Our story begins not with the great man himself but with a different baseball player you probably don’t know named Hiroshi Arakawa. He was a small man, barely 5-foot-4, and he had a little paunch and suspect speed and almost no natural power. He loved baseball, though. He especially loved the art of hitting.
Arakawa grew up in Tokyo and was dedicated to the game as few others were. He played it day and night and worked his way all the way up to the Japan Pacific League when he was 22 years old. He hit .315 his first year. it was a fluke. He never came close to hitting .300 again. But that first year probably kept him in the game longer than he might have otherwise. He coughed and wheezed through nine Pacific League seasons with two teams. He hit just .251 for his career, his just 16 home runs, stole just 20 bases. But it was a full career.
Anyway, as you know, many of the greatest hitting coaches could not really hit themselves.
Arakawa at some point during his career became fascinated with Aikido, the Japanese Martial Art that roughly translates to mean “The path to harmony of spirit.” Well, it is translated many different ways. Basically: “Ai” means “To harmonize or come together;” “Ki” means “mind, soul, spirit” and “Do” means “The Way or Path.” People put those words together different ways, but you get the general point. Aikido is a martial art, a religion, a philosophy.
So — and this is a great part of the story — Arakawa was taken to meet the legendary sensei Morihei Ueshiba, who founded Aikido. Arakawa was introduced as a famous baseball player, which left The Founder cold. Ueshiba did not know the game or any of its rules. He actually confused baseball with the medical therapy moxibustion (a confusing therapy which involves burning a certain kind of plant called mugword on the skin) because the Japanese words are similar.
But when Ueshiba was given a brief explanation of hitting baseballs, he asked: “For something like that, why don’t you just cut through with a Japanese sword?”
And this, Arakawa would say, opened his eyes. Hitting a baseball, he realized, was no different from training with a Japanese sword. They both take the same discipline, the same force, the same sense of inner piece. He was 30 years old by then, spent as a ballplayer, but he had come to know something. He wanted to teach it to someone.
In January 1962, a few months after his last game, he was hired to be the hitting coach for the Yomiuri Giants.
And the Giants had a talented, underachieving, party-guy on the team named Sadaharu Oh.
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Sadaharu Oh’s father, Shifuku owned a noodle shop in Japan. I’ve sometimes wondered if the movie Kung Fu Panda was (very) loosely influenced by Sadaharu O’s life. In the movie, the Panda Po is the son of a noodle shop owner and he dreams of being a great warrior, though his father could never understand. In life, Oh is the son of a noodle shop owner and he dreams of being a great baseball player, though his father could never understand.The sensei in the movie, incidentally, is named “Master Shifu,” and Oh’s father’s name was, as mentioned, Shifuku.
It’s probably just my own goofy mind — I haven’t seen the connection made anywhere else.
Shifuku was from China, and he was briefly imprisoned during World War II under suspicion of being as spy. All indications are that he was no spy, that he was imprisoned because of the tension of the times (not unlike the way Japanese-Americans were interned during the war). Shifuku thought of baseball as a silly and pointless pastime. He wanted his sons to do important work; he wanted Sadaharu to become an engineer. It seems that it was Sadaharu’s brother Tetsuhiro (who also loved the game) who convinced his father to allow Sadaharu to play.
Oh was a natural ballplayer. Like Babe Ruth, Stan Musial and others, he began as a pitcher. He was a natural lefty, but he grew up swinging right-handed because, apparently, he did not know he was allowed to swing any other way. None of it could conceal his talent for hitting baseballs. By the time he was in high school — and high school baseball apparently is like college football in America — he was a star. He was signed by the Yomiuri Giants for roughly $60,000 dollars (13 million yen).
