By In 100 Greatest, Baseball

No. 69: Sadaharu Oh

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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?

* * *

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.

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64 Responses to No. 69: Sadaharu Oh

  1. So three MLB rejects challenged the Japanese single season home run record? What does this say about hitting home runs in Japan?

    • jposnanski says:

      A 38-year-old reliever who was struggling in Japan just set a Major League record for lowest WHIP in a season. What does this say about pitching in America?

      • RPMcSweeney says:

        I take your point, Joe, and Matt’s dismissal of Oh’s record might be too quick. But I’m not sure it’s accurate to describe Uehara as a “38-year-old reliever who struggled in Japan.” First, while in Japan he was primarily a starter, and a two-time NPB ERA champ and two-time Sawamura winner (the equivalent of Cy Young, as I understand it). His performance was uneven (especially in the two seasons following his Rookie of the Year performance), but at times he clearly dominated the NPB. Once stateside he became a full-time reliever, and his performance was somewhat up and down. But he still showed flashes of dominance. His K/BB rate has always been pretty phenomenal, for example. He put it all together last year, perhaps to an unsustainable degree that no one expected (and certainly didn’t expect at 38), but I don’t think it’s totally accurate to describe Uehara as ever having truly “struggled,” either in the NPB or MLB.

        Anyhow, I’m really enjoying this series. Thanks.

        • Ian R. says:

          A better example might be Takashi Saito, who at 36 was widely considered to be more or less washed-up in Japan. He jumed to the Dodgers on a minor league contract, made the club out of Spring Training and quickly became a dominant closer.

        • invitro says:

          “He put it all together last year, perhaps to an unsustainable degree that no one expected (and certainly didn’t expect at 38),”

          Given that his 2011 season was #9 all-time (at age 36), and that his 2012 season would’ve been #3 all-time with 14 more innings (at age 37), I do not believe that no one expected this, even at age 38.

          • RPMcSweeney says:

            Yeah, fair enough. I was trying to be circumspect in my description. But
            point is that Uehara has always been good at every level, though.

      • The fact that MLB career scrubs have flourished in Japan, with their small ballparks, does speak to it being easier to hit HRs in the Japan league. Your point about Uehara may backup the park effects that are likely in play, with no comparative stats to parse that out. It also makes sense that Japanese pitchers would benefit from the larger parks in the US and, in fact, many more Japanese pitchers have flourished in the US than hitters. The main exception, of course, is the non power hitting Ichiro, who used the expansive US parks, especially is home park, to his advantage.

        • Oh’s home park was 288 ft down the lines, 361 in the alleys and 396 to center. Maybe not Baker Bowl, but pretty darned cozy.

        • buddaley says:

          I do not intend to diminish Oh’s ability at all. And the testimony of American major leaguers lends credence to his reputation.

          But it is also true that while some Japanese hitters have done well in the U.S., they have not hit for nearly the power they did in Japan. Hideki Matsui came the closest when he hit 31 in NY. The previous 7 years he had hit between 34-50 in considerably fewer PAs and ABs.

          When Iwamura came to the U.S., he hit 7 home runs while his previous 3 years in Japan he hit 44, 30 and 32 in Japan.

          • Which hunt? says:

            To be fair, Matsui came to the MLB when he was 29, and may have already begun a decline that really set in in his 32 year old season.

          • buddaley says:

            I don’t think there is evidence of decline so early. In his last year in Japan he hit 50 home runs. His first with NY he hit 16, then 31, then 23, and his other numbers remained strong. He did get hurt in 2 of the next 3 years, but when not hurt hit 25 and 28 home runs, although it is true that he did not play as many games as earlier.

            My point is not that he was not a star in the U.S. Only that his power numbers declined significantly, as happened as far as I remember with every other Japanese hitter.

            Even Ichiro hit double figures every year in Japan in fewer plate appearances than he had in his U.S. seasons, twice hitting more than 20. Perhaps he changed his hitting style once here, but I don’t think there is any question that there has to be some adjustment to neutralize home run stats in Japan.

      • invitro says:

        Joe, I found this summary of Uehara: “He won 20 games his first year, and was a good starter for the Yomiuri Giants and an excellent starter for the Japanese international team at the Olympics and World Baseball Classic and so on. In 2007, at age 32, he became a closer for Yomiuri and was pretty dominant.”

