America’s 2012 Major League Baseball season is about to begin in a couple weeks. And I must say, sixty-six percent (Oops. I meant, seventy-five percent. Forgot about Kuu, sorry!) of us here in Tofugu-land can’t wait for the season to begin. It is also a headline heavy season for Japanese import players. Yu Darvish, the half-Iranian-half-Japanese playboy megastar will be making his MLB pitching debut with the Texas Rangers. Here is to hoping he lives up to his expectations and hype, unfortunately something that many Japanese MLB-transitioned players do not.
There is a short list of players that have become household names in American baseball and deservingly so, such as Ichiro and Matsui. However, there is one more name that many MLB fans should at least become familiar with: Sadaharu Oh.
What makes Mr. Oh special? He may not have played in the MLB, but his long list of achievements during his professional career playing in the Nippon Professional League can’t be ignored. His 868 career home-runs is the most achieved by any professional baseball player. Yes, even compared to the MLB all-time home run leader, Barry Bonds’ 762 home runs. If Bonds’ steroid driven record doesn’t impress you, then let’s compare it to Hank Aaron’s 755 home runs or Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs.
Although Oh’s staggering 868 career homers is something to gawk at, there is a lot of debate on the quality of the Japanese baseball league and if Oh would have been able to achieve such numbers if he played in the Big Leagues. I will not be debating the if and if nots of Mr. Oh’s ability to play in the MLB, but I’ll let these quotes from very respectable players speak for him.
I’m sure he would have hit in the 30s (of homers per year) and probably in the low 40s … Thirty home runs a year add up to over 600 home runs, and he’d do that if he played the same number of years here that he played there. — Frank Robinson
There’s no question in my mind he wouldn’t have hit 800 home runs if he’d played here, but if he played in a park tailored to his swing, he’d have hit his 35 [homers] a year … He’d hit .300, I’ll tell you that. — Pete Rose
Oh had tremendous patience as a hitter… He had good power. I don’t know how many he would have hit here … start with 20 (a year) … at least. He was a great all-star. He’d have been a Hall of Famer. — Hal McRae
There is one record held by Oh that has brought controversy to the game of baseball, not once, not twice, but three times. His 1964 season Japanese home run record of 55 homers has been challenged thrice by foreign players. Before we delve into the controversy, perhaps you would like to know a little about Mr. Oh?
Legacy of Sadaharu Oh
Born in the year 1940 to Japanese and Taiwanese parents, Oh began his professional career with the Yomiuri Giants as a pitcher in 1959. During his high school baseball career, he had caught the eye of the Japanese nation by pitching through a disabling-injury and helping his team win the 1957 春の甲子園 (Spring Kōshien).
Although Oh displayed perseverance and pitching skill, the Giant’s management made the assessment that his pitching was not up snuff. In response, Oh was transitioned to first base, which meant he needed to work on his hitting to be a valued asset to the team. To improve his swing and power, he spent his days training in martial arts and kendo. Eventually it paid off. It took Oh and his famous flamingo stance three years to break out into the (Japanese) Hall of Famer many know him as today.
Due to his Taiwanese heritage, his acceptance by fans and nationals alike at the beginning of his career was not so welcoming. Oh’s mix heritage is constantly called into attention and still continues to this day, albeit at a much less degree. I guess it helps when you break world records AND have a little Japanese blood in you will the pure Japanese stop the discrimination and accept you as one of their own.
Oh retired in 1980, after playing for 22 seasons, with a lifetime .301 batting average, 2,786 hits, and 2,170 RBIs. If these numbers don’t mean anything to you, then all you need to know is, along with his career home runs, he had a rockstar career. Some other notable achievements:
- Held the all-time world record for walks, 2,504. Recently broken by Barry Bonds’ 2,553.
- In 1964, set the Japanese record of four home runs in a single 9-inning game. The record title is shared among twelve MLB players.
- In 1972, set the Japanese record of seven home runs in seven consecutive games.
- Nine-time MVP, Nine-time Gold Glove, Two-time Triple Crown, 18-time Best First Baseman, and 20-time All Star.
