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Japan's Mr. Oh hits more homers than Big Boog


Some years ago Casey Stengel put down Japanese baseball by saying, "They're trying to play ball over there with little fingers." But last week Japan's best team, the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, finished a six-game tour of Florida by playing American teams to a standstill, three games to three, and in Arizona Japan's second-best team, the Tokyo Lotte Orions, had victories over the Cubs, the Angels and the Athletics. Talk was that it wouldn't be many years before Japan would be truly major league—either by being expanded into, as California and Canada have been, or by having its champion play in an international World Series. American baseball men are well aware that in 65 home games last year the Yomiuri Giants outdrew the Los Angeles Dodgers, who played 81 home games, by 809,858. The 1962 Dodgers set the American attendance record by drawing an average of 33,193 fans per game; the 1970 Yomiuris averaged 38,568. Baseball tickets in Japan cost about the same as in the U.S., and far fewer of them go unsold. It's enough to make a man think big.

For the last 10 or 15 years Japanese players have come to U.S. training camps the way Latin American military officers visit the U.S. War College. But this spring was the first time that full Japanese teams came over to play exhibition games with American major league clubs, and the Yomiuris-Orioles game March 11 was the first meeting in this country between reigning U.S. and Japanese champions.

Baltimore won 6-4 and left no doubt that its claim to the championship of the world was warranted, even though the Orioles were aided by an obstruction call against the Yomiuris' 5'6" shortstop, Yukinobu Kuroe, which seemed to strike the crowd in Miami Stadium as petty. On the other hand, the Japanese got away with batting men out of turn. Estimates of how many varied, but one of them was definitely Koji Ano, who had earlier pinch-hit for Kazumi Takahashi and then replaced Masahiko Mori defensively. Why the umpires can't keep these things straight is inexplicable.

Before the game the Yomiuri party, which included 31 newsmen, was awed by the phenomenon of Boog Powell, who was later described proudly by Pitcher Takahashi as not only the biggest man he had ever seen but also the biggest man he had ever struck out. "American baseball is power," observed Coach Shigeru Makino. "Japanese people is small." "Sumo," said a Japanese player, pointing to the hulking Powell.

Boog posed for the press with Sadaharu Oh, who is known as "The Babe Ruth of Japan" (Oh, when asked if he was known as the Babe Ruth of Japan in Japan, smiled as though acknowledging an excellent question and said no). Oh felt the 6'4" Powell's biceps, then Powell's massive hand encased the 5'10" Oh's biceps.

"He makes more money than I do," Powell said.

"Forty-seven home run," said Oh, in explanation. That was how many he hit last year—12 more than Powell.

Oh, a smooth-swinging, left-handed hitter and first baseman, is of Chinese parentage. Someone said that in Chinese Oh means "one," which is the number on his back and also his teammates' name for him. In Japanese, says publicity man Yosho Ono, "Oh" has the same meaning as in English, so headlines on the order of "Oh You Oh" abound.

As a rookie Oh got started the way Willie Mays did—he went 0 for 35 before he got his first hit, a home run. Soon after that, at the suggestion of a coach, he began to lift up his right leg at the beginning of his swing. Mel Ott, the New York Giant Hall of Famer who hit 511 home runs, used to do the same thing. Although Oh failed to hit a homer in Florida, he impressed American observers as a first-rate power hitter, and Americans who have played in Japan say that when Oh hits a home run it is usually of international status.

Through an interpreter Oh revealed that all but two or three of his teammates could beat him at arm wrestling and that all his power was in his legs and hips. When word of that disclosure reached Ted Williams in Pompano Beach, Williams was delighted. He spent the next few days citing Oh in support of his own long-held convictions about the importance of the hips in the swing. Oh makes more than $100,000 a year—his older teammate, Third Baseman Shigeo Nagashima, is paid $130,000—and he is regarded as a national hero.

World War II was seldom mentioned during the Japanese visit. Masaichi Kaneda, who retired as a pitcher last season after winning 400 games in 20 years, is now the Giants' television announcer. One reason he turned down a pitching offer from the New York Yankees, he said, was that "it was only 10 or 11 years after the war and I was still afraid of Americans." The other reason, he added, was that he was making $120,000 in Japan at the time and didn't want to take a cut.