And … he disappointed. In his rookie year, he hit just .161 and struck out one out of every three times he came to the plate. His second year, he was somewhat better, but he struck out more than 100 times — so many whiffs that fans would sometimes call him “Sanshin Oh.” Oh means “King.” Sanshin means “Strikeout”
“Frankly, it was easy to get him out,” pitcher Hiroshi Gondo told the writer Robert Whiting. “He could not hit a fastball. You could just blow it by him.” In 1961, Oh hit just .253 with 13 home runs and it seemed like he might never realize his talent.
And then Hiroshi Arakawa was hired. First thing, he told Oh to stop drinking, stop smoking, stop partying or there was no point in continuing. Oh agreed. Then, Oh went to work on his hitting approach. Arakawa realized that Oh was mistiming his stride, lunging too soon, which often left him unbalanced when the ball arrived and helpless to adjust to its pace and movement. Oh, he thought, was guessing on every pitch. And guessing was no way to hit baseballs.
But how could he fix this? Arakawa turned to some of the fundamentals of aikido (as well as a few famous batting strokes of the past including American swings like Stan Musial’s and Mell Ott’s). What he wanted Oh to do was basically stand on one leg, his back leg, as the pitcher released the ball. He called this the flamingo stance. Standing on one leg would Oh to be balanced, force him to be conscious of his “energy center.” As the ball was delivered, he would then flex his right knee skyward and stride into the ball in perfect harmony.
“I had reached a point,” Oh would write, “where aikido had become absolutely necessary to what I did. Without aikido, I would not learn to stand on one foot.. I would not understand it.”
Together, the would practice day after day, hour after hour. Often, Oh would practice with a sword, slicing it through a piece of paper again and again. He had become known for his somewhat lackadaisical approach to baseball, which is something like a mortal sin in Japan. Baseball is viewed as a discipline in Japan, an art form, one that takes relentless work. Japanese baseball training barely resembles the American approach to the game. I remember Trey Hillman telling me that when he became manager in Japan, he tried to cut back the long and tough training sessions. He thought he was doing the players a favor. These six and seven hour practices were too much. But what he found was that the players resented this, they wanted to work to exhaustion, past exhaustion, this was an important part of the game for them. There was honor in pushing themselves beyond their physical limits.
Oh became the very symbol of this kind of work ethic. For more than two years, he worked with the sword. He trained his body and his mind. His sessions lasted hours and hours and became legendary, even in a country where teams will have three or four hour practices before games.
And, yes, he began to crush baseballs. The improvement was instant. In 1962, his first year with Arakawa, he hit 38 home runs which easily led the Japan Central League (no one else hit more than 25). In 1963, he hit .300 for the first time, walked 123 times, and slugged 40 home runs to lead the league again. In 1964, he hit .320/.456/.720 with a Japanese record 55 home runs. He did this in 140 games, by the way. He won his third home run title by 19 homers.
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A few Oh facts: He won 13 consecutive home run titles — and 15 in 16 years. He won two Triple Crowns. He walked at least 108 times every single year from 1963 to 1978, and remember they only play between 130 and 140 games in a Japanese season. Of course, his 868 career home runs is a world record. His career OPS was 1.080 — and he had an OPS of 1.000 or higher every year from 1963 to 1978.
What can we make of these numbers? It’s hard to say. It is certainly not easy to translate numbers in the Japanese Leagues to American numbers. But there are a few points worth making:
1. We have seen many Japanese players like Ichiro and Hideo Nomo and Hideki Matsui and Yu Darvish come over in the last 20 years and play at the supreme level in the Major Leagues that they played at in the Japanese Leagues. Heck, if anything, Boston closer Koji Uehara was MORE dominant in the majors than he ever was in Japan. It’s not perfect math, of course. Some Japanese stars have not played well here. And Oh played in a different time.
Still: Baseball is baseball. And I must admit, as someone who has spent a lot of time learning about the Negro Leagues, I’m suspect of anyone who dismisses other leagues or baseball styles as inferior.
