The question most often posed about Sadaharu Oh by parochial Americans (a species every bit as prevalent as ugly ones) is whether or not he would be a great star in the United States. It is not an admirable curiosity, being diverting as well as condescending, and keeps us from properly considering the man in his own environment, in his own context. Of course Oh would be a bum if he played over here, just as Winston Churchill never could have cut it in the U.S., just as Chekhov never could have dented The Great White Way, just as Nijinsky never could have gotten to first base with our gen-u-wine major league dancers. Because there are only 113 million Japanese and because they have been playing baseboru for only 105 years, it is foolishness to think that a single one of these tiny little folks could excel at our great American game.
So now that we have that settled, let us examine this athlete who has hit 742 home runs, more than Babe Ruth and, soon, more than Henry Aaron, more than anyone in the world.
Mister Oh—Japanese often address one another in this formal manner—is an extraordinary figure, make no mistake. There are two things that immediately establish his singularity. First, he has a highly distinctive batting style. Second, no athlete has ever been more revered in his country. To be sure, others in smaller or less sophisticated lands—Pelé in Brazil, for example, Nurmi in Finland, Borg in Sweden—may have attained comparable stature, but at 37 Oh-san reigns supreme in one of the most powerful industrial nations on earth.
Baseball is unchallenged in Japan as the national game; there is no football for competition, no basketball. Nor does Japan have any renowned boxers, runners, tennis stars. It is most significant, perhaps, that Oh surpasses Babe Ruth more as a national figure than he does as a home-run king. There is not even any great Japanese hero in show business. There is no reigning Japanese Robert Redford, not even a Japanese King Kong, because the Japanese—ever mindful of commercial trends—have turned from Godzilla to soft porn. As a popular cultural celebrity, there is in this rich island nation only one supreme hero, and that is Sadaharu Oh, Mister Oh, Oh-san, No. 1.
Marty Kuehnert, the astute American sporting goods executive who once ran a Japanese baseball team, married a Japanese and has lived in Japan for years, says, "No one in America can conceive of Mister Oh's place here. He possesses almost a godlike image."
It is an event to see him bat, which helps explain why there is seldom an empty seat whenever he plays with his team, the Yomiuri Giants of Tokyo. When Mister Oh stands at the plate, one senses not only that here is a national treasure but a natural wonder. If it has been your lot all your life to watch hitters, thousands of them, good and bad, old and young, rich and poor, of all races, colors and creeds, all of them attempting to strike a baseball while keeping both feet on the ground … and then suddenly before you looms the figure of a champion hitter about to club the old horse-hide with one foot held aloft—poising it there, as in the manner of the hokey-pokey ("You put your right foot in and you shake it all about")—the scene is at once astounding and discombobulating.
Oh's foot-aloft batting style is, in fact, a feat of exquisite concentration and balance—almost physiological legerdemain—but so peculiar is it that at first shocked glance one's thoughts tend to run to the irreverent (dogs addressing hydrants) or to the comic (the boutonniered Jackie Gleason, grasping glass instead of bat, bellowing, "And awaaay we go").
This pitch is low and far outside, as are so many to Mister Oh. Question to Clyde Wright, ex-U.S.major-leaguer, now a teammate on the Giants: What do they throw to Oh-san?
The pitcher prepares again. Oh, who stands just under 6 feet and weighs 174 pounds, positions himself in the very rear of the box. He smooths out the dirt and taps the plate, in the comfortable manner of Father, resting in his La-Z-Boy and knocking ashes from his pipe. Pitching a batter tight, never mind a bean-ball, is not acceptable in Japan, and dusting off Mister Oh would be akin to blasphemy. Dug in now, Oh cocks his bat. It is long and thin, 34½", 33 ounces. He holds it far down at the bottom—barehanded, no batting glove—and he tilts the barrel forward, an odd maneuver, almost as unusual as the leg lift. Sometimes, as he awaits the poor pitcher's delivery, Oh actually rests the bat on the peak of his helmet.
Now the Yakult Swallows' sidearmer whips down. Almost precisely as the ball is released, Oh raises his right foot, drawing it up like a flamingo. And the bat tenses in his hands, shifting into gear. The pitch appears good, and at once the bat and the leg thrust forward in tandem. Oh says he never purposely tries to hit a home run, but he also says, "The moment I decide to swing I am determined to crash that ball to pieces." And then in the next instant the ball is lifted in a deceptively lazy parabola that carries it over the fence in right center, where the overflow of the crowd of 50,000 is packed on a hillside.
