It was good seeing former Yomiuri Giants third baseman and manager Shigeo Nagashima visiting the team’s spring training camp in Miyazaki earlier this month. He just turned 81 this past week and is visibly handicapped by a stroke suffered in 2004 that limits movement on the right side of his body and has affected his speech. Nevertheless, he has made the annual February trip to south Kyushu in recent years.
He is there to encourage the team and, no doubt, recall the happy memories of Miyazaki camps when he was an All-Star and unquestionably the most popular player in Japan.
Seeing him brings back memories of his playing days during a career that stretched from his rookie season with the Giants in 1958 through his emotional sayonara speech upon retirement after the final game of the 1974 season.
Fortunately, I was able to see him play in person in the latter years of the Giants V-9 era when they won the Central League pennant and Japan Series every year from 1965 through 1973. He is unforgettable.
As a hitter, his trademark hard swing, the follow-through of which left his legs and arms crossed and his helmet often flying, produced 444 home runs and a lifetime .305 batting average. He won six Central League batting titles, was the RBI leader four times and won the CL home run crown twice.
Nagashima would have won more homer titles but teammate Sadaharu Oh emerged as home run king every year between 1962 and 1974. Nagashima was named league MVP five times.
As a fielder, “Mr. Giants” was Mister Smooth. The image sticks in my mind of Nagashima charging but moving gracefully to his left on a slowly hit grounder, pivoting and taking what seemed like about 16 steps and then flipping a perfectly accurate throw to Oh at first for the out.
Following his retirement, Nagashima was immediately named manager of the Giants at 38 years of age, and his first year at the helm — 1975 — was a disaster. Yomiuri finished dead last in the six-team Central circuit. It was a season of learning though, and getting used to being the boss of players who were his teammates and friends just a year prior.
He turned things around in 1976, much to the delight of Giants and Nagashima fans. Fumihiro Fujisawa, president of the Association of American Baseball Research, grew up as a Giants (and Nagashima) fan in Miyazaki during Yomiuri’s V-9 run. When the Giants were about to clinch the ’76 pennant in October of that year, they were playing in Hiroshima against the Carp.
Fujisawa, then a college student in Tokyo, made a special trip to Hiroshima to watch the anticipated clinching. “I just had to be there, to see it in person with my own eyes,” he said. “The Giants winning the pennant under Nagashima as manager and tossing him in the air in a doage celebration; I just had to be there.”
Nagashima was a man who often acted on impulse. There was the time during his playing career when the Giants had a game scheduled in Tohoku, north of Tokyo. The players were to catch a train at Ueno Station for the trip, but Nagashima was running late as he drove his car to Ueno.
Realizing that, if he took the time to properly park the car, he would miss the train’s departure, he simply grabbed his bag, entered the station and made it on time to ride the train. He had left the car, with the engine running, in front of the station. Eventually, the police noticed the unattended auto, identified the owner and secured it until Nagashima returned from the road trip a few days later.
While he was unforgettable as a player, he was also forgetful at times. There is a tale of him taking his son, Kazushige, to a game at Korakuen Stadium. Following the game, Nagashima went home alone. When he got home, he asked his wife, “Where is Kazushige?” It was then he realized he had left the child at the ballpark.
Nagashima served as the Giants manager from 1975 to 1980, winning pennants in 1976 and 1977 but losing the Japan Series to the Pacific League champion Hankyu Braves both years. He was known for making often strategical decisions by hunch, rather than playing the percentages.
He returned at age 56 to guide the club in 1992 and finally won the Japan Series in 1994 when the Giants beat the Seibu Lions during the first full season of Yomiuri slugger Hideki Matsui. He won it again in 2000, beating the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, managed by Oh, in the highly touted “O-N” series.
Also in 2000, as the Giants were preparing to play a game at Maruyama Stadium in Sapporo, Nagashima suddenly left his usual post behind the batting cage during pre-game practice and wandered into the outfield to greet and sign his name for a group of early-arriving fans in the left-field stands.
Needless to say, he was trailed by a contingent of cameramen from the various sports newspapers, and the fans were delighted to go home with the highly coveted autograph of one of the most well-known figures in Japanese society.
Nagashima has continued to occasionally attend Giants games at Tokyo Dome during the season, and it was there on May 5, 2013, when he and Matsui were presented with the People’s Honor Award by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Prior to that day, it had been revealed Nagashima would be taking one final turn in the batter’s box as part of a pre-game ceremony. “Nagashima to bat again!” read banner headlines in the nation’s sports papers.
Tickets to that game sold out almost immediately, and the atmosphere at Tokyo Dome that day was nostalgic, with thousands of teary-eyed spectators watching as their hero stepped up the plate to take a back-handed swing with his left hand at a pitch thrown by Matsui. Then-Giants manager Tatsunori Hara served as the catcher, while Prime Minister Abe stood behind as the umpire.
All things considered, he looked pretty good while in Miyazaki this month and, hopefully, the charismatic Nagashima can continue to make that trip for years to come.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com