This little story is about two people mainly—Japanese baseball legend Sadaharu Oh, and American baseball legend Ted Williams. It is a story I often tell to my Japanese friends when they ask me if I like Japanese baseball. My answer is always: “Not anymore,”
My story… and Oh
When I first came to Japan in 1980, I really liked Japanese baseball. But a few years later, in 1985, I soured on it. The reason was Oh.
Oh was a great hitter. His 868 career homeruns would be a phenomenal number in any league. A quick calculation tells you that it averages out to 40+ homers for over 20 years. Yikes! He also holds the single season homerun record of 55…more on THAT later! Oh was into Zen, and his famous and unusual right leg kick gave him his hitting rhythm as well as centering his mind and body to life’s universal elements through his left foot—planted firmly in the earth.
But it is not Oh’s hitting that I want to talk about here. No, I want to talk about the role he played (as a manager) in (as ESPN puts it, and I agree) “one of the most shameful episodes in professional sport”. Let me steal a short quote from Wikipedia here, and let them explain it. (You can also read more about it at Tofugu.com.)
On three occasions, foreign-born players have challenged Oh’s single-season home run record of 55 and faced Oh-managed teams late in the season. On every single occasion, Oh’s pitchers refused to throw strikes to them.
In 1985, American Randy Bass, playing for the Hanshin Tigers, came into the last game of the season against the Oh-managed Giants with 54 home runs. Bass was intentionally walked four times on four straight pitches each time. Bass reached over the plate on the fifth occasion and batted the ball into the outfield for a single. After the game, Oh denied ordering his pitchers to walk Bass, but Keith Comstock, an American pitcher for the Giants, later stated that an unnamed Giants coach had threatened a fine of $1,000 for every strike that any Giants pitcher threw to Bass. The magazine Takarajima investigated the incident and reported that the Giants front office had likely ordered the team not to allow Bass an opportunity to tie or break Oh’s record. For the most part the Japanese media remained silent on the incident as did league commissioner Takeso Shimoda.
In 2001, American Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes, playing for the Kintetsu Buffaloes, hit 55 home runs with several games left. The Buffaloes played the Oh-managed Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks on a late weekend series in Fukuoka. Rhodes was intentionally walked during each at-bat. Hawks catcher Kenji Johjima could be seen grinning as he caught the intentional balls. Again, Oh denied any involvement and Hawks batting coach Yoshiharu Wakana stated that the pitchers acted on his orders, saying, “I just didn’t want a foreign player to break Oh’s record.” Rhodes completed the season with 55 home runs. Hawks pitcher Keizaburo Tanoue went on record saying that he wanted to throw strikes to Rhodes and felt bad about the situation.
In 2002, Venezuelan Alex Cabrera hit 55 home runs with five games left in the season and his team played Oh’s Hawks. Oh told his pitchers to throw strikes to Cabrera, but most of them ignored his order and threw balls well away from the plate. After the game, Oh stated, “If you’re going to break the record, you should do it by more than one. Do it by a lot.” In the wake of the most recent incident involving Cabrera, ESPN listed Oh’s single-season home run record as #2 on its list of “The Phoniest Records in Sports.”
Not very sporting, I’m afraid. And Oh’s comment of: “If you’re going to break the record, you should do it by more than one. Do it by a lot.” is equally shameful. Surprisingly, many Japanese defend Oh’s actions. Why? They want the record to be owned eternally by a Japanese, not a foreign player. The funny thing is—Oh is Taiwanese!
Some Japanese friends agree with me and point to a similar tactic used against Hideki Matsui when he was a high school baseball legend. In 1992, he drew five consecutive intentional walks in a game at the national tournament, Koshien. My reaction? No, that was fair. A championship was at stake and the opposing manager made a risky but clever move. Matsui’s team went on to lose. In Oh’s case, there were no league title’s being fought for.
What should Oh have done? Easy. Order his pitchers to throw strikes. Any walks and they would no longer pitch for him. If he had any pride, anyway. But apparently, he didn’t. Not like Ted Williams. Williams had tons.
This is a continuation of the story I tell my Japanese friends. I compare Oh’s attempt to hold on to his record with that of Ted Williams and the way he handled the final day of the 1941 season. Again, from Wikipedia:
Before the game on September 28, Williams was batting .39955, which would have been rounded up to a .400 average. Williams, who had the chance to sit out the final, decided to play a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Athletics. Williams explained that he didn’t really deserve the .400 average if he did sit out). Williams went 6-for-8 on the day, finishing the baseball season at .406.
It is, of course, too late for Oh to make amends. I doubt he even wants to. But let’s hope that if the situation ever presents itself again, Japanese baseball will do the right thing and force the pitchers to pitch.
Let me finish on an upbeat note: Here is Abbot and Costello’s classic, “Who’s on First?” Enjoy!