The question mostoften posed about Sadaharu Oh by parochial Americans (a species every bit asprevalent as ugly ones) is whether or not he would be a great star in theUnited States. It is not an admirable curiosity, being diverting as well ascondescending, and keeps us from properly considering the man in his ownenvironment, in his own context. Of course Oh would be a bum if he played overhere, just as Winston Churchill never could have cut it in the U.S., just asChekhov never could have dented The Great White Way, just as Nijinsky nevercould have gotten to first base with our gen-u-wine major league dancers.Because there are only 113 million Japanese and because they have been playingbaseboru for only 105 years, it is foolishness to think that a single one ofthese tiny little folks could excel at our great American game.
So now that wehave that settled, let us examine this athlete who has hit 742 home runs, morethan Babe Ruth and, soon, more than Henry Aaron, more than anyone in theworld.
MisterOh—Japanese often address one another in this formal manner—is an extraordinaryfigure, make no mistake. There are two things that immediately establish hissingularity. First, he has a highly distinctive batting style. Second, noathlete has ever been more revered in his country. To be sure, others insmaller or less sophisticated lands—Pelé in Brazil, for example, Nurmi inFinland, Borg in Sweden—may have attained comparable stature, but at 37 Oh-sanreigns supreme in one of the most powerful industrial nations on earth.
Baseball isunchallenged in Japan as the national game; there is no football forcompetition, no basketball. Nor does Japan have any renowned boxers, runners,tennis stars. It is most significant, perhaps, that Oh surpasses Babe Ruth moreas a national figure than he does as a home-run king. There is not even anygreat Japanese hero in show business. There is no reigning Japanese RobertRedford, not even a Japanese King Kong, because the Japanese—ever mindful ofcommercial trends—have turned from Godzilla to soft porn. As a popular culturalcelebrity, there is in this rich island nation only one supreme hero, and thatis Sadaharu Oh, Mister Oh, Oh-san, No. 1.
August 14, 1977
Marty Kuehnert,the astute American sporting goods executive who once ran a Japanese baseballteam, married a Japanese and has lived in Japan for years, says, "No one inAmerica can conceive of Mister Oh's place here. He possesses almost a godlikeimage."
It is an event tosee him bat, which helps explain why there is seldom an empty seat whenever heplays with his team, the Yomiuri Giants of Tokyo. When Mister Oh stands at theplate, one senses not only that here is a national treasure but a naturalwonder. If it has been your lot all your life to watch hitters, thousands ofthem, good and bad, old and young, rich and poor, of all races, colors andcreeds, all of them attempting to strike a baseball while keeping both feet onthe ground...and then suddenly before you looms the figure of a champion hitterabout to club the old horse-hide with one foot held aloft—poising it there, asin the manner of the hokey-pokey ("You put your right foot in and you shakeit all about")—the scene is at once astounding and discombobulating.
Oh's foot-aloftbatting style is, in fact, a feat of exquisite concentration and balance—almostphysiological legerdemain—but so peculiar is it that at first shocked glanceone's thoughts tend to run to the irreverent (dogs addressing hydrants) or tothe comic (the boutonniered Jackie Gleason, grasping glass instead of bat,bellowing, "And awaaay we go").
This pitch is lowand far outside, as are so many to Mister Oh. Question to Clyde Wright, ex-U.S.major-leaguer, now a teammate on the Giants: What do they throw to Oh-san?
The pitcherprepares again. Oh, who stands just under 6 feet and weighs 174 pounds,positions himself in the very rear of the box. He smooths out the dirt and tapsthe plate, in the comfortable manner of Father, resting in his La-Z-Boy andknocking ashes from his pipe. Pitching a batter tight, never mind a bean-ball,is not acceptable in Japan, and dusting off Mister Oh would be akin toblasphemy. Dug in now, Oh cocks his bat. It is long and thin, 34½", 33ounces. He holds it far down at the bottom—barehanded, no batting glove—and hetilts the barrel forward, an odd maneuver, almost as unusual as the leg lift.Sometimes, as he awaits the poor pitcher's delivery, Oh actually rests the baton the peak of his helmet.
Now the YakultSwallows' sidearmer whips down. Almost precisely as the ball is released, Ohraises his right foot, drawing it up like a flamingo. And the bat tenses in hishands, shifting into gear. The pitch appears good, and at once the bat and theleg thrust forward in tandem. Oh says he never purposely tries to hit a homerun, but he also says, "The moment I decide to swing I am determined tocrash that ball to pieces." And then in the next instant the ball is liftedin a deceptively lazy parabola that carries it over the fence in right center,where the overflow of the crowd of 50,000 is packed on a hillside.