- In 1994, inducted to the Japanese Hall of Fame (Sorry, but no Cooperstown induction for him)
- In 1978, hit his 800th home run, which landed in a fan’s shoe.
Immediately following his retirement, Oh took up an assistant manager position with the Giants for the next three seasons. He was then promoted to the manager position and continued to manage the team for four seasons. During his time managing the Giants, he led the team to the Central League pennant in 1987. After the 1988 season, Oh took a leave of absence from baseball.
In 1995, Oh returned to baseball, managing the Fukuoka Hawks. He led the team to three Pacific League Pennants and two Japan Series titles. Oh managed the Japanese national team to a tournament win in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. He formally retired from managing in 2008.
Home Run Controversy
As mentioned earlier in the article, Oh’s Japanese single season home run record was challenged three times. What makes it interesting is each challenge was made by a foreigner; two Americans and one Venezuelan, all three were mediocre former MLB players. The controversy stems from how Sadaharu Oh’s managed teams handled each batter during the potential record breaking seasons.
Strike 1 — 1985 Hanshin Tigers’ Randy Bass
Randy Bass is probably one of the most accomplished American players to play in the NPL. Many people credit him for turning the Hanshin Tigers around and winning the 1985 Japan Series. Bass holds the highest Japanese batting average of .389, winner of four consecutive batting titles, and consecutive Triple Crowns.
His accomplishments to the Hanshin Tigers and Japanese baseball is so great that many speak of him in the same breath as God and Buddha.
There is another thing he is famous for: the Colonel Sanders Curse. Koichi has written up a good overview of the curse, so check it out. Basically, after the 1985 series win, fans gathered around the gross Dotonbori canal to celebrate.
Some of the fans celebrated by naming off the team roster and anyone that remotely looked like the named player had to jump into the dirty canal. Unfortunately, when Bass’ name came up, there was no one present that looked like him. Darn the homogeneity population!
So what a better compromise than to toss the statue of Colonel Sanders from the nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. Both Bass and Sanders are white and got the beard thing going, so I suppose it made sense. This action obviously bit the Hanshin fans in the arse. What resulted was being the worst team in the league for the next 18 years. Karma can do weird things. Kids, remember to leave the Colonel alone!
Got a bit side tracked there. Sorry! Back to the controversy.
On the last game of the season (Note in 1985, only 130 games were played. Oh’s record was achieved in a 140 game season), Bass only needed one home run to tie Oh’s record, two to break it. Guess which team the Hanshin Tiger’s were up against that day? Yep, it was the Yomiuri Giants, which were managed by Oh.
At each at bat, for a total of four, Bass was intentionally walked with four consecutive pitches. It was no secret what the Giant’s agenda was when walking Bass at each plate appearance. Walking a batter isn’t usually done until much later into a close-scoring game. Baseball prides itself with its supremacy of fair play, and this was anything but. This was poor sportsmanship no matter how you look at it.
During one of the at-bats, Bass famously flipped his bat around. The bat-flipping was later adapted in a scene of the Japanese baseball film Mr. Baseball, starring Cleveland Indian’s in-house voodoo specialist/slugger Pedro Cerrano a.k.a. former and deceased U.S. President David Palmer a.k.a. Allstate auto insurance spokesman a.k.a. Dennis Haysbert. Oh, it also starred some dude with a moustache. I think his name is Tom Selleck?
After the game, Oh denied ordering any of his pitchers to walk Bass. However, one of the Giant’s pitchers, American Keith Comstock, revealed that the pitching staff was threatened with $1,000 fines for every strike thrown to Bass by an unnamed Giant’s coach. This prompted an investigation by a magazine, which confirmed that upper management had a hand in ordering the preservation of Oh’s record. Aside from the magazine’s investigation, the Japanese media and the baseball commissioner kept mum about the incident. I suppose this is one way to save face.
As for Bass, he is now serving as the elected Democratic U.S. Senator for Oklahoma State.
Strike 2 — 2001 Kintetsu Buffaloes’ Tuffy Rhodes
Tuffy Rhodes began his NPL career in 1995 with the Kintetsu Buffaloes. After retiring in 2009, he ended his career as 10th overall home run leader in the NPL, the highest ranking for any foreign player.