This is Jingu Park, ancient home grounds of the Swallows, a place redolent of decades of the concessionaire's fish, and now, for Mister Oh's home run, it explodes in a roar that transcends team loyalties. Streamers pour onto the field. Banners are waved. By the time Oh-san reaches home, all his teammates are lined up on the field in front of the dugout, and he troops the line, slapping palms along the way. Mister Oh permits himself a contented smile.
What does it feel like to hit a home run? He nods with pleasure, delighted. He replies with relish: "First of all, I feel that I have conquered the pitcher. Hey, I feel great. I feel triumphant. Despite all that he has tried, I have done the ultimate as a hitter. I have won unconditionally." As the interpreter repeats these remarks in English, Mister Oh is nodding with satisfaction, and when they are concluded he smiles in benediction. This time, for sure, nothing has been lost in translation.
In jaunty sports clothes, smoking and joking, Oh is obviously a man who can enjoy himself. His is an open face, although he is not an especially handsome man, and he is, it turns out, an exemplary human being. Two encomiums, from East and West, are representative. First, from Oh's manager, Shigeo Nagashima, who was known as the Brooks Robinson of Japan when he was the teammate of the Babe Ruth of Japan: "In a word, Mister Oh's a good guy—a very kindly fellow, quite a gentleman. He's considerate of others. Every member of the team feels proud of him, because he is not only the No. 1 player but the No. 1 man."
And from Davey Johnson of the Phillies, who played with Oh the past two seasons: "He's just a super guy—dedicated, the hardest worker around, and he's fun to be with. He's just a great guy."
And so on and so forth. Scratch anybody who has ever been acquainted with Oh-san and a similar testimonial bleeds, until tedium finally coagulates it. Given his accomplishment and his personality, this great player's face would no doubt have replaced the rising sun on the Japanese flag by now except for the nagging little inconvenience that Mr. Oh is not Japanese.
Sadaharu Oh is Chinese on his father's side. His father even used to run a Chinese restaurant, and Oh still carries a Nationalist Chinese passport. His unusual foreign name (which means king) is written like this in Japanese: 王; it stands out on the scoreboard as much as if it were written RUTH. All the Japanese players' names are composed of two characters, and the American names are phonetically converted into two characters. Then there is 王.
Oh's mother is Japanese, and he was born in Tokyo on May 20, 1940, but what would be a saving grace elsewhere does not work in Japan. Just as you cannot be a little bit pregnant, neither can you be a little bit Japanese. The Chinese are viewed ambivalently, inasmuch as a great deal of island culture came from the mainland, but it is a distant, formal appreciation. While Oh says he has been officially discriminated against only once—when he was forbidden to play in a high school tournament that admitted only full bloods—his alienage is, uh, understood.
It is the astonishingly handsome Nagashima who is "Mister Giant." When at last it was no longer possible for Oh to be dismissed as Nagashima's second banana, they were linked as the Giants' O & N Gun. Now, the man who usually bats third ahead of Oh is Isao Harimoto, who is the Ty Cobb of Japan or the Rogers Hornsby or the Pete Rose or the somebody—everybody in Japanese baseball is the Somebody-from-America of Japan. Playing for the Nippon Ham Fighters, Harimoto hit a Japanese record .383 in 1970 and won six Pacific League batting titles. Two years ago, in a blockbuster deal, he was traded to the Senior Circuit—the Central League—to bat third for the Giants, to form the O&H Gun.
Like Oh, Harimoto is not Japanese, though he was born in Hiroshima. Both his parents are Korean, and the Koreans, the one significant immigrant body in Japan, are looked down upon. Last year Harimoto lost another batting title on the last day of the season by .00006 of a point to a full-blooded Japanese on the Chunichi Dragons. The whispers are that the team playing the Dragons went into the tank in the final game to help the Japanese beat the Korean.
Illegal sign-stealing is fairly common in Japan. To hear it, half the population has binoculars zeroed in on the catchers. Last year the Hiroshima Toyo Carp found an effective new way to pirate signs, but this bountiful gift was withheld not only from the two Americans on the team but also from a player who was half-Japanese.