This is JinquPark, ancient home grounds of the Swallows, a place redolent of decades of theconcessionaire's fish, and now, for Mister Oh's home run, it explodes in a roarthat transcends team loyalties. Streamers pour onto the field. Banners arewaved. By the time Oh-san reaches home, all his teammates are lined up on thefield in front of the dugout, and he troops the line, slapping palms along theway. Mister Oh permits himself a contented smile.
What does it feellike to hit a home run? He nods with pleasure, delighted. He replies withrelish: "First of all, I feel that I have conquered the pitcher. Hey, Ifeel great. I feel triumphant. Despite all that he has tried, I have done theultimate as a hitter. I have won unconditionally." As the interpreterrepeats these remarks in English, Mister Oh is nodding with satisfaction, andwhen they are concluded he smiles in benediction. This time, for sure, nothinghas been lost in translation.
In jaunty sportsclothes, smoking and joking, Oh is obviously a man who can enjoy himself. Hisis an open face, although he is not an especially handsome man, and he is, itturns out, an exemplary human being. Two encomiums, from East and West, arerepresentative. First, from Oh's manager, Shigeo Nagashima, who was known asthe Brooks Robinson of Japan when he was the teammate of the Babe Ruth ofJapan: "In a word, Mister Oh's a good guy—a very kindly fellow, quite agentleman. He's considerate of others. Every member of the team feels proud ofhim, because he is not only the No. 1 player but the No. 1 man."
And from DaveyJohnson of the Phillies, who played with Oh the past two seasons: "He'sjust a super guy—dedicated, the hardest worker around, and he's fun to be with.He's just a great guy."
And so on and soforth. Scratch anybody who has ever been acquainted with Oh-san and a similartestimonial bleeds, until tedium finally coagulates it. Given hisaccomplishment and his personality, this great player's face would no doubthave replaced the rising sun on the Japanese flag by now except for the nagginglittle inconvenience that Mr. Oh is not Japanese.
Sadaharu Oh isChinese on his father's side. His father even used to run a Chinese restaurant,and Oh still carries a Nationalist Chinese passport. His unusual foreign name(which means king) is written like this in Japanese: [Japanese character]; itstands out on the scoreboard as much as if it were written RUTH. All theJapanese players' names are composed of two characters, and the American namesare phonetically converted into two characters. Then there is [Japanesecharacter].
Oh's mother isJapanese, and he was born in Tokyo on May 20, 1940, but what would be a savinggrace elsewhere does not work in Japan. Just as you cannot be a little bitpregnant, neither can you be a little bit Japanese. The Chinese are viewedambivalently, inasmuch as a great deal of island culture came from themainland, but it is a distant, formal appreciation. While Oh says he has beenofficially discriminated against only once—when he was forbidden to play in ahigh school tournament that admitted only full bloods—his alienage is, uh,understood.
It is theastonishingly handsome Nagashima who is "Mister Giant." When at last itwas no longer possible for Oh to be dismissed as Nagashima's second banana,they were linked as the Giants' O & N Gun. Now, the man who usually batsthird ahead of Oh is Isao Harimoto, who is the Ty Cobb of Japan or the RogersHornsby or the Pete Rose or the somebody—everybody in Japanese baseball is theSomebody-from-America of Japan. Playing for the Nippon Ham Fighters, Harimotohit a Japanese record .383 in 1970 and won six Pacific League batting titles.Two years ago, in a blockbuster deal, he was traded to the Senior Circuit—theCentral League—to bat third for the Giants, to form the O&H Gun.
Like Oh, Harimotois not Japanese, though he was born in Hiroshima. Both his parents are Korean,and the Koreans, the one significant immigrant body in Japan, are looked downupon. Last year Harimoto lost another batting title on the last day of theseason by .00006 of a point to a full-blooded Japanese on the Chunichi Dragons.The whispers are that the team playing the Dragons went into the tank in thefinal game to help the Japanese beat the Korean.
Illegalsign-stealing is fairly common in Japan. To hear it, half the population hasbinoculars zeroed in on the catchers. Last year the Hiroshima Toyo Carp foundan effective new way to pirate signs, but this bountiful gift was withheld notonly from the two Americans on the team but also from a player who washalf-Japanese.
