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Oh’s career sparkled with achievements as player, manager

by Robert Whiting

Second in a three-part series

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.

* * * * *

Upon retirement Oh served in the unusual post of “assistant manager” under 1950s pitching star Motoshi Fujita (who had led the Giants to a Japan championship in 1983, their first in a decade).

The “assistant manager” post was an apprenticeship designed to ease him into the top spot and avoid the difficulties they had experienced with Nagashima, who had retired at age 38 in 1974 and had immediately been pushed into the manager’s slot to capitalize on his huge popularity.

Although Nagashima-kantoku’s movie star good looks and bubbly personality were predictably a big hit with the fans, his inexperience showed, as did his famous absent-minded streak. He would forget how many outs there were. He would go to the mound twice in the same inning without realizing what he was doing and would be forced to take the pitcher out. He would even forget the names of some of his own players.

(Once, during his playing days, he had brought his young son Kazushige to the park and then forgetting he was there, went home without him.)

In Nagashima’s first year as manager, the Giants suffered the humiliation of finishing in last place for the first time in their proud history. Nagashima had to lead his team in a tearful, on-field apology, accompanied by deep bows, on the last day of the season.

Although Nagashima did go on to win two pennants, he also failed to win a Japan Series in his six years at the helm, a state of affairs which, in the Yomiuri world view, was totally unacceptable and the team brain trust forced him out the door.

The move may have been deemed necessary, but, not surprisingly, it caused angry protests by his legions of adoring fans who thought he could do no wrong and that the managerial post of the club should be his for life.

Oh took over as field pilot in 1984 and managed the Giants for five seasons, winning a pennant in 1987, but losing in the Japan Series. The overall experience gave him gray hair.

There was still a strong Nagashima faction on the team and many of the players resented the fact that Oh had taken their leader’s place at the helm. They would make disparaging remarks behind Oh’s back.

Team captain Kiyoshi Nakahata was among the worst offenders. Oh’s name in Japanese and Chinese was pronounced “wan” which was also a homonym for dog.

Nakahata, a dyed-in-the-wool Nagashima man, would insultingly refer to Oh as “wan-kou,” a term that might loosely be translated as “mongrel” or “mangy cur.”

“If Nagashima came around to visit,” said Warren Cromartie, a former Montreal Expos star, who played for Oh during that period and wrote a book about the experience, “Slugging It Out In Japan,” “everyone, from the guys in the front office, to the coaches, to the media, would kiss his ass. But they treated Oh as if he was a second-class citizen. You could tell just from the body language.”

At times, in fact, the deposed Nagashima seemed to act as if he were still in charge. Whenever star third baseman and cleanup hitter Tatsunori Hara fell into a slump, Nagashima would appear at the park during pregame workouts to offer advice. Some observers thought that confused Hara, because the team already had a batting coach.

But nobody ever asked Nagashima to cease and desist. Including Oh, who seldom complained to anyone about anything — his father had always taught him to get along with everyone and that’s what he was going to try to do.

Cromartie could not understand it. He thought Oh was the best batting teacher anyone could have. Oh had taught Cromartie to shorten his big major league swing, to swing down, and just make contact with the ball to hit Japanese-style pitching. He made Cromartie take batting practice with a book under his right hand, to keep his body from “opening up.”

Under Oh’s tutelage, Cromartie went from being a .280 hitter in 1984 to a .363 hitter in 1986. Later, Oh would pay Cromartie the ultimate compliment. “Kuro-san,” he said, “You have truly mastered Japanese baseball.”

Cromartie, who won a batting title in 1989, hitting .378, became so close to Oh than he named a son, born in Japan, after him: Cody Oh Cromartie (who is now a Miami record producer).

“He showed me how to overcome the handicap of being an outsider,” said Cromartie, “because he did it himself. It was comforting to me to have him as a manager.”

Oh was an intelligent man. That much was clear.

Oh worked as hard at being a manager as he did when he was a player. He was the first one at the park each day and the last one to leave. At home he immersed himself in game data.

He was so committed to his job that when his father died in 1985, at the age of 84, Oh did not allow himself to miss a single game. He took a flight from Hiroshima, where the team had just finished a three-game series back to Tokyo to attend the noon wake and then boarded a bullet train to Nagoya where the team was scheduled to play, arriving at the antiquated Dragons park worn and bleary eyed.

But he was not regarded as a particularly apt manager during his tenure with the Giants.

