Kawakami’s players impressed MLB counterparts

by Robert Whiting

Special To The Japan Times

Last in a three-part series

The V-9 Yomiuri Giants were arguably the best team in the history of the Japanese game.

Giants stars Sadaharu Oh and Shigeo Nagashima had been openly coveted by MLB general managers back in the United States. So had pitcher Tsuneo Horiuchi at his peak.

Legendary manager Tetsuharu Kawakami had wanted to pit his team against America’s best to show everybody just how good they really were. Japan was in the process of taking over world markets in cameras, automobiles and TV sets. It was time to move on to baseball.

In the fall of 1966, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who had just lost the World Series in four straight to the Baltimore Orioles, visited Japan on a goodwill tour and Kawakami’s Giants defeated them in four of the seven games. (The Dodgers finished with an overall record of 9-8-1 against combined squads from the Central and Pacific Leagues.)

The Dodgers had come without their two ace pitchers, Sandy Koufax, who was about to announce his sudden retirement, and Don Drysdale, who were destined for the Hall of Fame, but nonetheless it was quite a performance by Yomiuri, especially when compared to previous efforts versus traveling major leaguers, which, shall we say, had been less than satisfactory (15 wins in 82 games in the past decade).

In fact, the Kyojin had bombed L.A.’s 15-game winner Claude Osteen off the mound five times in a row, while Oh had batted .344 and belted five home runs.

Dodgers manager Walter Alston declared that Oh and Nagashima would be stars on any MLB team. Dodgers catcher John Roseboro opined that rookie Horiuchi was worth as much as Koufax and Drysdale.

It was heady praise.

The following spring, the Giants were invited to spring camp at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida, and there the praise continued. Dodgers batting coach Duke Snider called Oh “the best hitter in camp.” Dodgers general manager Fresco Thompson said the Dodgers would have won two more pennants in the early sixties with Nagashima at third base.

Added L.A. first baseman Wes Parker, “The Giants look like they’ve been practicing the same things eight hours a day for years,” which, of course, was not far from the truth.

On the final day at Dodgertown camp, Alston delivered his assessment of Kawakami as manager. “I like the way Kawakami handles his club,” he said. “His players are very well-trained. They hardly ever make mistakes. His strategy is sound.”

Uplifted by all this acclaim, Kawakami boldly proclaimed, “The Americans have nothing more to teach us.”

Unfortunately, that did not prove to be the case. Two years later, Yomiuri, could only win two of 10 games versus the St. Louis Cardinals, a team that featured Bob Gibson and Lou Brock, and had just lost the World Series to the Detroit Tigers.

And in 1971, the Giants could not win any out of 11 facing the Baltimore Orioles, a team which boasted superstars Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell, and four 20-game winners. Cy Young award winner Mike Cuellar, Jim Palmer, Pat Dobson and Dave McNally.

Many fans considered the ’71 Orioles the best team ever assembled, despite being narrowly defeated by the Pittsburgh Pirates in that year’s Fall Classic. The gap between the two sides was striking. The average Oriole was 10 cm and 9 kg heavier than the average Kyojin player.

Nagashima and Oh were 178 cm, 79 kg. Outfielder Frank Robinson was 185 cm and 84 kg while slugging first baseman Boog Powell was 193 cm and 104 kg.

Orioles manager Earl Weaver suggested Kawakami might want to institute a weight-training program, something frowned upon theretofore in the Japanese sporting world out of fear that players would bulk up and lose dexterity. But Weaver pointed to 175-cm, 72-kg Don Buford, an Oriole infielder who had hit 122-meter home runs during the games, and lifted weights religiously.

Weaver also suggested that Kawakami might stop sacrifice bunting so much. His strategy of sacrifice bunting at the earliest opportunity all too often left first base open when Oh came to bat, resulting in an inevitable walk, literally taking the bat out of his star slugger’s hands.

It was a practice not uncommon in Japan but one generally considered counterproductive in MLB by both managers and players.

Contrary to Kawakami’s belief about the Zen implications of baseball, Kawakami’s sacrifice bunts, some critics believed, may well have prevented the great Oh from hitting even more home runs.

Pat Dobson, who pitched a no-hitter against the Kyojin, said that Kawakami’s team played baseball “by the numbers.”

“With a count of 0-2,” he pointed out, “the Japanese would invariably throw three straight balls.”

It didn’t take the Oriole batters long to figure out that all they had to do was lay back and wait for the strike that was sure to come. That was one of the problems with kanri yakyu (controlled or managed baseball).

* * *

The Orioles games were Kawakami’s last opportunity to show the Americans what his players could do. In 1974, Kawakami’s old rival, Wally Yonamine, managed the Chunichi Dragons to the Central League flag, ending the Yomiuri streak of championships, in what was, of course, sweet revenge for the American from Hawaii.

Kawakami’s team was showing its age and so was Kawakami himself, now sporting as he did a middle-aged spread and thick spectacles to correct near-sightedness. He handed in his resignation and turned the post of manager over to 38-year old Nagashima, whom he had been grooming for the job on instructions from the front office.

Under Nagashima the following season, the Giants finished an embarrassing last place — the first time in their proud history they had so humiliated themselves.

The former drill sergeant spent the next 20 years working as a television commentator and touring the country conducting Little League baseball camps. Kawakami also wrote a best-selling book about management, “Aku No Kanri Yakyu,” (literally — Evil Controlled Baseball) and toured Japan giving lectures to businessman on leadership and managerial principles.