In a sense, then,Mister Oh's rise to national eminence is all the more impressive, inasmuch ashe has had to overcome a cultural disadvantage. Yet he has no intention ofbecoming a Japanese citizen. "Everybody knows I'm Chinese, so what's thesense of becoming Japanese?" he says. "By not having to vote I canthink about baseball more." Ah so.
And yet, whateverOh's heritage may have cost him, his affiliation with the Giants has profitedhim tenfold. It is difficult for an American to understand the exalted positionof the Giants. The Japanese prize harmony, consensus, and the Giants certainlysatisfy this need, diamondwise. Essentially, the other 11 teams in the twoleagues serve as foils for the beloved Giants. Almost every Giant game istelevised nationally—and damn the local gate. A kids' TV cartoon show featuresthe Giants. The Giants may be the only Japanese club to make money. The PacificLeague is, to experts, clearly superior to the Central, on the order of ourNational to American, but the Central outdraws the Pacific three to one.
With nearly 3million home attendance last year, the Giants almost matched the entire PacificLeague. Mister Oh and his colleagues average 45,000 a game at Koraku-en, theirhome park, which they share with the Pacific League Ham Fighters, who draw13,600 a game. The stadium was constructed before the "Pacific War"(the Second World War is something else again, it seems, involving a fellownamed Hitler and an altogether different bunch), but unlike most of theantiquated parks in the two leagues, Koraku-en is clean and modern, withartificial turf and a $1 million scoreboard that lights up GO! GO! and whatnot.Bright banners and carp streamers wave, pom-pon girls dance on the dugout roofto encourage the shy Japanese to vent their emotions, and vendors hawkeverything from noodles to Scotch. The wonder is the Giants ever lose.
In point of fact,from 1965 through 1973 they won nine straight Japan Series. The Giants slippeda bit in '74, finishing second, and when Nagashima retired at the end of thatseason, going out in a hail of flower bouquets, he was named manager. Thisproved to be catastrophic. The Giants tumbled to the cellar, and Oh, pressingto help his friend and manager, hit only 33 home runs, failing to win the titlefor the first time in more than a decade. Coming off two consecutive TripleCrowns, his .285 and 96 RBIs also seemed disgraceful, and he agreed to a paycut to certify his abject failure. "I saw myself as the main engine,"he laments now, "and when things went bad, I felt more irritated, moreresponsible—and it went on like that, a vicious circle."
Because theGiants' prowess is in real measure a cornerstone of Japanese popular culture,their nosedive became nearly symbolic of national failure. Attendance improvedas people thronged the parks to sympathize with poor Nagashima and poor Oh andto cheer them up. Heartened, the Giants bounced back to win another pennant in'76, with Mister Oh leading the league with 49 homers and 123 RBIs whilehitting .325. And the beat goes on. This year the Giants are 7½ games in front,and Mister Oh has 26 more homers and a .296 batting average.
Given thehistorical imperatives of the Giants, it should not come as a total shock tolearn that the more cynical experts—that is, 98% of them—believe the Giantsobtain the benefit of the doubt. Clyde Wright freely admits that he agreed toplay in Japan when American players assured him he would get a larger strikezone pitching for the Giants; he allows that he has not been disappointed inthis regard. The Japanese respect authority, of course, but they prefernegotiated group decisions; the arbitrary authority vested in one man, anumpire, nettles them. As a consequence, Japanese umpires tend to be wishy-washysorts who want to harmonize with the will of the public, which is that theGiants win. Mister Oh let it slip once that he got four strikes each time up,and while he denies that remark now, he probably does get four strikes, exceptwhen he gets five. The only thing that clouds Mister Oh's record is that heaccomplished it with GIANTS written across his breast.
As the greatestJapanese player in history on the "national" team, Mister Oh is aprisoner of fame. Fans have discovered where his house is—in a fancy suburbabout 30 minutes from Koraku-en—and loiter there expectantly. The boldest haveeven ventured into the garage to leave adoring graffiti. Public appearances areimpossible, in or out of season. "I can't escape anymore," Oh says."It has become almost intolerable. But"—and he pauses and draws on hiscigarette—"this is a situation which I have caused myself, and since I haveinvited it, I must overcome it."
