Japan's No. 1 slugger homes in on home run 900
Tokyo — While US baseball fans follow the September pennant scrambles and root for George Britt to hit .400, their counterparts in Japan still get their biggest thrill the same way they have for 22 years -- watching Sadaharu Oh hit home runs.
The fabulous slugger who several years ago surpassed the career totals of Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron is still going strong as he closes in on the incredible figure of 900 -- a mark he could reach next year. And ironically enough, he says he has racked pitchers for almost all of those circuit clouts over the years by borrowing one of their own techniques.
Oh's distinctive style -- he lifts his front foot off the ground and poises it there until he literally steps into this swing -- flabbergasts the uninitiated spectator no matter how many photographs he or she may have seen of Japan's legendary baseball hero.
"I have used this stance for 18 or 19 years, and it is the most comfortable position for me," the left-handed hitting firs baseman of Tokyo's Yomiuri Giants said through the team's interpreter. "It's the same idea the pitcher uses. He gets extra strength from lifting his leg to throw. So, I use it for my hitting."
It works for Oh, and has, in fact, helped him become the game's uncontested all-time home run leader. He surpassed Ruth's career total of 714 in 1976 and Aaron's 755 one year later, though of course it is open to question whether he would have hit quite that many facing US major leaguers day after day.
"His leg positioning gives him extra strength," said batting coach Wally Yonamine of the strange stance that oldtime US fans would recognize as similar to that of Hall of Famer Mel Ott. "It is good for him because his timing is perfect. We don't recommend it to our young batters, but he can do it beautifully."
The 5 ft. 11 inch 175-pound Oh does not have the intimidating stature of a slugger like Ruth when he steps to the plate, but compensates with his sense of the basic ABCs -- agility, balance, and concentration.
"A lot of major league players have come to Japan, and when they first saw Oh , they'd gather around the batting cage and watch him in awe," said Yonamine, a .311 lifetime hitter over his 12 playing seasons and holder of three batting titles. "He's a terrific hitter -- and person. He's not fatheaded and talks to everyone."
Probably Japan's most revered folk hero of modern times, Oh stayed at or near the top of Japan's home-run parade long past the point when most hitters start to fade. His season high was 55 in 1964 when he played every game of the 140 -game season, but he still hit 50 as recently as 1977 in the now standard 130 -game season. And even now, at age 40, he is still a hitter to be reckoned with -- as his 1980 totals indicate.
"It is not my final goal, but one goal I have now is to reach 900," the .304 career hitter said.
That plateau is on the horizon. Oh already has reached the 25 mark once again this year, leaving him just 36 shy of 900, so if he can hit a few more in the closing weeks of this season he should be in position to reach the magic figure in 1981.
"I don't think about the home run too many times, but I'm always thinking about beating the pitcher," he said. "It's hard to find good pitches."
The soft-spoken Oh adds in English, a language in which he is quite fluent because he has had American teammates for 15 years: "I'm a fastball hitter."
Each of Japan's 12 professional teams is allowed to have two foreigners on its roster. Oh, whose entire career has been spent with the Giants, Japan's first (1934) and most exalted team, now plays with John Sipin, a former San Diego Padre who has been in Japan nine years, and ex-Yankee star Roy White, now in his first season here.
It's been a big thrill for me to play with Oh," said White, who is batting third or fourth and playing center field for the Giants. "He's 40 years old and is still hitting home runs and knocking in runs. He speaks a lot of English, so on the road we've gone out for dinner a couple of times."
Oh said he can escape hordes of fans only in the privacy of his own home. As easily recognizable as his face is his name in electronic Japanese when it flashes on the scoreboard. While most names have two or three intricate characters, Oh has merely three horizontal lines, of minutely varying lengths, with a vertical line connecting them.
When that character flashes on the scoreboard, all eyes are on the batter's box, and it is not uncommon to see a follower of the opposing team cheering.
"It's amazing the patience Oh has," said Yonamine, a native of Hawaii who was Japan's first foreign player after World War II. "He will sign autographs for hours and not complain. He'll sit and sign and sign and sign. And, of course, he always cooperates with the managers and coaches."
Oh's rise to fame is particularly outstanding for two reasons. One is that Japanese culture highly frowns upon the Western value of individualism and puts emphasis on the collective group. Despite Oh's ability to send a ball out of the park every 10.59 times at bat, he still adheres to team philosophy. After he hit three home runs in a game against the cross-town rivals, the Yakult Swallows, manager Shigeo Nagashima took him out of the game to give a reserve some playing time. He missed his last at-bat that could have given him four homers. Oh also goes through the same training as the other players, unlike some of the prima donnas in US major league competition.
The second irony of Oh's fame is that he is not by nationality Japanese. Although he was born and reared in Japan, his father is a Nationalist Chinese, as is Oh on his passport.
Oh, like many of Japanese people, has an enthusiasm for another sport -- golf. A frequent golfing partner of his, in fact, is Isao Aoki who finished second to Jack Nicklaus in this year's US Open.
When asked about his eventual retirement, Oh shuns the idea of staying in baseball.
"The managing job is a tough job. I don't think I want to do that. It's too hard," he said with a smile. "When I retire I want to rest for a while. Then I'll think about it."