One of the only other mentions of the war came when Cappy Harada, a second-generation Japanese-American who scouts Japanese players for the San Francisco Giants, was discussing the history of the game in Japan. At present there is an agreement between Japanese and American baseball that one country will not try to sign the other's owned players or free-agent prospects without clearance from the respective commissioner's offices. In 1963, the year after Horace Stoneham first retained him to seek out Japanese prospects, Harada signed Masanori Murakami, who remains the only Japanese ever to play in the majors in the U.S. Murakami was 5-1 in relief over two seasons with the Giants, but Harada says that a great deal of pressure was mounted in Japan to get him back. In 1966 Murakami returned home, but he had become so used to his light pitching duties in the U.S. that he was overwhelmed by the need to pitch every other day, either as a starter or in relief, as Japanese aces generally do. He pitched badly and was sent down to a farm team for a while. The Yomiuri Giants were quick to say that Murakami did not represent the best of Japan. Pitcher-turned-announcer Kaneda was quoted as saying "Murakami—Pu."

Harada said Japanese baseball began when missionaries with Commodore Perry introduced the game in the 19th century. Soon after, a college league was organized and its teams represented the country against visiting Americans until 1934, when Matsutaro Shoriki, publisher of the Tokyo newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, asked the American Lefty O'Doul how the Japanese game could be improved. By the formation of a professional league, was O'Doul's answer, and Shoriki, whose son Toru now owns the Yomiuri Giants, set about accomplishing that.

During the war the league was disbanded, but after the surrender General Douglas MacArthur got the game going again. Lefty O'Doul brought his San Francisco Seals to Japan in 1949 and in 11 games drew 400,000. It was at those games that MacArthur let the Japanese and American flags fly side by side for the first time during the occupation. "It was very touching," says Harada.

This spring's visit by the Japanese teams was in the same spirit. The language barrier was great—Oh, Nagashima and Kaneda had smatterings of English, but about all the others seemed to know was "nice ball," a term they used to refer to what Americans call a "good pitch." But there was a certain generally appreciated conviviality, with the Americans struggling to pronounce "Suetsugu" and the Japanese to pronounce "Sudakis."

The Japanese game did not look exotically different from the American. One newsman who had heard that Bob Nieman, the former American League outfielder, had once caused a scandal in Japan by throwing his team's ceremonial teapot onto the field after striking out was disappointed to find that the Giants brought no such teapot with them. Dodger owner Walter O'Malley said, "We spoiled another custom of theirs. When an umpire called a player out it used to be that the player would bow his head respectfully. Now they're inclined to snarl."

Gordon Windhorn, who played six years in Japan, reported that the Japanese game has progressed—or retrogressed—even farther than that. "When I was there," he said, "a coach knocked down an umpire and wasn't even thrown out of the game. But it is hard to swear at the umpires; there is no profanity in Japanese. The worst name you can call an ump is 'baka.' That means 'stupid.' You can say 'baka baka baka' or you can call him dumb 'hyakusho,' which means 'manure farmer.' Once I turned around to a plate umpire and took off his hat and spat in it and put it back on his head. He took a swing at me. But it's hard, because you can't talk to them."

The Japanese-American games in Florida and Arizona were played in a peaceful spirit and there were unmistakable, if somewhat inscrutable, episodes of goodwill. At Vero Beach one afternoon six Japanese newsmen surrounded Richie Allen as he watched Nagashima in one of the batting cages.

"Short step," said Allen appreciatively. "Good stroke."

"Thank you," said one of the newsmen.

Nagashima came from the cage. "You got a good stroke," said Allen. "Hands, back here, don't move."

"Too much?" asked Nagashima.

"No, good. Good. Hands back here, like a gun, steady. Then bing."

Allen demonstrated again. "Hands back. Tschoo. Boom."

"Ooh," said Nagashima, smiling.

"Hit .312," said the newsman.

After the Dodgers eked out a victory over Yomiuri a reporter asked Walter Alston a question in Japanese that caused all his colleagues and the interpreter to break out laughing.

"This man is funny," the interpreter explained to Alston. "I hope you understand. He wants to know...were you really...serious?"

Alston has dealt with the press before. "Tell him I always try to win until the last man is out. And you win some, you lose some."

The interpreter translated Alston's remarks, and the Japanese newsmen, including the funny one, nodded dutifully and took notes.