Succoring him isthe 64,000,000 yen ($215,000) he paid taxes on last year, which includesendorsement fees for such varied products as clothes and cookies, Pepsis andcameras. Presumably, much of his salary is deferred. He is not an extravagantman and he has looked after his family well. He has been married for 10 yearsand has three daughters. Every Japanese is expected to have a hobby: Oh playsgolf to a 12 handicap.
He reasonablyexpects to enjoy another three or four years with the Giants, and while thenouveau Pacific League indulges designated hitters, it is inconceivable that Ohand the Giants—unlike Ruth and the Yankees, Aaron and the Braves—could ever berent asunder. On the other hand, it is not unlikely that the Central Leaguemight adopt the DH in order to keep its meal ticket around for a few extrayears. Oh himself is noncommittal. "I'm so exhausted, mentally andphysically, from playing baseball that I've never even had the time to thinkabout the future," he says. "All I know is that whenever I do stopplaying, I'm going to take a good rest. I need a pause in my life."
This is not idleexaggeration; suffice it to say that Dick Allen would not last the weekend inJapan, where the Protestant work ethic is stronger than it ever has been withProtestants. For a 1:30 game, Oh arrives at 10:30; the first subs go in thebatting cage at 8:30. The pitchers—usually including even the day'sstarter—throw hard. The coaches scrutinize, ready to bench any regular whosepractice performance is not up to snuff.
Oh gets norespite from this enervating routine. After almost half an hour in the battingcage, he goes to the clubhouse, where, lest he grow rusty, he swings a batbefore a full-length mirror for another 10 minutes. Then he hies himself backto the diamond, where a coach spends 15 minutes or so slapping hard groundersjust past his reach, so that he must run and stretch for every one. Here he is,37 years old, the finest player in the game—"and you couldn't find abetter-fielding first baseman," says Davey Johnson—being worked over dailyin the noon heat of summer. Off days—especially after a defeat—mean gruelingtwo-or three-hour team practices. But every player endures this schedule, andOh-san endures it best. In one stretch of 13 seasons he missed two games. Lateevery season, when most players' averages are falling even faster than theirweights, Oh finishes with an inhuman rush. "The muggy weather does in theguys who haven't trained hard all along," he says.
Oh doesn't getany star perks off the field, either. On the road, he is required to share aroom, and, moreover, he is lodged not with a mature contemporary but with a kidpitcher, so that he might pass on his vast experience. The Japanese devotion togroup is well known and satirized, and it is as evident on a baseball team ason a Hawaii tourist expedition. The players are sequestered at out-of-the-wayinns, where they eat together, and after games they climb into their pajamasand communally dissect the evening's competition. The American players, two toa team, known as gaijin (literally, "outside persons") are permitted tostay in Western-type hotels and roam on their own on the road, but Mister Oh isexpected to devote himself fully to the group.
Baseball is atotal experience. Oh-san, and virtually every other player in the league, wearsan unfashionable crew cut—"the image of a sportsman," says ManagerNagashima—to mark them as an elite, a modern samurai. The demands of theschedule and the pressures of his own exalted position are such that Mister Ohsmokes nervously during the season—often taking only two or three puffs andthen jamming his cigarette out. When the season is over, he has no troublegiving up the habit.
The traditionalemphasis upon the group has also inhibited the popularity of Mister Oh's game:the long ball. Ruth changed our whole style of play, but despite Oh, baseballin Japan is still a nibble game. It is culturally important to get ahead, andso even the Giants will play for one run in the first inning. It is maddening,but if the leadoff man gets to first, the second batter (who was hitting about.340 this spring) would be ordered to bunt—and then there was a pretty goodchance that if the sacrifice worked, the leadoff man might foul it all up bytrying to steal third; all this with Harimoto, the hitter with the highestaverage in Japanese history, now at bat, and Oh, the greatest home-run hitter,on deck.
This dead-ballstyle evolved years ago, when Japanese were smaller and couldn't hit fordistance. The generations that have grown to maturity since the war, however,are taller and stronger—the result of a more varied diet and, it is alsospeculated, of not sitting cross-legged so much during the growing years. Butthe Japanese still seem unsure of their strength. Likewise, the one-run gameappeals more to the group ethic, requiring more cooperation—and also morediscussion.
In a way, MisterOh is a cultural aberration. Pitcher pitches—he swings for the fences. Theprevailing style is to avoid confrontation, so that pitchers tend to shavecorners with junk, and batters like to take whenever possible. Roger Repoz, theformer major league outfielder who has played with the Yakult Swallows for fouryears and is a keen student of the Oriental game, says, "The pitchers cuteverything too fine. So it's 2 and 0. Now in the U.S., on 2 and 0 I know thepitcher has got to come in with a strike, and he knows that I'm ready to hitit. That is our game: you vs. me. Here, most pitchers will still be cute on 2and 0, and most hitters are going to take anyway."