“Most players are lazy,” he would say, “It is a manager’s job to make them train hard. Courteous players make for a strong team. It is a manager’s job to teach them proper manners. Leaders who are thought of as nice people will fail. Lone wolves are the cancer of the team.”

In 1979, he said goodbye to his old adversary and fellow warrior, Hiroshi Oshita, who committed suicide.

After retiring, Oshita, who still enjoyed a good postgame pub crawl, had coached for the Hankyu Braves of the Pacific League, then managed the Toei Flyers a half season before resigning —deciding he was not cut out to be running other players’ lives when he could barely run his own. He suffered a stroke in 1978, and depressed he would never recover, washed down a bottle of sleeping pills with his last drink.

Several of Kawakami’s former charges went on to become managers and achieve great success adopting Kawakami’s kanri yakyu principles. Most prominent were the former shortstop Tatsuro Hirooka, who, ironically, had come around to Kawakami’s way of thinking.

Hirooka famously put his players on a strict natural foods diet of fish, soybeans and brown rice and banned mahjong, golf and drinking. He counseled them on their sex lives and called them every night to make sure they were in bed at a decent hour.

He introduced weight lifting, but also increased practice time to put extra focus on bunting, base running and defense. In one season, he went four months without giving his players a day off. Hirooka won three Japan Series titles, one with the Yakult Swallows in 1979 and two with the Seibu Lions, in 1981 and 1982.

As general manager of the Chiba Lotte Orions, Hirooka hired Bobby Valentine in 1995 and then fired him as the end of the season, despite marked improvement in the team, because of disagreements over how to train. Hirooka wanted more, Valentine less.

Hirooka’s replacement at Seibu, in 1986, was his assistant coach, five years his junior, and former Giant teammate, V-9 catching mainstay Masahiko Mori.

Mori carried on the spirit of kanri yakyu and won six more Japan championships with the Lions. As a player, Mori had spent countless hours with Kawakami in one-on-one sessions at assorted restaurants and sake houses being tutored in the art of management.

“Kawakami was like a father to me,” Mori said.

Oh managed Softbank/Daiei to two Japan Series titles.

* * *

National idol Nagashima, “Mr. Giants,” as he had come to be known, was another matter, however. He won only two pennants (1976-1977) and no Japan championships in his first six years as manager, which was cause for panic all across the nation. After a fifth-place finish and a losing record in 1979, he had tried to kick life into his team by holding an infamous “Hell Camp” on the Izu Peninsula.

It lasted the entire month of November — a time when most major leaguers were relaxing on the golf course — seven hours a day. Every pitcher was required to run 10 km a day and every batter ordered to take 1,000 swings, among other grueling exercises. More than one player collapsed on the field.

The camp was designed to cultivate fighting spirit — “to help the younger players grow as human beings,” as Nagashima put it — and he was unsparing in his use of the “iron fist,” leaving several players black and blue from blows to the face and body. But all that pain did not bring much gain, as the team finished only one game above .500 the next season, far out of contention.

Nagashima appeared absent-minded, unfocused, at times. Once he was forced to remove a pitcher from the game because he had forgotten and violated the rule limiting managerial mound visitations to one per inning.

Kawakami, disgusted at Nagashima’s ineptitude, began criticizing his protégé. He was quoted in the popular magazine Shukan Bunshun as saying that the time had come to appoint someone else as manager.

Shortly thereafter, Nagashima was fired. Kawakami was then selected head of the Giants OB (Old Boys) Association in its annual fall meeting at an Izu hot springs resort where they discussed how to rehabilitate their beloved team. It was at this juncture that the press began referring to Kawakami as the “The Don of Japanese Baseball.”

Nagashima, furious at Kawakami’s betrayal, did not speak to him for the next 10 years. Only in 1990, when he was given another chance to manage, did the cold war between the two men thaw. Nagashima went on to win two Japan Series championships, 1994 and 2000.

But neither he, nor Oh, who managed the Giants from 1984-1989, winning one pennant but no championship, nor any other Giants manager has been able to win back-to-back Japan Series titles. Moreover, the team’s popularity has slipped. No longer are Kyojin games on network TV every night.

Still, the legacy of Kawakami exerts its influence. His intense, systematic micro-managed approach to baseball still survives in various forms, as a visit to most pro-baseball camps in Japan each spring, including Yomiuri, Rakuten, Softbank, Seibu and other leading clubs will reveal — sometimes to the annoyance of foreign players who are subjected to them.

In 1992, Kawakami was honored with the Bunka Sho (National Honor Award) by the Emperor in recognition of his accomplishments.

“When I first started out in professional baseball it was regarded as a low-class occupation,” Kawakami told reporters. “Now it has become culturally important. That fact makes me happier than anything else.”

Kawakami remained in good health, playing golf regularly until he reached his 90s and developed a heart condition. He died peacefully in his sleep on Oct. 30, 2013.

His passing was widely covered in the Japanese media, with the popular daily Nikkan Sports devoting 10 pages in its issue the following morning to his life and times.

In all, he won seven Japan championships as a player and 11 Japan Series as a manager. It is safe to say that no other baseball career, on either side of the Pacific, has been so associated with winning.

And that is something to remember.

As Sadaharu Oh put it, “That’s a record that will never be matched.”