        I’m having trouble reconciling that with “struggling.” I hope you haven’t started hiding facts if they don’t suit your argument. 🙁 (P.S. guess who wrote that summary?)

        I think what it says about pitching in America is that having a historically low WHIP is not too hard to do these days. From the same article, the rest of the all-time top ten:

        1. Koji Uehara, 2013, 0.565
        2. Dennis Eckersley, 1989, 0.607
        3. Dennis Eckersley, 1990, 0.614
        4. Craig Kimbrel, 2012, 0.654
        5. Mariano Rivera, 2008, 0.665
        6. Joaquin Benoit, 2010, 0.680
        7. Eric Gagne, 2003, 0.692
        8. J.J. Putz, 2007, 0.698
        9. Cla Meredith, 2006, 0.711
        10. Takashi Saito, 2007, 0.715

        I hope we can agree that the career home run record is a bit more meaningful than the season WHIP record.

      • Sorry Joe…I was not being dismissive of Oh. I was thinking that Japanese hitters don’t swing for the fences, strikeout less, and are more like Ichiro.

      • C’mon now, Joe. You are being disingenuous in an effort to talk up Sadaharu Oh and Japanese baseball. Be honest, and admit that the fact that the likes of Tuffy Rhodes and Randy Bass could challenge Oh’s record does in fact say something about the quality level of NPB in relation to MLB. The population of the nations that provide most of the talent pool for MLB–the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean nations–must be something like five or six times greater than the population of Japan. MLB has a bigger supply of elite talent. That’s just a fact.

        Consider also that Japanese talent generally does not do as well over here. How many Japanese players have produced HOF-worthy careers in America? Ichiro, and–actually he’s pretty much it, isn’t he? Nomo was good for a while. Hideki Matsui had a nice career. Yu Darvish looks like a star. But MLB hasn’t been hit by a massive wave of new talent the way it was when it integrated in the 40s and 50s. The best Negro League teams would have won championships in MLB too. The same is not true of NPB teams.

        And frankly the fact that Oh hit 868 home runs in Japan also says something about the level of talent in Japanese baseball. Barry Bonds might have been the greatest hitter that ever lived, and he had a huge late-career power surge due to being roided up to his eyeballs. He still fell over a hundred homers shy of Oh’s mark.

        He also greatly tainted his reputation, in America at least, by his unsportsmanlike conduct in protecting his home run record. It’s good that Balentin broke it, because the Japanese single-season HR record was just as tainted as the American record now is, just in a different way.

        BTW, you are also being disingenuous when you write “many people in Japan insisted that the ball was juiced”. The ball was juiced. They admitted it. Japanese baseball commissioner Ryozo Kato resigned in September, four days after Balentin broke the record. Look it up.

        You’re a great writer and I love your blog, but this entry was disappointing for multiple reasons.

        • Which hunt? says:

          If a major leaguer had hit 868 HRs you can bet he would be ranked higher than 69th on this list. Why wouldn’t 69th be a plausible number for a guy who so dominated his league?

    • John says:

      Separate the record from Oh’s dominance. The record overshadows the career.
      Hank Aaron led the league in home runs 4 times in 23 years, and he never hit 50.

    • Ian R. says:

      It says that it’s different. Doesn’t mean it’s (that much) easier – plenty of MLB rejects have flopped in Japan. Look at Kevin Mench.

  2. Owen says:

    I believe you meant “peace of mind” early in the post.

    The fact that a guy with 868 home runs in 140-game seasons is this low on the list (I expected to see him in the 30s or 40s) is pretty crazy. I grew up playing Sher-Co Baseball with my dad ( We each had fourteen teams (all fictional, based in various cities and towns throughout Alaska, complete with nicknames, colors, and banners) with 25-man rosters made up of any players who had at least five years of service after 1950 (practically all post-war players were eligible). It was a dice-based game, and after much begging and pleading, I was allowed to add Saduharu Oh to the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, the only non-MLB player in the entire league. He was the cleanup hitter for a frightening lineup (he was followed by Ralph Kiner and Duke Snider, which would have been maybe the best-hitting outfield of all time in real life – 1644 combined career home runs!). All I mean to say is that I was eagerly anticipating Oh’s appearance on the list. Great story as always, Joe.

