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Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008

Devoted to the game: Looking back at Oh's career

Special to The Japan Times

First in a three-part series

PART II — Oh's career sparkled with achievements as player, manager
PART III — Equaling Oh's HR record proved difficult

News photo
Unique approach: Home run king Sadaharu Oh adopted his trademark flamingo-style batting stance after struggling with the bat in his first few seasons with the Yomiuri Giants. AP PHOTO

"He showed us all how much you can accomplish if you set your mind to it. And that's a beautiful thing.'' — Hiroshi Arakawa, Sadaharu Oh's batting sensei

Sadaharu Oh has retired. The legendary baseball figure, suffering from ill health in the wake of cancer surgery, appeared in his last game as manager of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in October, putting an end to a remarkable 50-year career in baseball.

The news of his departure from the field triggered a wave of nostalgia among older fans for an era they recalled with great fondness, tinged perhaps with a sense of guilt that they could have appreciated their hero a little bit more than they did.

Oh was one of the two iconic figures of his generation and of a time known as the "Golden Age of Japanese Baseball." He and his legendary teammate, matinee idol Shigeo Nagashima, formed the powerful cleanup duo on the Yomiuri Giants known as the "O-N Cannon," often compared to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig of New York Yankees fame.

Together, they led the Giants to 14 pennants and 11 Japan Series championships, including an unparalleled nine in a row starting in 1965. The success of the proud Kyojin in that era cemented baseball's position as the country's national sport, with telecasts of Giants games dominating prime time television. It also symbolized the new status Japan was acquiring as a world economic super power, conquering global markets with Japanese-manufactured cars, cameras and TV sets.

In Oh's 22-year career with the team, ending in 1980, he won every major title and award there was many times over, including 15 home run crowns. He slammed a total of 868 round-trippers, a world record.

He then went on to a successful second life as a manager, winning several pennants and two Japan Series titles. He reached the zenith of his managerial career in 2006 when he led Team Japan to a stunning triumph in the inaugural World Baseball Classic.

Yet, throughout it all, curiously, Oh was less popular than Nagashima, despite more impressive accomplishments as a player and manager. It was Nagashima who always was known as "Mr. Giants" and "Mr. Puro-Yakyu" in Japan, not Sadaharu Oh.

Oh was the Tokyo-born son of a Chinese immigrant and a Japanese mother. He overcame discrimination in his youth to lead Waseda Jitsugyo to glory in the 1957 High School Spring Championship Tournament at Koshien Stadium.

Before a nationwide TV audience, Oh pitched four complete games in four days in the final stages of the tourney, despite bleeding, infected blisters on his pitching hand that covered the baseball in blood.

Joining the Yomiuri Giants in 1959, he was adjudged to have lost the pop on his fastball and converted to first base to take advantage of his natural power at bat. However, Oh experienced a lengthy period of adjustment because of a serious hitch in his swing. He went hitless in his first 26 at-bats as a professional and put up mediocre statistics during his first three years.

In 1961, for example, he could hit but 13 home runs with a .253 batting average. Said Hiroshi Gondo of the Chunichi Dragons, a 30-game winner that year, "Frankly, it was easy to get him out. He could not hit a fastball. You could just blow it by him."

To overcome Oh's defect, the Giants hired a batting coach named Hiroshi Arakawa, who was also a martial arts sensei. From January 1962, the portly, moon-faced Arakawa began working with Oh every morning at his aikido dojo and devised a most unusual remedy.

"Oh's problem," said Arakawa, "was a tendency to stride too soon and open up his body. I devised a one-legged stance to focus his center of gravity on a smaller area. I got the idea from watching batters like Kaoru Betto of the Hanshin Tigers, who also lifted his foot somewhat before swinging. But I made Oh lift his leg higher, to waist level, and stand there like a flamingo as he waited for the ball.

"At first, Oh found it very difficult to do. We practiced and practiced and he slowly got better, but he was afraid to use it in a game for a long time."