The rap on him was that he was just too nervous and too insecure. He would issue signs on every single pitch. He would pinch-hit in the early innings. He would make his best hitters bunt and was constantly moving his players around. He would not hesitate to remove a starting pitcher holding a lead with two outs in the fifth inning if he thought said pitcher was starting to weaken. Moreover, he relied on intuition and he was superstitious. He would sprinkle salt and use other talismans to ward off evil spirits.

Nakahata and other members of the Nagashima faction would shake their heads in derision at some of his moves. Even his own coaches, unwilling to take the blame for his mistakes, would criticize him to the press.

Through it all, Oh suffered from intense stress. He took vitamin shots and medicines (ginseng herbal tea) to calm his nerves. But the stress mounted with each passing season that the Giants failed to win a national title, as sniping from press intensified.

“Oh Screws up!” a typical sports daily headline would scream.

And there were painfully critical attacks such as the one ex-catching great and TV commentator Katsuya Nomura wrote in which he adjudged that Oh was the “worst manager in the history of Kyojin.”

Also, letters from angry fans poured in, demanding that he quit, or be fired. Reporters joked that the only person in Japan who truly liked Oh was his mother, who attended every game, sitting behind first base in her kimono.

Oh’s wife, a baseball devotee whom he had met at the Giants practice ground at Tamagawa, stayed at home.

* * * * *

Failing to win that ’87 Japan Series, and finishing second the following year, Oh was invited to tender his resignation. Oh stayed on the sidelines for many years working as a media commentator.

But in 1995, he finally found a managerial niche that benefited him, when he was hired by the Daiei Hawks of Fukuoka. While not a national institution like the Giants, the Hawks had a strong fan base in Kyushu and they would treat Oh as the national treasure that he was.

The Hawks were a downtrodden team that hadn’t seen a top-three finish in 17 years. But Oh (with the help of a skillful general manager named Rikuo Nemoto) took over and molded a winning team.

He took a group of young players, many of whom were just youngsters when he retired, but nonetheless idolized him for his great achievements, and turned them into one of Japan’s hardest-hitting squads. The team included future major leaguers Kenji Johjima, a big, broad-shouldered brute, who would become the best catcher in Japan, and Tadahito Iguchi, who would become, arguably, Japan’s top second baseman, as well as first baseman Nobuhiko Matsunaka, who would win a Triple Crown, and perennial All-Star third baseman Hiroki Kokubo.

All of them would put in seasons in which they hit 30 or more home runs and drove in over a 100 runs.

In Fukuoka, Oh developed a reputation as one of the most demanding managers in Japan. He was one of the few who still made his players do the 1,000-fungo drill, a staple from his own playing days. He also required intensive bullpen sessions from his pitchers and exceptionally high pitch counts from his starters.

But he also developed an unusual rapport with team members.

Said well-known Meiji University communications professor and author Takashi Saito, who had made a study of Oh, “Oh was a superstar when he came to Fukuoka, but he did not act like one. He did not behave as if he was above his players. He got down and worked alongside them. He demonstrated his passion and commitment. And they responded to that.”

Johjima was one of Oh’s biggest supporters, “Oh-kantoku was cool,” he said, “He was the kind of guy who made you feel you had to do something for him.”

In 1993, Nagashima was brought back to manage the Giants by new Yomiuri headman Tsuneo Watanabe, a longtime Nagashima fan. Nagashima, now sporting his own crop of gray hair, won a Japan Series in 1994. Oh’s Hawks won a Japan Series title in 1999, setting up an historic faceoff between the two men in the 2000 Japan Series, described by sports writer Masayuki Tamaki as a “nostalgia fest for old geezers.” Nagashima won that encounter, as destiny would have it. But a year later, he retired from baseball. In 2004, he suffered a stroke that left his right arm partially paralyzed.

Oh went on to win another Japan Series crown in 2003. After the Daiei Hawks were sold to the Softbank Corporation, he also won regular-season titles in 2004 and 2005, only to be eliminated both years in a new playoff system.

Oh was not without his share of critics in Fukuoka. He was frequently criticized for doing some of the same things he had done when he was managing the Giants: overusing the sacrifice bunt, constantly changing the lineup, the roster and bullpen assignments and managing on emotion.

Many felt that his tendency to make his starters throw as many as 150-160 pitches a game eventually wore out his pitching staff and prevented the Hawks from winning even more championships.

As one of his American players put it, “I feel bad for the guys on this team who have had him their whole career, there is an incredible amount of unnecessary pressure put on these guys and you can see it on their faces.”

But then it could have also been equally argued that the departure of team leaders Iguchi and Johjima, who left for the MLB in 2004 and 2006, respectively, (with Oh’s blessing, incidentally, one should note), had a bigger, negative impact on the team.