  3. Sean Melia says:

    I always wondered about Oh’s place in the history of baseball. Yes, his Japanese league numbers were other worldly and a handful of Japanese pitchers have come to the majors and excelled, but his legend is largely based on his power numbers and, as mentioned at the end of the essay, his home run record was broken by Wladimir Balentien who washed out of the majors at age 24.

  4. TJMac says:

    Joe – your aim, cemented in this post, to recognize the greatest players across race and culture, not merely era, is wonderful. An amazing series keeps getting better.

  5. Hoffman Mark A. says:

    I think you’re correct about Kung Fu Panda.

  6. Brian says:

    Joe, I keep thinking this series deserves an award or something. But then I think, what better praise could you get than your readers repeatedly saying they wish you’d make this into a book they could buy, even though you’re giving it to us now for free. Thanks, Joe, for all the time and effort you put into to relaying the great stories of the game to us.

  7. Jerry says:

    37 year old hitting .324/.477/.706 with 50 home runs must have been on steroids according to HOF voters

    • Ian R. says:

      Even though that was basically the same as the season he’d had at 36, which was a step down from his age-33 and age-34 seasons, which were themselves right in line with his numbers from ages 24 to 30?

      That’s not at all comparable to, say, Barry Bonds’ having the best four years of his career in his late 30s.

      • Jerry Skurnik says:

        Henry Arron slugging pct at age 34 – .498, age 36 – .607, age 36 – .574, age 37 – .669

        • David Strauss says:

          Well, Aaron’s age 34 year was 1968, so let’s not paint that as representative of a specific downward slide. Also the ballpark factors for his home games jumped significantly in 1970.

          • buddaley says:

            Yes, you are right, but if Aaron played in the so-called “steroid era” instead of the amphetamine era, such nuances would be ignored. The significant changes in the 1990s of types of bats and balls, of strike zones, body armor and the like are entirely ignored as records are discounted or dismissed and great players demeaned by association with steroids.

            Aaron played in an era rampant with PEDs of all sorts, and he has admitted to one experiment with them. But only contemporary ball players and fans have to undergo the vitriol and souring of joy in their achievements.

            I don’t accept the rationalization of Joe’s mention of the Mitchell report. Its mention is gratuitous, and unless he notes Milner’s testimony about Mays’ red juice every time Willie’s name is mentioned, it is unjustified.

          • Jerry Skurnik says:

            Exactly my point. There are numerous reasons why an older player can have a big year but when it’s Bonds, Clemens, etc, the only explanation is PED

  8. Yeager says:

    More of this and less dumping all over the Hall of Fame and the All Star Game!

    • Yeager says:

      That, uh, came off really wrong. What I mean is I am loving this series – it is an oasis in this time of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the injustices of the Hall of Fame, which if you read every article about it will simply stop being fun, just like the All Star Game would be if you read all the articles every season about how broken it is.

      This series is super awesome. I’ll show myself out.

  9. chuck says:

    Very glad you included Oh on this list.
    Regarding Balentien and this season. The ball Was juiced this year, but only back to the level it had been at previous to 2011. This is a smaller, more easily seen version of what happened between 1987 and 1993-94 in MLB.
    In 2011-12 a new, deader ball was used that cut HR-to-batted-ball rates by 40%. Balentien, playing there in 2011-12, had a rate of 8.6%, then 11.8% those two years. He is in his prime years now (28 this year). If one takes his 2012 rate and increases it by the level the entire Japanese leagues went up this year (40.6%), he’d be at 16.6%. His actual 2013 rate was just a bit above that- 17.8%.

    • stevemarines says:

      Actually, the ball was less livelier in 2013 than in 2010, just more livelier than 2011-12.

      And it really needs to be mentioned that Balentien hit **19** more home runs than the man who came in second in 2013. Insane.

      I’ll always be happy to say that I was in attendance when Balentien hit #56, too.

  10. AMusingFool says:

    Shifu is the cantonese equivalent of sensei (so Master Shifu was really a terrible name, basically ‘Master Master’). Shifuku is unrelated (without doing real research, I’d guess 祉福, meaning happiness or prosperity). I like the other parallels, though.

  11. Baseball Guy says:

    I have loved this series. If Joe doesn’t change one word – and even if Joe doesn’t fix one typo – I will purchase this entire list if it is ever made into a book.

    I couldn’t wait for Sadaharu Oh to come through. This was such a great piece to read.