In a sense, then, Mister Oh's rise to national eminence is all the more impressive, inasmuch as he has had to overcome a cultural disadvantage. Yet he has no intention of becoming a Japanese citizen. "Everybody knows I'm Chinese, so what's the sense of becoming Japanese?" he says. "By not having to vote I can think about baseball more." Ah so.
And yet, whatever Oh's heritage may have cost him, his affiliation with the Giants has profited him tenfold. It is difficult for an American to understand the exalted position of the Giants. The Japanese prize harmony, consensus, and the Giants certainly satisfy this need, diamondwise. Essentially, the other 11 teams in the two leagues serve as foils for the beloved Giants. Almost every Giant game is televised nationally—and damn the local gate. A kids' TV cartoon show features the Giants. The Giants may be the only Japanese club to make money. The Pacific League is, to experts, clearly superior to the Central, on the order of our National to American, but the Central outdraws the Pacific three to one.
With nearly 3 million home attendance last year, the Giants almost matched the entire Pacific League. Mister Oh and his colleagues average 45,000 a game at Koraku-en, their home park, which they share with the Pacific League Ham Fighters, who draw 13,600 a game. The stadium was constructed before the "Pacific War" (the Second World War is something else again, it seems, involving a fellow named Hitler and an altogether different bunch), but unlike most of the antiquated parks in the two leagues, Koraku-en is clean and modern, with artificial turf and a $1 million scoreboard that lights up GO! GO! and whatnot. Bright banners and carp streamers wave, pom-pon girls dance on the dugout roof to encourage the shy Japanese to vent their emotions, and vendors hawk everything from noodles to Scotch. The wonder is the Giants ever lose.
In point of fact, from 1965 through 1973 they won nine straight Japan Series. The Giants slipped a bit in '74, finishing second, and when Nagashima retired at the end of that season, going out in a hail of flower bouquets, he was named manager. This proved to be catastrophic. The Giants tumbled to the cellar, and Oh, pressing to help his friend and manager, hit only 33 home runs, failing to win the title for the first time in more than a decade. Coming off two consecutive Triple Crowns, his .285 and 96 RBIs also seemed disgraceful, and he agreed to a pay cut to certify his abject failure. "I saw myself as the main engine," he laments now, "and when things went bad, I felt more irritated, more responsible—and it went on like that, a vicious circle."
Because the Giants' prowess is in real measure a cornerstone of Japanese popular culture, their nosedive became nearly symbolic of national failure. Attendance improved as people thronged the parks to sympathize with poor Nagashima and poor Oh and to cheer them up. Heartened, the Giants bounced back to win another pennant in '76, with Mister Oh leading the league with 49 homers and 123 RBIs while hitting .325. And the beat goes on. This year the Giants are 7½ games in front, and Mister Oh has 26 more homers and a .296 batting average.
Given the historical imperatives of the Giants, it should not come as a total shock to learn that the more cynical experts—that is, 98% of them—believe the Giants obtain the benefit of the doubt. Clyde Wright freely admits that he agreed to play in Japan when American players assured him he would get a larger strike zone pitching for the Giants; he allows that he has not been disappointed in this regard. The Japanese respect authority, of course, but they prefer negotiated group decisions; the arbitrary authority vested in one man, an umpire, nettles them. As a consequence, Japanese umpires tend to be wishy-washy sorts who want to harmonize with the will of the public, which is that the Giants win. Mister Oh let it slip once that he got four strikes each time up, and while he denies that remark now, he probably does get four strikes, except when he gets five. The only thing that clouds Mister Oh's record is that he accomplished it with GIANTS written across his breast.
As the greatest Japanese player in history on the "national" team, Mister Oh is a prisoner of fame. Fans have discovered where his house is—in a fancy suburb about 30 minutes from Koraku-en—and loiter there expectantly. The boldest have even ventured into the garage to leave adoring graffiti. Public appearances are impossible, in or out of season. "I can't escape anymore," Oh says. "It has become almost intolerable. But"—and he pauses and draws on his cigarette—"this is a situation which I have caused myself, and since I have invited it, I must overcome it."
