"I longed to hit as a starving man longs for food. The ball coming toward me was a rabbit, and I was a wolf waiting to devour it." Thus does Japan's Sadaharu Oh describe the compulsion that drove him to become the most prolific home-run hitter in baseball history, in an autobiography written with David Falkner. The book's full title is Sadaharu Oh, A Zen Way of Baseball (Times Books, $14.95), and it is as much a landmark achievement as Oh's career itself. No similar effort by an athlete in recent times, produced with or without a collaborator, matches its writing, its grip on a reader's attention, or, most remarkably, its fascinating exploration of the inner life of a public performer.
Oh's accomplishments are well documented. Over 22 seasons of an average of 129 scheduled games (U.S. seasons were 154 games, then 162 in those years, 1959-80), he hit 868 homers, surpassing Babe Ruth's 714 and Henry Aaron's 755. He hit 30 or more for 19 consecutive seasons, though he was walked more often than any other Japanese player. He won the Triple Crown in 1973 and '74. Fielding awards were introduced in Japan in 1972. and he won nine consecutive Diamond Gloves. Still, the enduring image in the minds of American and Japanese fans is of Oh's stance at the plate—the lefthanded, one-legged "flamingo" pose he assumed while awaiting the ball. The stance was met at first with derision by Japanese fans and players, and Americans who never saw him in action are nevertheless convinced of its vulnerability to smart pitching. Some who played against him on Japanese tours, or watched him, have this to say:
•Frank Robinson: "He would stand and pause on one leg, and you thought you could throw a fastball by him...or a changeup...but he would just stand there on that one leg and react to the ball."
•Jeff Torborg: "Being a catcher, I tried to think how to get him out. I actually saw him enough.... We tried everything on him...change of speeds, busted him hard inside.... He hit four consecutive home runs..."
•Jim Palmer: "He...could hit any pitch you threw him for a home run.... It was beautiful to watch. Not if you're a pitcher, obviously."
The heart of this book concerns the three excruciating years during which Oh searched for and perfected his batting style with the aid of his friend and coach, Hiroshi Arakawa. His regimen included daily and sometimes twice-daily training sessions of desperate intensity, based on the study of Zen and the martial arts.
Oh is the son of a Chinese father and a Japanese mother, and though he has lived almost his entire life in Tokyo—during several years when those two countries were at war—he remains, technically, Chinese and therefore subject, despite nationwide adulation, to prejudice and discrimination. One episode, particularly painful to him as Japan's star high school player, was Oh's being banned from playing with his team in a festival tournament restricted to native Japanese. The same year, pitching complete games on four consecutive days, he led his team to the national championship.
After high school Oh chose to join the team of his boyhood dreams, the Tokyo Giants, the team he now manages, and stayed with them throughout his career. There was no baseball draft in 1958 in Japan, though there is today. Oh's views of this device, purportedly designed to equalize competition, are a fair measure of the quality of his book and his feelings about his sport: "Imagine a young amateur player, as I once was, looking forward to playing professionally. In the heart of that young person, if he has passionately followed baseball...is loyalty and longing.... What does it mean when that youngster...has no say whatsoever in which team he plays for? What does it mean when the fans of a team see their management unable to choose players whose loyalties have led them to the team in the first place? The answer in both instances is a tremendous loss in the charm of baseball itself. The charm of the sport is so much more than the outcome of games. And yet the draft system reduced everything to that. Players become mere technicians, engineers of results, with loyalties created out of business arrangements rather than naturally, from the heart.... I longed to play for the Giants.... It meant everything to play for a team I truly loved."