    Playing Wiffle Ball with my son, for years, we had imaginary teams that played each other. He had Hideki Matsui and Ichiro on his team… but I had Sadaharu Oh. He batted clean-up, right behind Roy Hobbs. As I said, this was the greatest in imagination: a father, and his son, a plastic ball and bat…and the imaginary stadium amid the trees in the back yard. All I know is that even there among all sorts of greats (yes, we even tried to copy their batting stances..) .the pretend Sadaharu Oh struck fear into every (imaginary) pitcher. I recall him leading the league in homers. (Not just because he was on “my” team because to keep the games close, we traded being pitchers and batters with each batter so one team (read Dad) wouldn’t dominate (at least when my son was young).

    One of my great disappointments was when I visited Tokyo a few years ago, and visiting the Tokyo Dome and trying every gift shop, I was unable to purchase a replica Sadaharu Oh jersey. They didn’t seem to have any throw-back jerseys like in the USA. (They didn’t have Hideki Matsui either!)

  12. Chad Meisgeier says:

    I am enjoying playing along, but I have zero knowledge of Japanese baseball and included none on my list. I do have a few from the Negro Leagues and those are difficult enough to place. Nonetheless, bravo on another great article.

    For my No. 69, I had Gary Carter.

  13. Mike Schilling says:

    Also, Sadaharu Oh’s father was a goose.

  14. As soon as I read “And the Giants had a talented, underachieving, party-guy on the team named Sadaharu Oh.

    * * *

    Sadaharu Oh’s father, Shifuku owned a noodle shop in Japan.” I thought, oh, that must be where Kung Fu Panda got it from. Then I read your next few lines. Great minds, Joe Pos, great minds…

  15. Joe, does this mean we might see a player from the Pacific Coast League show up on the list?

  16. SrMeowMeow says:

    On the one hand, I don’t mind Oh’s inclusion here on the grounds of him being a great part of baseball history. But if it’s supposed to be the BEST 100 players of all time, then I defer to Joe’s traitorous friend, Michael Schur, writing from 2005 about a list putting Oh above Palmeiro:

    “The fact is, if one puts together one’s list of the fifteen greatest first basemen, and one obnoxiously and purposefully does not include Rafael Palmeiro, but obnoxiously and purposefully does include a guy who played in another country, I am going to take issue with one.

    I think it is fair to say that putting up Raffy’s numbers against the hands-down best league in the world, featuring all the best international talent, is far more impresive (like, by a factor of five) than putting up silly numbers in Japan against only Japanese talent in a league where Bob Horner was revered as a megastar. Agreed?

    Saying that Oh is the ninth best first baseman of all-time is insane. He hit 55 HR in 1964, which is the single-season record in Japan. Or, it was, until Tuffy Rhodes, who had a career OPS+ of 79 in MLB, tied it a few years ago.

    Tuffy Rhodes.”


    • ingres77 says:

      I could just as easily counter Palmeiro being in the top 15 while leaving out Norm Cash. Palmeiro never had a season that could compare to Cash’s 1961 season.

      Palmeiro is hailed because he was a very good hitter who was able (thanks to juice, probably) to play for a long time. As a hitter, I don’t know that he was demonstrably superior to Cash, however. He did have 4,000 more plate appearances, though.

    • Which hunt? says:

      Two words: Brady Anderson

    • Spencer says:

      Completely agree, I’m actually shocked Joe included Oh. The level of competition in the 60’s in the NPL is hard to gauge but I have a hard time believing it was anything approaching the majors.

      I’m guessing it was a bit like feasting on AAA pitching (and worse)

    • stevemarines says:

      You mean, the Tuffy Rhodes who had fewer than 600 AB in MLB? THAT Tuffy Rhodes?

      Do we need to have a discussion about statistically insignificant sample sizes now?

  17. Brian says:

    The idea that because 3 journeymen who washed out of MLB challenged and/or broke Oh’s single season home run record it invalidates the quality of what Oh did is silly. Those guys were all playing in a totally different era than Oh. MLB certainly goes through high offense times where mediocre players hit better than great players did in lower offense times, and I don’t see why Japan would be any different.

    Or to put it another way, saying Wladimir Balentien is a better hitter than Oh because he broke Oh’s single season home run record 50ish years later, is like saying Luis Gonzalez was a better hitter than Frank Robinson.

    • invitro says:

      “saying Wladimir Balentien is a better hitter than Oh”

      And who said or suggested that?

