The Sultan of Zen

Sadaharu Oh would have been famous even if he had never hit 868 home runs during two decades as a player for the Yomiuri Giants. He went on to manage the team for four seasons, winning one pennant, then he switched in 1995 to the Softbank Hawks, where he led the team to three pennants and two championships.

This week Oh announced that he was hanging up his uniform after an astonishing 50 years in the game, both as a player and as a manager, He cited both health reasons - he had been operated on for cancer two years previously - and the current poor showing of the Hawks, who are fighting for last place in Japan’s Pacific League.

But, of course, Oh did hit those 868 homeruns setting a record for any professional baseball league and eclipsing the American home run king Barry Bonds by 106. During his career as a player he led the league in homers for 15 years, played in 20 Japanese All-Star games and had a lifetime batting average of .301 (roughly the same as Mickey Mantle’s .298).

But Oh wasn’t the only player helping power the Giants to eleven Japan Series Championships in the 1960s and 1970s. Most of those years he batted third in the lineup followed by teammate Shigeo Nagashima in the “clean-up” position, a pairing reminiscent of the Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in the hay-day of the New York Yankees.

(Japanese baseball teams are named after their owners. Hence the Yomiuri Giants are named after their owner, the Yomiuri news group. Its base is Tokyo, and that location in Japan’s capital and largest city and long record of winning championships make the Giants the New York Yankees of Japan).

In those days Japanese sportswriters often wrote of the “O-N Cannon” referring to Oh and Nagashima. The latter went on to a long and distinguished career as a manager for the Giants before retiring in 2001, Oh’s decision to retire thus ends an era that Japanese sports fans remember with considerable nostalgia.

Babe Ruth was known as the “Sultan of Swat,” and Sadaharu Oh could easily be called the Sultan of Zen. Indeed, he titled his autobiography, the Zen Way of Baseball. His signature “flamingo” batting stance (raising the right leg just before swinging) is said to have been adopted from a form of martial arts called Aikido (The Way of Spirit Harmony.)

Even today many Japanese hitters mimic the flamingo stance, although it doesn’t seem to have caught on with American players. It is also said that he learned to hit the curve ball by practicing samurai swordsmanship.

Oh was an exceptionally hard trainer at a time when Japanese ball players trained to a level that many American players in Japan thought verged on the fanatical. This is reflected in the 1992 movie Mr Baseball, starring Tom Selleck, and in many anecdotes in the classic book about American baseball players in Japan by Robert Whiting, You Gotta Have Wa.

One of the great “what if’s” of baseball is how Oh might have fared if he had played in the American Major Leagues, as so many great Japanese players do today almost as a matter of course. But Oh’s playing days were in the 1960s and 1970s when no Japanese appeared in American ballparks.

The first Japanese player to make his mark in the US was Hideo Nomo, who joined the Los Angeles Dodgers as a pitcher in 1995. But the really big break came in 2001, when Ichiro Suzuki (who is known to everyone on both sides of the Pacific by his given name) joined the Seattle Mariners.

Debate rages among baseball aficionados as to whether Oh could have hit 868 home runs as a Major League player and whether his record really does stand in comparison with Bond’s, Henry Aaron’s or even Babe Ruth’s lifetime 714. Did he make his record against inferior pitching or shorter ball parks?

One can never know, because Oh did not play in the Majors, but there is no question he could hit Major League pitching. He hit 25 homeruns off American pitchers in various exhibition games played in Japan while he was a Giant. Among his peers in the Major League, there is a general agreement that he would have been a great player possibly hitting 500 lifetime homers, but not the equal of Babe Ruth.

“There’s no question that he would not have hit 800 home runs if he had played here,” Pete Rose once wrote. But he added that Oh would have probably averaged about 35 homers a year and ended with the .300 batting average he had in Japan.

If that is the case, why shouldn’t Oh be inducted into America’s National Hall of Fame (naturally he’ll find a prime place in the Japanese version)? At the moment no Japanese has ever found his name on a Cooperstown plaque, but it seems only a matter of time before Ichiro becomes the first.

Although a few dissenters carp that Ichiro is not a power hitter, it might be hard to deny a player who made 200 hits in eight consecutive seasons, including a record 262 in 2006. Considering that the previous record-holder, Wee Willie (“I hit ‘em where they ain’t”) Keeler, is a Hall of Famer, it might be hard to deny the honor to Ichiro.

Baseball fans who favor the idea of Oh being admitted point to the induction of a dozen or so African-American baseball players who never had a chance to play in the Majors because they played before the color bar was broken by Jackie Robinson in 1949.

However, Oh would have to overcome one serious blot on his reputation likely to weigh heavily with the sportswriters who vote. That is how he allegedly treated American players who threatened his Japanese record of 55 home runs in a single season. Three Americans playing for Japanese teams neared or tied Oh’s record: Randy Bass hit 54, Karl Rhodes and Alex Cabrera each hit 55.

In the crucial end of season games, Japanese pitchers blatantly walked Rhodes and Cabrera, rather than throw anything that they could hit. It so happened that in both instances the opposing team was managed by Sadaharu Oh. Even the Japanese baseball commissioner complained of poor sportsmanship.

Still, inducting Ichiro or Oh, or any other Japanese player into the American Hall of Fame would be simply underline the extent to which the game is now global. Japanese faithfully follow Ichiro, the Yankees’ Hideki Matsui and the latest Japanese phenom, Kosuke Fukudome (signed for US$48 million over four years), who has powered the Chicago Cubs into contention this year.

Meanwhile, the old rule that Japanese teams were limited to two foreign players has gone by the board, and American and other foreigners are prominent on all Japanese teams. Some have even become managers, though one wonders how they cope with the language problem.

Last year’s World Series (the American championship) was played simultaneously with the Japanese championship, the Nippon Series. Anyone tuning in on television might find Daisuke Matsuzaka on the mound for the Boston Red Sox. Turn the channel and Brian Sweeney is pitching for the Nippon Ham Fighters. Pretty soon you begin to wonder which series you are watching.