But Oh comes tohit, and he'll go after the first pitch if it's there. Very few pitchers willplay his game, however. In his career Oh has been walked almost one out ofevery four times up, and has led both leagues in bases on balls every yearsince 1961. In 1974 he was walked 166 times, hitting his 49 home runs in only385 at bats.
The most homersOh-san ever hit in a season was 55, playing a 140-game schedule, but he hastopped almost every other American home run record—and he has won five battingtitles (lifetime .305, same as Aaron) and numerous fielding honors. He hasaveraged a homer about every 10.5 times at bat. He will pass Aaron's 755 withfewer than 8,000 at bats, while Aaron required 12,364. As they joke (alas) evenin Japan, the man who does that ain't hitting Chinese homers.
Mister Oh is,obliquely, a professional descendant of the Sultan of Swat, for Ruth's visit toJapan in 1934 spurred the creation of professional baseball there. The YomiuriCompany, Japan's second largest newspaper publisher, founded the Giants, and by1937 other big companies had subsidized enough teams to form the JapaneseProfessional League, later to be called the Central League. Naturally, theGiants, first among equals, won the first pennant and most of the rest untilplay was suspended in 1944. By 1949, with the coming of postwar stability, theGiants were back on top.
There are fourteams playing in the Tokyo area, but it is the Giants who have appropriated thecapital name and wear Tokyo—in English—across their chests on the road. Theywere so powerful that for years, unlike the other clubs, they disdainedimporting American gaijin. A huge Russian pitcher, Victor Starfin, 6'4",230, born in the northern island of Hokkaido, was an early Giant star, andWally Yonamine, a Hawaiian Nisei, was a batting champion in the '50s for theGiants, but otherwise the team was content to take the pick of the domesticlitter until 1975, when the Giants brought in Davey Johnson to replaceNagashima. Johnson had a miserable first year at third base, but when shiftedto second in 1976 he became the first gaijin ever elected an All-Star.
Today the Giantsemploy two gaijin—Pitcher Wright and Infielder Jack Lind, from the Dodger farmsystem—just like all the other clubs, because they are not as strong as theyused to be. The amateur draft system, as in the U.S., gives the weaker clubs achance in the market. When young Mister Oh came out of high school in 1959, thebonus system was still in effect and naturally he picked the class team, whichpaid him a $55,000 bonus. In a country where high school baseball is a passion,the son of a Chinese restaurant owner was already a national figure. In one biggame, he clouted a home run so far the ball struck a distant power line andcaused a blackout. Still, in the hot hibachi league, a lot of thePunch-and-Judy advocates argued that the kid should stick to pitching.
The Giants paidthe $55,000 for a hitter, however. But he was no Al Kaline of Japan. The18-year-old Oh went 0 for 35 before he hit his first home run on April 26,1959, and he did not fully mature until 1962, when he hit 38 home runs. By thenhe was completely committed to the flamingo style, which had been taught to himby a former player named Hirosi Arakawa.
Mr. Arakawa is achunky little fellow, as animated as he is powerful. He is full of little partytricks. Try to lift him even an inch off the ground—can't do it; and so forth.Also, he has things in perspective. Laughing, he says, "Hey, as long asOh-san is No. 1, I can make a lot of money." At present, this felicitousassociation helps keep his prosperous baseball school going and assures his jobas a Giants' radio commentator. Arakawa was the Giants' batting coach for nineseasons, as well as a manager and journeyman outfielder with a number ofsecond-rate teams.
"Mister Ohand I were destined to meet each other," Arakawa intones. And so when fatetook him for a stroll in the park one day 23 years ago, he spied the14-year-old Chinese boy playing in a pickup game. Arakawa took an interest inthe prospect, his motive at the time being to steer him to his alma mater, theWaseda Business School. Agreeable and pliant, flattered by the attentions of abig leaguer, Oh immediately took Mr. Arakawa's advice and switched from battingright-handed to swinging left.