Succoring him is the 64,000,000 yen ($215,000) he paid taxes on last year, which includes endorsement fees for such varied products as clothes and cookies, Pepsis and cameras. Presumably, much of his salary is deferred. He is not an extravagant man and he has looked after his family well. He has been married for 10 years and has three daughters. Every Japanese is expected to have a hobby: Oh plays golf to a 12 handicap.
He reasonably expects to enjoy another three or four years with the Giants, and while the nouveau Pacific League indulges designated hitters, it is inconceivable that Oh and the Giants—unlike Ruth and the Yankees, Aaron and the Braves—could ever be rent asunder. On the other hand, it is not unlikely that the Central League might adopt the DH in order to keep its meal ticket around for a few extra years. Oh himself is noncommittal. "I'm so exhausted, mentally and physically, from playing baseball that I've never even had the time to think about the future," he says. "All I know is that whenever I do stop playing, I'm going to take a good rest. I need a pause in my life."
This is not idle exaggeration; suffice it to say that Dick Allen would not last the weekend in Japan, where the Protestant work ethic is stronger than it ever has been with Protestants. For a 1:30 game, Oh arrives at 10:30; the first subs go in the batting cage at 8:30. The pitchers—usually including even the day's starter—throw hard. The coaches scrutinize, ready to bench any regular whose practice performance is not up to snuff.
Oh gets no respite from this enervating routine. After almost half an hour in the batting cage, he goes to the clubhouse, where, lest he grow rusty, he swings a bat before a full-length mirror for another 10 minutes. Then he hies himself back to the diamond, where a coach spends 15 minutes or so slapping hard grounders just past his reach, so that he must run and stretch for every one. Here he is, 37 years old, the finest player in the game—"and you couldn't find a better-fielding first baseman," says Davey Johnson—being worked over daily in the noon heat of summer. Off days—especially after a defeat—mean grueling two-or three-hour team practices. But every player endures this schedule, and Oh-san endures it best. In one stretch of 13 seasons he missed two games. Late every season, when most players' averages are falling even faster than their weights, Oh finishes with an inhuman rush. "The muggy weather does in the guys who haven't trained hard all along," he says.
Oh doesn't get any star perks off the field, either. On the road, he is required to share a room, and, moreover, he is lodged not with a mature contemporary but with a kid pitcher, so that he might pass on his vast experience. The Japanese devotion to group is well known and satirized, and it is as evident on a baseball team as on a Hawaii tourist expedition. The players are sequestered at out-of-the-way inns, where they eat together, and after games they climb into their pajamas and communally dissect the evening's competition. The American players, two to a team, known as gaijin (literally, "outside persons") are permitted to stay in Western-type hotels and roam on their own on the road, but Mister Oh is expected to devote himself fully to the group.
Baseball is a total experience. Oh-san, and virtually every other player in the league, wears an unfashionable crew cut—"the image of a sportsman," says Manager Nagashima—to mark them as an elite, a modern samurai. The demands of the schedule and the pressures of his own exalted position are such that Mister Oh smokes nervously during the season—often taking only two or three puffs and then jamming his cigarette out. When the season is over, he has no trouble giving up the habit.
The traditional emphasis upon the group has also inhibited the popularity of Mister Oh's game: the long ball. Ruth changed our whole style of play, but despite Oh, baseball in Japan is still a nibble game. It is culturally important to get ahead, and so even the Giants will play for one run in the first inning. It is maddening, but if the leadoff man gets to first, the second batter (who was hitting about .340 this spring) would be ordered to bunt—and then there was a pretty good chance that if the sacrifice worked, the leadoff man might foul it all up by trying to steal third; all this with Harimoto, the hitter with the highest average in Japanese history, now at bat, and Oh, the greatest home-run hitter, on deck.
This dead-ball style evolved years ago, when Japanese were smaller and couldn't hit for distance. The generations that have grown to maturity since the war, however, are taller and stronger—the result of a more varied diet and, it is also speculated, of not sitting cross-legged so much during the growing years. But the Japanese still seem unsure of their strength. Likewise, the one-run game appeals more to the group ethic, requiring more cooperation—and also more discussion.
In a way, Mister Oh is a cultural aberration. Pitcher pitches—he swings for the fences. The prevailing style is to avoid confrontation, so that pitchers tend to shave corners with junk, and batters like to take whenever possible. Roger Repoz, the former major league outfielder who has played with the Yakult Swallows for four years and is a keen student of the Oriental game, says, "The pitchers cut everything too fine. So it's 2 and 0. Now in the U.S., on 2 and 0 I know the pitcher has got to come in with a strike, and he knows that I'm ready to hit it. That is our game: you vs. me. Here, most pitchers will still be cute on 2 and 0, and most hitters are going to take anyway."