      • Brian says:

        I felt it was implied in some of the posts.

        But if you prefer, saying Wladimir Balentien hitting more home runs in a season than Oh invalidates his accomplishments (and this was definitely implied in SrMeowMeow’s quote of Schur’s deeply stupid argument, only it was Tuffy Rhodes and tied) is like saying Luis Gonzalez hitting more home runs in a season than Frank Robinson invalidates Robinson’s accomplishments.


        • SrMeowMeow says:

          Nobody says it invalidates his accomplishments. But it certainly puts the question of quality of opposition front and center.

          It isn’t just a question of cherry-picking one freak season by Tuffy Rhodes. The top five single season HR leaders for NPB are Oh and four journeyman MLBers. Ichiro holds the second and third best seasons by batting average, but first place is MLB journeyman Randy Bass. Obviously citing one data point (e.g. Rhodes) is an incomplete argument, but it’s not a stupid one when there are so many other data points right behind him.

          Ichiro was a legitimate MLB star, but his career OPS was only 775 (yes, including some decline). But in the eight NPB seasons before he was posted, his lowest OPS was 926. His lowest batting average was 342.

          How can anyone not think that NPB is an easier league than MLB? And at that point, the only question is “how much easier”. Do you want to take 10% off Oh’s career stats? 20%? Now you’re getting down to an career OPS in the high 800s, which is really not top 100 territory at all. Where do you want to draw the line?

          • Brian says:

            I don’t disagree NPB is an easier league than MLB. Clay Davenport did a study about 10 years ago that suggested it was between AAA and MLB quality, but closer to AAA, though that was the NPB of that time, and not Oh’s time. But there are certainly MLE calculators you could use to apply a discount to Oh’s numbers, if you are interested in doing so, though you’d have to figure out the park factors for his ballpark.

            However, the Negro Leagues were also easier than MLB and if, in 50 years or so of history, they produced however many players are going to end up on this list (I’m guessing around 10), I don’t see why it’s so impossible for NPB to produce 1 player in the 60 or so years between its founding and Nomo coming to the US.

            Additionally, comparing NPB or NGL to AAA is a bit misleading if you’re thinking about them for any reason other than equivalencies, because while both may have roughly been around AAA talent on average, each had a much wider range of talent than the modern PCL or IL. The NGL had guys playing in them who probably ranged from A ball to all time great in talent. It’s worth keeping that in mind.

            “Obviously citing one data point (e.g. Rhodes) is an incomplete argument, but it’s not a stupid one when there are so many other data points right behind him.”

            Tuffy Rhodes is an irrelevant data point, as it happened in a vastly different era than Oh. That was the point of my Gonzalez/Robinson comparison. Citing a bunch of other data points (e.g. Randy Bass) that are also irrelevant because you’re not accounting for the historical context just gives you a bunch of irrelevance. It’d be like me doubling down on my Gonzalez/Robinson comparison by citing everyone from the steroid era who hit more home runs than the 49 that was Robinson’s high point (or the 47 that was Aaron’s).

            I mean, one data point of Gonzalez is incomplete, but when Ryan Howard, Greg Vaughn, Andruw Jones, David Ortiz, and Shawn Greene all either hit as many or more homers than Robinson did as well, you have to wonder how good Robinson was, right? No, that’s still deeply stupid.

            Or to put it another way, the real question isn’t what a discount would do to Oh’s OPS, it’s what it would do to his OPS+.

  18. John Gale says:

    Four best years of his career? They were the three best OPS+ years *ever* (with the fourth year coming in at “only” No. 11). Through his age 35 season, Bonds hit .289/.412/.567 with an OPS+ of 165. Terrific numbers, no doubt. But over the next four seasons (ages 36-39), he hit .349/.559/.809 with an OPS+ of 256.

    I agree with your overall point. Ted Williams (233 OPS+ at age 38 in 1957) and Babe Ruth (218 OPS+ at age 36 in 1931) each had an amazing season in their mid-to-late 30s. The difference was that they weren’t outliers the way Bonds’ seasons were, as those weren’t even the highest OPS+ seasons of their career (Ruth had *six* higher).