The one-legbusiness came a few years later. Mel Ott, an earlier Occidental Giant, was, ofcourse, famous for raising his leg as he swung, but Ott was not the inspirationfor Arakawa's instruction. Nor did Arakawa have in mind a particular battingtechnique, in the sense that Americans change their stance to "get aroundon the ball better" or to "see lefties better" or whatever. No, itwas much more than that.
It will help,perhaps, to read this excerpt from The Japanese, a new book by Edwin O.Reischauer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan and the accepted U.S. authorityon the Japanese. On the subject of skill, he writes: "The individual issupposed to learn to merge with the skill until his mastery of it has becomeeffortless. He does not establish intellectual control over it so much as aspiritual oneness with it. We are reminded of the original Buddhist concept oflosing one's identity by merging with the cosmos through enlightenment. But thesignificant point is that acquiring a skill is essentially an act of will—ofself-control and self-discipline.... Mastery of a skill is seen more a matterof developing one's inner self rather than one's outer muscle."
To the Westernerthis may sound like a lot of mumbo jumbo. "Don't give me all that one-legstuff," says Clyde Wright. "If Oh-san kept both feet on the ground likeeverybody else, he would hit 70 a year." But Arakawa taught batting from amystical, Zen point of view, and Oh bought it that way.
Says Mr. Arakawa:"Frankly, I'm not so sure that you are not more unbalanced starting tostride with both feet on the ground. I'm not so sure. But whatever, a pitcherwho sees a batter lift up one foot thinks, 'Aha, you dummy, you have madeyourself even more vulnerable to my tricks.' So only a man with a greatpositive attitude like Oh's could have the confidence to hit this way. You see,it makes him believe in himself, in his ability, all the more."
Mr. Arakawa is anexpert in aiki-do, a martial art that combines judo, karate and Zen, and heborrowed various principles of aiki-do in teaching Mister Oh how to swingone-legged. "Aiki-do teaches how, in the most natural way, you can producethe most strength," he explains. "You see, it is not the style itselfwhich gives Oh his maximum power—although it may help. It is the fact that thestyle permits him to concentrate better." Arakawa has specifically refusedto teach Oh the whole discipline of aiki-do, because, he says craftily,"Mister Oh can hit better than me, but he would be inferior to me ataiki-do, and then he would lose confidence in himself."
Notwithstanding,it takes someone with tremendous balance, reflexes and hand-eye coordination tobat in the peculiar way Mister Oh does. And the one-leg business aside, Arakawaalso instructed Oh in batting by dropping a piece of paper and having him tryto slice it with a samurai sword as it fell. Even now, when Oh practicesswinging, he slashes down with the bat, as you would with a sword. Then at theplate he swings as level as anyone. The most telling assessment of Oh thehitter is that American players who have seen him often and are not conditionedto think of him strictly as a power hitter invariably compare him to oneAmerican hitter—Rod Carew.
"When itcomes to hitting," Mister Oh says, "I like to think of the batter interms of a triangle, with his head at the peak. On the one hand, I want torestrict the movement of the head, while, on the other, increasing the movementof the base of the triangle—the hips. That's where a batter's power comes from.I want my center of gravity moving. Frankly, my power is not what it used tobe. My explosive power is gone. But now I think I have a more sophisticatedreaction to hitting. In fact, now I think I know the game so well that it isdifficult for me ever to be satisfied with whatever I do."
Certainly, at 37he is not the consistent marvel he used to be. Earlier this year, when he hadgone more than two weeks without a homer, the Hanshin Tigers actually walkedHarimoto to get to Oh. That woke him up. He went with a 2-and-1 pitch low onthe outside corner for a wrong-field double—and then hit a home run in threestraight games. Teams often employ a Williams shift against Oh, leaving onlythe third baseman on the left side of the diamond, but Oh deals with themaneuver perfectly, picking his spots as to when to hit away from it. It wouldbe a loss of face, he maintains, if he permitted the shift to dictate to him,but it would also be stupid and selfish for him not to try to pick it apart nowand then.
So, all right,how would Mister Oh have done in the U.S.? Unquestionably, he would have been agreat star, a drawing card, a Hall of Famer. No sensible person could disputethat. Probably, he would have hit a home run about every 15 or 16 times at bat(like Aaron, Mays and Mantle, for example) instead of every 10.5. It is truethat Japanese parks are slightly smaller than those in the U.S.—300 down thelines, 395 to center—but it is also true that Japanese pitchers are not quiteas strong and don't throw as hard, so that batters must generate their ownpower. Had Oh grown up playing in a culture in which the brushback was part oflife, he surely would have adjusted. On the other hand, the Japanese season,annually plagued by a long rainy spell, has never consisted of more than 140games and was stabilized at 130 (ties included) some time ago. Oh once hit 51home runs in 130 games. Put an asterisk next to that and call him the RogerMaris of Japan.