But then came the time he had to try — a rain-soaked game versus the Taiyo Whales at Kawasaki Stadium on July 1, 1962. The Giants had been in a slump. The team had lost six games in a row and fallen back in the standings. Many were blaming it on Oh, who was hitting .250 with nine home runs and had killed many rallies by striking out.

The name "Oh" meant "king" in Japanese and the sports dailies had begun to derogate Oh by labeling him the "Sanshin Oh" or "Strikeout King."

Giants manager Tetsuji Kawakami despaired Oh would ever step up to the next level. In desperation, he decided the moment had come to try his new stance in a game. He stepped into the batter's box against Whales wiry right-hander Makoto Inagawa for his first at-bat, raised his right knee as high as he could, and stood there, waiting.

Out on the mound Inagawa thought to himself, "What the hell? He'll never hit me with that stance."

Inagawa wound up and fired a fastball, which Oh promptly lined into right field. Arakawa watched from the sidelines like a proud father. In his second at-bat, Oh slammed an Inagawa fastball into the right-field stands.

Arakawa leaped to his feet cheering. Oh finished the night with three hits and a beaming Arakawa told him afterward, "That's it. You've got it. You'll never go back now."

Indeed, from then on, Oh was off and running. Using his bizarre new stance, Oh hit 10 homers in July, and 20 more after that, finishing with 38 to win the Central League home run crown.

Oh intensified his efforts in those morning sessions at the Arakawa dojo. He spent hours shadow swinging with Arakawa kneeling in front of him.

Arakawa was not just watching, but also listening. He wanted Oh to produce just the right "whoosh" as the bat cut through the air that would signify a perfect swing. Oh also began swinging a samurai-length sword, slicing sheets of paper, suspended from the ceiling, to strengthen his wrists and arms.

Shortstop Tatsuro Hirooka, who witnessed some of those excruciating sessions, marveled at the effort Oh was making. "What he was doing was extremely difficult," said Oh's teammate. "Especially the sword. The displacement of air when you swing it pushes the paper away. To cut it you have to hit it just right and that takes great wrist strength."

"What we were doing," said Oh, "was applying the principles of Budo (the military arts) to batting."

The following season, Oh hit 40 homers to capture his second straight home run crown, and raised his average to .305.

It was becoming increasingly difficult to get Oh out. Pitchers tried, in vain, to change their approach.

Masaichi Kaneda, the great 400-game winner who had once boasted that nobody could hit his 155-kph fastball and roundhouse 12-6 curveball, was forced to change his tactics with Oh. He employed a stop-and-start delayed delivery to throw Oh's timing off. But that didn't work, either.

By that time, Oh had reached the point where he could stand in the batter's box, right knee lifted up to his waist for a full 10 seconds, enough to outlast the most dilatory of pitchers.

As Kaneda put it ruefully, "Oh could hit any pitch at any speed. And you simply couldn't break his focus."

In desperation, Dragons right-hander Kentaro Ogawa even tried throwing pitches behind his (Ogawa's) back. But he was as unsuccessful as anyone else.

But Oh was just getting started. In 1964, he hit 55 home runs to set a Japan record and raised his average to .320. It was his third straight home run title in what would be an unprecedented string of 13 in a row. He also won three batting championships in a row, starting in 1968, hitting .326, .345 and .325, respectively.

In 1973 and 1974, he garnered back-to-back Triple Crowns. That '73 campaign was arguably his best single season; he hit .355, with 51 home runs and 114 RBIs.

It caused Hanshin Tigers manager Minoru Murayama to utter at one point, "I get a headache every time he comes to bat. I can't bear to watch him anymore."

Before he was finished, Oh would have 12 RBI crowns to go with his monopoly on the home run title, five batting titles and nine MVPs. On Sept. 3, 1977, Oh reached the pinnacle of his playing career, when he blasted his 756th home run, surpassing American Hank Aaron's lifetime MLB record.

Yet, throughout the O-N era, Oh was never the most highly regarded player. That honor always belonged to his teammate, cleanup hitter Nagashima. In favorite player surveys, Oh always finished a distant second to the exalted Nagashima, even though Oh surpassed him in every statistical aspect of the game.


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