But Oh comes to hit, and he'll go after the first pitch if it's there. Very few pitchers will play his game, however. In his career Oh has been walked almost one out of every four times up, and has led both leagues in bases on balls every year since 1961. In 1974 he was walked 166 times, hitting his 49 home runs in only 385 at bats.
The most homers Oh-san ever hit in a season was 55, playing a 140-game schedule, but he has topped almost every other American home run record—and he has won five batting titles (lifetime .305, same as Aaron) and numerous fielding honors. He has averaged a homer about every 10.5 times at bat. He will pass Aaron's 755 with fewer than 8,000 at bats, while Aaron required 12,364. As they joke (alas) even in Japan, the man who does that ain't hitting Chinese homers.
Mister Oh is, obliquely, a professional descendant of the Sultan of Swat, for Ruth's visit to Japan in 1934 spurred the creation of professional baseball there. The Yomiuri Company, Japan's second largest newspaper publisher, founded the Giants, and by 1937 other big companies had subsidized enough teams to form the Japanese Professional League, later to be called the Central League. Naturally, the Giants, first among equals, won the first pennant and most of the rest until play was suspended in 1944. By 1949, with the coming of postwar stability, the Giants were back on top.
There are four teams playing in the Tokyo area, but it is the Giants who have appropriated the capital name and wear Tokyo—in English—across their chests on the road. They were so powerful that for years, unlike the other clubs, they disdained importing American gaijin. A huge Russian pitcher, Victor Starfin, 6'4", 230, born in the northern island of Hokkaido, was an early Giant star, and Wally Yonamine, a Hawaiian Nisei, was a batting champion in the '50s for the Giants, but otherwise the team was content to take the pick of the domestic litter until 1975, when the Giants brought in Davey Johnson to replace Nagashima. Johnson had a miserable first year at third base, but when shifted to second in 1976 he became the first gaijin ever elected an All-Star.
Today the Giants employ two gaijin—Pitcher Wright and Infielder Jack Lind, from the Dodger farm system—just like all the other clubs, because they are not as strong as they used to be. The amateur draft system, as in the U.S., gives the weaker clubs a chance in the market. When young Mister Oh came out of high school in 1959, the bonus system was still in effect and naturally he picked the class team, which paid him a $55,000 bonus. In a country where high school baseball is a passion, the son of a Chinese restaurant owner was already a national figure. In one big game, he clouted a home run so far the ball struck a distant power line and caused a blackout. Still, in the hot hibachi league, a lot of the Punch-and-Judy advocates argued that the kid should stick to pitching.
The Giants paid the $55,000 for a hitter, however. But he was no Al Kaline of Japan. The 18-year-old Oh went 0 for 35 before he hit his first home run on April 26, 1959, and he did not fully mature until 1962, when he hit 38 home runs. By then he was completely committed to the flamingo style, which had been taught to him by a former player named Hirosi Arakawa.
Mr. Arakawa is a chunky little fellow, as animated as he is powerful. He is full of little party tricks. Try to lift him even an inch off the ground—can't do it; and so forth. Also, he has things in perspective. Laughing, he says, "Hey, as long as Oh-san is No. 1, I can make a lot of money." At present, this felicitous association helps keep his prosperous baseball school going and assures his job as a Giants' radio commentator. Arakawa was the Giants' batting coach for nine seasons, as well as a manager and journeyman outfielder with a number of second-rate teams.
"Mister Oh and I were destined to meet each other," Arakawa intones. And so when fate took him for a stroll in the park one day 23 years ago, he spied the 14-year-old Chinese boy playing in a pickup game. Arakawa took an interest in the prospect, his motive at the time being to steer him to his alma mater, the Waseda Business School. Agreeable and pliant, flattered by the attentions of a big leaguer, Oh immediately took Mr. Arakawa's advice and switched from batting right-handed to swinging left.
