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Thursday, Oct. 30, 2008

Oh's career sparkled with achievements as player, manager

Special to The Japan Times

Second in a three-part series

PART I — Devoted to the game: Looking back at Oh's career
PART III — Equaling Oh's HR record proved difficult

News photo
Hitting legend: Japan manager Sadaharu Oh guided Japan to the 2006 World Baseball Classic title, pushing his players to steady improvement as the tournament progressed. It was the last great achievement of Oh's illustrious career. AP PHOTO

I watched Sadaharu Oh through much of his career with the Yomiuri Giants, living as I did in Tokyo, first as a student, then as an employee in a Japanese company and after that as a journalist.

During that time it was impossible to miss what was going on with him and his team. You could get in a cab after work and the Giants game would be blasting away on the radio. Walk into any restaurant and bar in the city and there would be a TV set off in the corner tuned in to the game. Headlines in the sports dailies at the train station kiosks the next morning were all about the Kyojin.

And it was like that all over the country. Cynics have compared the wall-to-wall coverage to brainwashing and it was not far from the truth.

In my case, I went out to Korakuen Stadium whenever possible to see the Giants play in person. I would pay a couple of hundred yen to sit high up in the jumbo stands on the third-base side.

With the nighttime neons of Tokyo as a backdrop, I would quaff Kirin beer and watch him do his stuff. I saw Oh play several times in 1964 when he hit his 55 home runs to set a new single-season record.

I saw many of the homers he hit off Hanshin Tigers southpaw Yutaka Enatsu. I also saw him hit a home run off Bob Gibson, another off Tom Seaver in postseason exhibition play and still another off Jon Matlack that went completely out of the park.

Someone once showed me a seat in the right-field stands with a crack in it.

"Oh home run," the man said.

Perhaps the most memorable and bizarre incident I witnessed involving Oh was the famous televised brawl between the Giants and the Hanshin Tigers in 1968 at Koshien Stadium, in which Oh, Hiroshi Arakawa, the slugger's batting sensei, and a big, swarthy pitcher from Louisiana named Gene Bacque were key participants.

Bacque had risen from the Tigers farm system after passing a tryout in 1962 to become one of the best pitchers in the game. He had won the Sawamura Award for best hurler in 1964, when he won 29 games and led the Tigers to the CL flag.

In 1965, he had pitched a no-hitter against the Giants, and three years later he was still at his peak. Bacque liked to play the role of the Ugly American. He liked to scowl in disdain at Giants batters, make mocking gestures and throw an occasional brushback pitch, especially at Nagashima and Oh, all of which he thought was good psychology, not to mention providing additional entertainment for the fans.

Brushback pitches may have been part and parcel of baseball in the United States, but they were frowned on in the more genteel Japanese game of that era. Thus, in this environment, Bacque was like a touring foreign professional wrestler, playing the villain to pure-hearted, well-mannered Japanese opponents.

Oh, for his part, usually shrugged off such antics. The Giants had a code that demanded they "always act like gentlemen," and so Oh kept his cool and still got his normal quota of hits.

On this particular night, however, the atmosphere was unusually heated. It was September and the Tigers trailed the first-place Giants in the standings by a single game.

In the fourth inning, trailing 1-0 and with two runners on base, Bacque delivered two inside pitches in the direction of Oh's head, both of which sent Oh sprawling to the ground. Oh got up and started toward the mound, bat in hand, but he was beaten there by a furious Arakawa and a horde of angry Giants players. A brawl ensued and fans poured onto the field to participate.

Despite being knocked down and taking several blows, Bacque managed to get up and hit Arakawa with a right hook, a punch that permanently embedded an outline of Bacque's knuckle on the famous coach's forehead.

It took nearly an hour for the umpires to restore order. When action resumed, a Tigers relief pitcher named Masatoshi Gondo promptly hit Oh in the head. Oh was carried of the field on a stretcher and was taken to the hospital where he spent the next three days. The Tigers lost the game and eventually the pennant. Many blamed Bacque, who had sustained a broken thumb and missed the rest of the season.

"Bacque and I were friends," Oh explained later. "I often went to dinner at his house, over behind Koshien Stadium. I didn't think he was trying to hit me.

"But I did think he was overdoing it that night. So I was going out to tell him to knock it off. But Arakawa went by me like a rocket. And then everybody went crazy."

That winter, Bacque was traded to the last-place Kintetsu Buffaloes of the Pacific League. Many people believed that Bacque's banishment to the worst team in Japan was punishment for causing so much trouble. Bacque completely lost his effectiveness and was forced to retire after an 0-7 record in 1969. Some Giants fans believed it was divine retribution.

Oh, for his part, actually sympathized with the battered and bruised American.

By virtue of the books I wrote, I was in a position to see Oh up close, in interviews, at the ballpark, at receptions, and I can say that I never encountered a more gracious superstar.

He was constantly being approached for autographs — by little kids, adults and even ballplayers from other teams. But he never said no and he always treated everyone he met with courtesy and respect, even lowly freelance journalists.

I first met Oh in 1977, when I visited his house, a modest two-story affair in the western suburbs of the city.

I was a young, unknown journalist, there with a Newsweek crew to chronicle Oh's assault on Hank Aaron's home run record. "Oh-san," I stammered upon being introduced, "It is an honor to meet you." He replied to my surprise, "No, Whiting-san, the honor is mine." Then he ushered me into his living room and sat me down in his favorite chair, a huge leather contraption shaped like a baseball glove.

When the interview was over, we drove with him to the stadium, but not until he had posed for pictures and signed autographs for everyone in the crowd of people that was waiting outside his house.

Arriving at the Korakuen clubhouse, he then made his way through stacks of autograph boards, buckets of balls, T-shirts and other items he had been asked to sign, patiently writing his name and the word "doryoku," which means effort. That, we learned, was his routine every single day of the season.

When Oh passed Aaron, on the night of Sept. 3, 1977, all of Japan celebrated. Even the U.S. ambassador joined in the festivities, offering a tribute and congratulations.

Yet Oh humbly refused to compare his record to Aaron's. "I'm just a man who happened to hit a lot of home runs in Japan," he told reporters, "The home run I hit today is just one of many."

During the commemoration ceremony, the lights at Korakuen dimmed and a spotlight shone on Oh standing on the mound in front of a microphone. The first thing he did was to bring his mother and father onto the field beside him to thank them for their support and give them the credit for his achievements.

It was characteristic of Oh that in 1980, at the age of 40, when he hit 30 homers with 84 RBIs, but with a batting average that had sunk to .236, he quit. Some players might have thought those statistics warranted playing another year, but not Oh. He was embarrassed.

The Giants had finished out of the running for the third year in a row. Shigeo Nagashima, in his sixth year as manager, was forced to resign.

Although Oh and Nagashima were not particularly close, Oh felt responsible and so he announced his retirement at the same time.

If you are guessing that Nagashima got more media coverage that fall than Oh, you would be right.


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