Similar to Bass’ situation, Rhodes and the Buffaloes faced an Oh managed team, the Fukuoka Hawks, near the end of the season. The dissimilarity was Rhodes entered the series with a tying record of 55 homers and had many opportune times before and after the Fukuoka-Kintetsu series to break Oh’s record.
Nevertheless, just like Bass, Rhodes faced intentional walks throughout the series. This time, however, they made it blatantly obvious of their intentions.
Kenji Johjima, the Hawks’ catcher, can be seen smiling, laughing, and taunting Rhodes as he instructed his pitcher to toss balls. Oh once again denied any involvement in the situation and the Hawks’ batting coach Yoshiharu Wakana took responsibility of ordering their pitchers to walk Rhodes.
Very few believe this story, and rightfully so. As the manager, Oh is responsible for any decisions made in the game. Any decisions made by the bottom staff are cleared by him before executing it. Also, when did a batting coach have any command over a pitching staff?
Wakana said this little gem right after the game,
I just didn’t want a foreign player to break Oh’s record.
The NPL isn’t filled with managers and players that go against the spirit of baseball, though. Out of all the teams Rhodes’ faced near the end of the season, only the Oh’s Hawks made blatant effort in denying his chance of breaking the record. Hawk’s pitcher Keizaburo Tanoue went on record saying he wanted to throw strikes to Rhodes and felt extremely bad about the situation.
Japanese baseball commissioner Hiromori Kawashima said the following in response of the incident,
… completely divorced from the essence of baseball, which values the supremacy of fair play.
This time around, many players and a few big wigs are speaking out in displeasure of the incident. I don’t know where the change of heart came from, but I would guess it had to do with the generational gap between the time of Bass’ incident and Rhode’s.
Strike 3 — 2002 Seibu Lion’s Alex Cabrera
It wasn’t long after until another contender came along to challenge Oh’s seasonal home run record. Venezuelan Alex Cabrera started his NPL career with the Seibu Lions in 2001. Just like his predecessors, Cabrera has a stellar career in the NPL. His eight years with the Lions netted him a .308 batting average with 246 home runs and 605 RBIs. Very impressive. Cabrera also earned the Pacific League MVP Award in 2002.
It was deja vu all over again. Eleven games until the end of the season, Cabrera knocked out his 54th homer of the season. With the final five games approaching, Cabrera tied Oh and Tuffy with his 55th home run. What stood in his way of breaking the record was a final series against the Oh managed Daiei Hawks.
Oh made it clear to his players to throw strikes to Cabrera. They didn’t get the memo. After the first game of the series, only six strikes were thrown. Cabrera was walked twice and was hit by an inside pitch.
The media and fans didn’t keep silent about the situation, as the majority sided with Cabrera.
Yomiuri Daily News columnist Jim Allen said the following,
(They) should put an asterisk and a note next to Oh’s name in the record book.
On ESPN‘s Top 10 segments, Oh’s seasonal home run record was listed as #2 on the list of “The Phoniest Records in Sports.”
Oh made the following comment after the game,
If you’re going to break the record, you should do it by more than one. Do it by a lot.
A broken record is still a broken record. Maybe Oh should have broken the record by a larger margin back in the day when compressed bats were legal and the ball parks were a lot smaller?
It’s only a matter of time before a new challenger to Oh’s seasonal home run record appears, and I’m willing to bet it’ll happen sooner, than later. And more likely than not, another foreigner will be the one to challenge it. With Oh retired from managing, a newer generation of foreign-friendly fans providing pressure, and a more involved media, the barrier to break the record has been lowered.
Is Oh a bad person? No, he is a very exceptional baseball player and deserves all the accolades showered on him. But are Oh and many in the NPL poster children of baseball and everything it represents? Not a chance.
For a league that emphasizes their way of baseball of being pure above all else, it sure has a lot of people that are the antithesis of the baseball way of fairness and integrity. If you are going to make such an excuse to employ limits on foreign players per an organization (currently at four, with only three on the active list), at least ensure your national players themselves follow what you are trying to stand for.
Oh, by the way, Dennis Haysbert is one awesome dude.
Header Photo Source: Mears Online Auctions