One Americanplayer keeps coming to mind when you think of Oh. When you think of physique,durability, temperament, selflessness, batting genius and all-round ability(both started as pitchers), you think of Stan Musial—or, as some of us knowhim, the Sadaharu Oh of St. Louis. Musial hit 475 home runs and batted .331. Inthe U.S. Oh probably would have hit a few more homers and had a slightly loweraverage, and then, like Musial, be ensconced in the Hall of Fame as quickly asballots could be distributed.
But because theJapanese are a self-conscious people, holding back their emotions behind politeplaster smiles, so does Mister Oh graciously parry any comparisons to Aaron andAmerican baseball. When he has played touring American teams in Japan or springexhibitions in the States, he has always leaned over backwards protesting howbig and strong the Americans are (one feels that Sony and Datsun offered up thesame sentiments the day before they came in and busted up our marketplace). For$20,000 of network money, Oh did engage Aaron in a home-run batting practicegig a few years ago (Aaron won 10-9), which bequeathed us nothing lastingexcept a vintage Yogi Berraism: "Aaron could beat that Nip in the dark atLaGuardia."
Mister Oh ishimself somewhat more circumspect on the general subject. "When Aaron wasgoing after Ruth," he says, "at least some people pointed out thetremendous differences between the two men, between their times, between theirbaseball. In that way, just as it is difficult to compare Ruth and Aaronfairly, so is it difficult, I think, to compare me in Japan with them in theU.S. People don't believe me when I say this, but I honestly don't feel anypressure on me with regard to Aaron's record. I'm quite satisfied just to bethe guy in Japan who hit 700-odd home runs. That's enough for me."
The Giants areplanning a celebration when he hits No. 756. But how much more can this affectOh? He has been the cynosure of a nation for years. He has lost his privacy andhe has played before SRO almost every game. The press can be no moreexhaustive. There was a two-hour prime-time TV special on Mister Oh lastspring. A newspaper ran a 30-part series on him, and the most revealing aspectof this interminable biography was that there was no more of him to reveal. The30 parts did not disclose a single new fact about the man, or insight into hischaracter. How can you be oppressed by a number and a distant American namewhen you are already toting a nation's adulation on your back? "I amhonored for baseball," Mister Oh says.
But if he will bespared the pressure that Aaron—or Maris or Denny McLain—had to deal with, hemust endure a kind of scrutiny which would be painful to almost anyone in hissociety. "I am by nature a very shy fellow," Mister Oh says. "Idon't like grandstand plays. But I'm never uncomfortable out on the fieldbecause I don't have to meet the fans face-to-face. People come to see meconcentrate on baseball. They don't come to look me in the face, and I'mgrateful for that."
But he willcertainly find, as the inevitable No. 756 draws nearer, that there will be acloser and more affectionate examination of his face. Home-run records havemarked the men who set them in different ways. Ruth became a phenomenon, Aarona hero; Oh-san is already both of these, and so he can only become more of apersonality. Especially for a man from his culture, that will be the hardestaccommodation. But we can expect Mister Oh to make it.
And then,strangely but surely, the only pressure left will be upon us, upon baseball inthe United States.
There will be aday in August 1982 when Henry Aaron will stand proudly upon a platform inCooperstown, N.Y., to be presented with a bronze bas-relief of himself. Then itwill go upon the wall inside. The people will cheer him, a band will play, thephotographers will photograph and demand that his wife Billye kiss him again.The sunlight will bounce off Lake Otsego and the breezes will push down theSusquehanna. Maybe there will be another player or two up there with Aaron.Maybe Frank Robinson, who hit 586 home runs; maybe Eddie Mathews, who hit 512;maybe Al Kaline, who hit 399; maybe Roger Maris, who hit 275; maybe SadaharuOh, who hit 861 before he retired in 1981.
What a gloriousthing that would be if Mister Oh stood with Mr. Aaron on the threshold ofCooperstown. What a great day for baseball. What a great day for Americanbaseball.
But, of course,the Special Committee will put in another octogenarian umpire from the FederalLeague, instead.
Seriously now, doyou think Joe DiMaggio could have hit in 56 straight games in Japan?