The one-leg business came a few years later. Mel Ott, an earlier Occidental Giant, was, of course, famous for raising his leg as he swung, but Ott was not the inspiration for Arakawa's instruction. Nor did Arakawa have in mind a particular batting technique, in the sense that Americans change their stance to "get around on the ball better" or to "see lefties better" or whatever. No, it was much more than that.
It will help, perhaps, to read this excerpt from The Japanese, a new book by Edwin O. Reischauer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan and the accepted U.S. authority on the Japanese. On the subject of skill, he writes: "The individual is supposed to learn to merge with the skill until his mastery of it has become effortless. He does not establish intellectual control over it so much as a spiritual oneness with it. We are reminded of the original Buddhist concept of losing one's identity by merging with the cosmos through enlightenment. But the significant point is that acquiring a skill is essentially an act of will—of self-control and self-discipline. ... Mastery of a skill is seen more a matter of developing one's inner self rather than one's outer muscle."
To the Westerner this may sound like a lot of mumbo jumbo. "Don't give me all that one-leg stuff," says Clyde Wright. "If Oh-san kept both feet on the ground like everybody else, he would hit 70 a year." But Arakawa taught batting from a mystical, Zen point of view, and Oh bought it that way.
Says Mr. Arakawa: "Frankly, I'm not so sure that you are not more unbalanced starting to stride with both feet on the ground. I'm not so sure. But whatever, a pitcher who sees a batter lift up one foot thinks, 'Aha, you dummy, you have made yourself even more vulnerable to my tricks.' So only a man with a great positive attitude like Oh's could have the confidence to hit this way. You see, it makes him believe in himself, in his ability, all the more."
Mr. Arakawa is an expert in aiki-do, a martial art that combines judo, karate and Zen, and he borrowed various principles of aiki-do in teaching Mister Oh how to swing one-legged. "Aiki-do teaches how, in the most natural way, you can produce the most strength," he explains. "You see, it is not the style itself which gives Oh his maximum power—although it may help. It is the fact that the style permits him to concentrate better." Arakawa has specifically refused to teach Oh the whole discipline of aiki-do, because, he says craftily, "Mister Oh can hit better than me, but he would be inferior to me ataiki-do, and then he would lose confidence in himself."
Notwithstanding, it takes someone with tremendous balance, reflexes and hand-eye coordination to bat in the peculiar way Mister Oh does. And the one-leg business aside, Arakawa also instructed Oh in batting by dropping a piece of paper and having him try to slice it with a samurai sword as it fell. Even now, when Oh practices swinging, he slashes down with the bat, as you would with a sword. Then at the plate he swings as level as anyone. The most telling assessment of Oh the hitter is that American players who have seen him often and are not conditioned to think of him strictly as a power hitter invariably compare him to one American hitter—Rod Carew.
"When it comes to hitting," Mister Oh says, "I like to think of the batter in terms of a triangle, with his head at the peak. On the one hand, I want to restrict the movement of the head, while, on the other, increasing the movement of the base of the triangle—the hips. That's where a batter's power comes from. I want my center of gravity moving. Frankly, my power is not what it used to be. My explosive power is gone. But now I think I have a more sophisticated reaction to hitting. In fact, now I think I know the game so well that it is difficult for me ever to be satisfied with whatever I do."
Certainly, at 37 he is not the consistent marvel he used to be. Earlier this year, when he had gone more than two weeks without a homer, the Hanshin Tigers actually walked Harimoto to get to Oh. That woke him up. He went with a 2-and-1 pitch low on the outside corner for a wrong-field double—and then hit a home run in three straight games. Teams often employ a Williams shift against Oh, leaving only the third baseman on the left side of the diamond, but Oh deals with the maneuver perfectly, picking his spots as to when to hit away from it. It would be a loss of face, he maintains, if he permitted the shift to dictate to him, but it would also be stupid and selfish for him not to try to pick it apart now and then.
So, all right, how would Mister Oh have done in the U.S.? Unquestionably, he would have been a great star, a drawing card, a Hall of Famer. No sensible person could dispute that. Probably, he would have hit a home run about every 15 or 16 times at bat (like Aaron, Mays and Mantle, for example) instead of every 10.5. It is true that Japanese parks are slightly smaller than those in the U.S.—300 down the lines, 395 to center—but it is also true that Japanese pitchers are not quite as strong and don't throw as hard, so that batters must generate their own power. Had Oh grown up playing in a culture in which the brushback was part of life, he surely would have adjusted. On the other hand, the Japanese season, annually plagued by a long rainy spell, has never consisted of more than 140 games and was stabilized at 130 (ties included) some time ago. Oh once hit 51 home runs in 130 games. Put an asterisk next to that and call him the Roger Maris of Japan.