2. There are many, many great American players who saw Oh hit and were certain that he could have been an American star. For a nice list of quotes, you can go here but I will include just a few:
“Oh could have played anywhere at any time,” Don Baylor said. “If he played in Yankee Stadium, being the left-handed pull hitter he is, I have no doubt he’d hit 40 homers a year.”
“You can kiss my ass if he wouldn’t have 30 or 35 home runs a year … he rates with the all-time stars of the game,” Frank Howard said.’’
“I’m sure he would have hit in the 30s and probably in the low 40s,” Frank Robinson said of the numbers of home runs Oh would have hit.
“He sure hit me,” Tom Seaver said. “He was a superb hitter. He hit consistently, and he hit with power. … He’d be a lifetime .300 hitter.”
Pete Rose — who is not always generous when it comes to judging Japanese baseball — said Oh would have hit .300 for sure. Davey Johnson talked about how good a defensive first baseman he was. Brooks Robinson said he was just an outstanding hitter. And so on. Oh’s remarkable ability was not hidden.
3. To me, the most compelling aspect of Oh’s case is his dominance. He wasn’t just the best player in the league. He was far and away the best player in the league. He did not just win 13 consecutive home run titles. He won eight of them by double digits. He did not just lead the league in on-base percentage every year, for a good stretch of his career his on-base percentage was right around .500. Nine times, he slugged better than .700.
At age 37, he hit .324/.477/.706 with 50 home runs.
Could someone be that dominant in Japan and not be one of the best players in the history of the game?
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According to Whiting and others, it took a long time for Oh to be embraced by Japanese fans. This seems to be because his father was Chinese (there’s a story that Oh, when he was in school, was not allowed to play in a tournament because he was not full-blooded Japanese). Oh teamed up with the great third baseman Shigeo Nagashima, and together they were like the Ruth and Gehrig of Japanese baseball. But Nagashima was apparently the better loved at first. He was Japanese and he also hit one of the most famous home runs in the nation’s history, a walk-off (Sayonara) homer in front of Emperor Hirohito. It was actually his second homer of the game (Oh also homered in the game).
Over time, though, Oh became the nation’s sporting hero — bigger in Japan, perhaps, than any American athlete since Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali or Babe Ruth. His unique batting style was copied. His intense discipline toward the game was deeply admired.
And then there is the single season home run record. Perhaps nothing describes the intense love for Oh than the way people in Japan have embraced and protected his home run record of 55. Hideki Matsui wore No. 55 to honor the record. And when people came close to breaking it — especially foreign born players — controversy followed.
The most controversial of these happened in 1985 when Randy Bass had 54 home runs but was walked four straight times (four pitches each) in his final game. He happened to be playing the Yomiuri Giants. They were managed by, yep, Sadaharu Oh. An investigation revealed that it was likely the front office, not Oh, who ordered the walks. But the investigation was probably not too intensive. The media was relatively silent. Whiting was told that a Giants coach threatened a $1,000 fine for every strike Bass was thrown but nobody seemed to interested in finding out for sure.
Tuffy Rhodes would tie Oh’s record in 2001. He too was walked repeatedly by Oh’s team — and again Oh said he did not have anything to do with that. Oh’s coach Yoshiharu Wakana said it was his decision to walk Rhodes, a decision made separate from Oh. “It would be distasteful to see a foreign player break Oh’s record,” Wakana said. Rhodes would say he felt like nobody in the whole country wanted him to break the record.
The next year, Alex Cabrera would also tie the record and also would find it difficult to get pitches in the final games. Oh this time reportedly ordered his players to pitch to Cabrera, but they did not. Whiting writes that while Oh’s passive acceptance of the way everyone protected his record is curious, there probably wasn’t anything he could have done. His record was cherished by his nation and his players. They were not going to allow it to be broken.
This year, the record was finally broken by Wladimir Balentien. Oh had once said that if someone was going to break his record, they should break it by more than one or two. Balentien finished with 60 home runs.
Immediately, many people in Japan insisted that the ball was juiced.