
A different story of how Starffin became a professional baseball player however, is one in which Victor was reluctant to leave his high-school team but at the same time was embarrassed by his mother’s financial problems (she had been forced to close a teahouse that she owned) and by the fact that school officials and teammates’ families supporting the Starffin family financially. This version shows Victor as a far nobler figure driven by guilt that his mother had made so many sacrifices to providegive him his new life in Japan. Shoriki used his influence to have Starffin’s father’s prison term cut from eight to 4.5 years largely as an act of gratitude that Victor signed with his team.
Starffin joined the Japanese team for the final two matches against the US All Star Team.
He entered the game for a one inning performance in which he retired future Hall of Famers Charlie Gehringer, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. Gehringer was retired on a weak infield ground out, Gehrig and Ruth were strikout victims.
In 1937, Starffin pitched the third no-hitter of the professional league, after Kyojin team mate Eiji Sawamura pitched the first two (one in 1936 and one in 1937). He played for the team until 1944 in an era when many of Japan’s best ball players were serving in the imperial army. During that period, he won two MVP awards and a best nine award. The best nine award is awarded to nine players (with the DH, now ten) with the best offensive stats, except for pitchers. It can be compared with the Silver Slugger Award of MLB. Starffin won a league leading 42 games in 1939, a record that still stands until today.
As Japan was involved in a war since 1936, xenophobia grew in 1940, which forced Starffin to change his name into Suda Horishi. The country’s officials grew rather uneasy with the fact that its biggest sport star was a foreigner. And with his six foot posture and hsi blond hair he even looked like the enemy the Japanese were fighting. Eventually he was placed in a detention camp with diplomats and other foreign residents.
After World War II Starvin returned to professional baseball but opted to join the Pacific Baseball Club (which turned out to become the DeNA Bay Stars) instead of the Tokyo Giants, who rebuffed him as he wanted to return.
In 1949, Starffin signed with the Kinsei/Daiei Stars (now the Chiba Lotte Marines). His final club would be the Takahashi Unions which would become the Chiba Lotte Marines after several mergers. Starffin played for the Unions in his final two seasons (1954-1955). In his final season, Starffin became the first pitcher to win 300 career games in Japanese professional baseball. He finished his career with a 303-176 record.
Starffin had to deal with his Russian genes as he was bothered by alcoholism. The alcohol abuse worsened after WWII, likely because of the way he was treated as a foreigner during the war. Eventually this led to his death due to a car wrecking accident in 1957.
Perhaps the biggest posthumous honor that Starffin received was the stadium that was named after him in his boyhood hometown of Asahikawa. A bronze statue of the late 300-game winner was placed at the arena’s entrance portals.