One American player keeps coming to mind when you think of Oh. When you think of physique, durability, temperament, selflessness, batting genius and all-round ability (both started as pitchers), you think of Stan Musial—or, as some of us know him, the Sadaharu Oh of St. Louis. Musial hit 475 home runs and batted .331. In the U.S. Oh probably would have hit a few more homers and had a slightly lower average, and then, like Musial, be ensconced in the Hall of Fame as quickly as ballots could be distributed.
But because the Japanese are a self-conscious people, holding back their emotions behind polite plaster smiles, so does Mister Oh graciously parry any comparisons to Aaron and American baseball. When he has played touring American teams in Japan or spring exhibitions in the States, he has always leaned over backwards protesting how big and strong the Americans are (one feels that Sony and Datsun offered up the same sentiments the day before they came in and busted up our marketplace). For $20,000 of network money, Oh did engage Aaron in a home-run batting practice gig a few years ago (Aaron won 10-9), which bequeathed us nothing lasting except a vintage Yogi Berraism: "Aaron could beat that N-p in the dark at LaGuardia."
Mister Oh is himself somewhat more circumspect on the general subject. "When Aaron was going after Ruth," he says, "at least some people pointed out the tremendous differences between the two men, between their times, between their baseball. In that way, just as it is difficult to compare Ruth and Aaron fairly, so is it difficult, I think, to compare me in Japan with them in the U.S. People don't believe me when I say this, but I honestly don't feel any pressure on me with regard to Aaron's record. I'm quite satisfied just to be the guy in Japan who hit 700-odd home runs. That's enough for me."
The Giants are planning a celebration when he hits No. 756. But how much more can this affect Oh? He has been the cynosure of a nation for years. He has lost his privacy and he has played before SRO almost every game. The press can be no more exhaustive. There was a two-hour prime-time TV special on Mister Oh last spring. A newspaper ran a 30-part series on him, and the most revealing aspect of this interminable biography was that there was no more of him to reveal. The 30 parts did not disclose a single new fact about the man, or insight into his character. How can you be oppressed by a number and a distant American name when you are already toting a nation's adulation on your back? "I am honored for baseball," Mister Oh says.
But if he will be spared the pressure that Aaron—or Maris or Denny McLain—had to deal with, he must endure a kind of scrutiny which would be painful to almost anyone in his society. "I am by nature a very shy fellow," Mister Oh says. "I don't like grandstand plays. But I'm never uncomfortable out on the field because I don't have to meet the fans face-to-face. People come to see me concentrate on baseball. They don't come to look me in the face, and I'm grateful for that."
But he will certainly find, as the inevitable No. 756 draws nearer, that there will be a closer and more affectionate examination of his face. Home-run records have marked the men who set them in different ways. Ruth became a phenomenon, Aaron a hero; Oh-san is already both of these, and so he can only become more of a personality. Especially for a man from his culture, that will be the hardest accommodation. But we can expect Mister Oh to make it.
And then, strangely but surely, the only pressure left will be upon us, upon baseball in the United States.
There will be a day in August 1982 when Henry Aaron will stand proudly upon a platform in Cooperstown, N.Y., to be presented with a bronze bas-relief of himself. Then it will go upon the wall inside. The people will cheer him, a band will play, the photographers will photograph and demand that his wife Billye kiss him again. The sunlight will bounce off Lake Otsego and the breezes will push down the Susquehanna. Maybe there will be another player or two up there with Aaron. Maybe Frank Robinson, who hit 586 home runs; maybe Eddie Mathews, who hit 512; maybe Al Kaline, who hit 399; maybe Roger Maris, who hit 275; maybe Sadaharu Oh, who hit 861 before he retired in 1981.
What a glorious thing that would be if Mister Oh stood with Mr. Aaron on the threshold of Cooperstown. What a great day for baseball. What a great day for American baseball.
But, of course, the Special Committee will put in another octogenarian umpire from the Federal League, instead.
Seriously now, do you think Joe DiMaggio could have hit in 56 straight games in Japan?