  19. no matter what league you play in…dominating the highest league you’re in…is worth more respect than a single season explosion. the longer you dominate that league, the more worthy of respect your accomplishment.

    oh didn’t get a shot at major league ball when he was coming up. it’s impossible to tell he could have done at the major league level.

    but a lot of people who know more about what it takes to make it at the big league level than most folks who express their opinions on the interwebs were under the impression that Oh was a great hitter.

    • SrMeowMeow says:

      Nobody doubts that he was a great hitter. They doubt that there’s enough evidence for him being the 69th best baseball player of all time when he never faced competition above NPB.

  20. Topps Airbrush Artist says:

    Assuming you have Oh as the greatest player to play his entire career in Japan, was the second-greatest Japanese League-only player of all time better than Curt Schilling or Cool Papa Bell. If not, Oh probably doesn’t belong on the list. If he was, then what the hell have I been reading the last 31 entries for?

  21. Which hunt? says:

    Well, Ichiro Suzuki is on this list and is listed two spots ahead of Cool Papa. If memory serves, he was a Japanese League player at one point.

    • Topps Airbrush Artist says:

      Japanese League-only. Thought I made that clear (probably should have called it by its proper name). My point is that I’m skeptical there is enough depth of knowledge of Japanese League baseball in this undertaking to fairly evaluate and include those players on this list.
      I’m not saying they should or shouldn’t be included, but if you are going to include one, all of the greatest Japanese League players need to be at least considered.
      If Oh was No. 100 on the list, this wouldn’t be a question, since he’s widely regarded the greatest Japanese baseball player ever. But since there are 31 players ranked behind him, I find it hard to believe that the second-best Japanese League-only player (perhaps a contemporary or predecessor or at least someone who played before Hideo Nomo and Ichiro opened the floodgates to MLB) wasn’t better than Curt Schilling. If no one fits that criteria, then I question whether Oh is worthy of his stature based on his competition, even if he was “far and away the best player in the league.”
      Anyway, since he’s on the list, I hope we’ll be seeing at least one Cuban player who never played MLB in the Top 68.

  22. Herb Smith says:

    Why all the wringing of hands and teeth-gnashing about this entry? Judging from the comment section in the past few weeks, most of us just naturally assumed that Oh was going to make an appearance on this list. Coming in at 69 seems about right.

    Certain players, like Sadaharu Oh, Mo Rivera, and Jackie Robinson, are practically un-rankable. But those type of guys HAVE to be included in the 100.

    Anyway, I loved the Oh story. Thanks, Joe.

  23. Alejo says:

    Notes on the story:

    1) Oh is of Taiwanese origin, that in the eyes of the Japanese is subtly different from mainland Chinese.

    2) It is difficult to explain what is baseball to the Japanese. Perhaps the best way to understand is to watch the national senior high school championship or “Koushien”. In my humble opinion, Koushien baseball is the purest form of the sport. Teenagers there play with the seriousness of professionals and the love only children can feel, untainted by experience or greed. Their game is fundamentally sound and talent can be easily spotted because everybody plays by the same book.

    Koushien is played every year in the same field and is covered by national television.

    To qualify for the final round of Koushien a team must defeat all other teams in its prefecture. That’s a long way, months of games. Being there is a once in a lifetime chance to shine. It is an elimination tournament so, if you loose, you are out. After every match the defeated cry bitterly, as children will do, and must complete a ritual: the team runs together to the infield, where they gather clay dust in a bag as a memento of their moment of glory. The dust mixes with the tears, so their hands become red with mud.

    Winners bask in eternal glory. The city I lived in celebrated its champions decades after their victory.

    In 1998 Daisuke Matsuzaka pitched a 9 inning shutout, followed by a 17-inning victory the next day, followed by a win in relief, followed by a no-hitter to wrap up the championship.

    In 1992 Hideki Matsui drew five consecutive intentional walks in a game, a strategy considered shameful in Japan. Matsui’s demeanour, stoic and emotionless, drew high praise and wide respect.

    That is baseball in Japan.

    3) Alex Cabrera was mentioned in the Mitchell Report. He also tied Oh’s record, as stated in this post. This year, at 42, he won the triple crown in Venezuelan winter baseball, hitting for .391 and smashing a record-breaking 21 homers.

    Barry Bonds at 21 hit .244 with seven homers in the same league in 1986.

  24. arlie green says:

    The American Major League superiority is quite evident based on their unblemished record in the World Baseball Classics. Oh wait . . . {PS: Keep up the good work Joe!}

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