John J. Harney is an assistant professor of history at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. His new book, Empire of Infields: Baseball in Taiwan and Cultural Identity, 1895-1968, is available now.
A Pillar of the Game
Oh Sadaharu had one of the most impressive playing careers in all of world baseball, and became a truly transcendent figure in Japanese baseball. He hit 868 home runs in his career, the most by any professional on the planet. He also established a mass array of records, setting Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) records in RBIs (2,170), OPS (1.080), home runs in a single season (55) and many more. His most successful period came as a linchpin on the Yomiuri Giants (sometimes known in the West as the “Tokyo Giants”) team that won nine titles in a row from 1965 to 1973: Oh batted third, just before his prolific big-hitting teammate Nagashima Shigeo. The “Oh-Nagashima Cannon” formed the centerpiece of the Giants’ dominance.
Success inevitably brought stardom. The Giants, in the orange and black of the New York Giants they emulated, were in the process of becoming the “Yankees” of Japan. A founding team of professional Japanese baseball, playing in a national capital at the center of the dramatic “miracle” of Japanese economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s, the Giants accumulated stardust. Never was this more true of their star player. Oh was distinctive on the field, sporting his “flamingo” style batting stance, one foot dangling in the air with his leg at close to a ninety degree angle, waiting to drive down into the swing. And of course, he could hit.
This unique approach was tagged by some as Oh’s “Waseda style,” learned during his years at Waseda Jitsugyo High School under his coach Arakawa Hiroshi, who would go on to coach him as a professional. The name bore significant weight in East Asian baseball thanks to the school’s namesake, Waseda University, one of the original Japanese collegiate baseball giants and founding members of the “Big Six” in 1926. Oh understood being part of a historical narrative of Japanese baseball, and went on throughout his career as player and manager to play the part, from dashing young superstar to a wise teacher and boss in the dugout.
It may not seem such a hardship, performing the role of the greatest Japanese player in Japan’s favorite sport—but Oh’s life was quite a bit more complicated than that. The son of a Japanese mother and Chinese father, Oh struggled for a time to be seen by some of his compatriots as truly “Japanese,” living with discrimination as a teenager in particular. Nor was his Chinese identity terribly clear cut either: Oh held a passport issued by the Republic of China (ROC), the government that controlled most of mainland China at the time of Oh’s birth in 1940 but that by 1949 had lost the Chinese Civil War to Mao Zedong’s communists and had retreated to the island of Taiwan. Relations between Taiwan and Japan in the postwar period were complicated: both were staunch anti-communist allies of the United States, but Japan’s actions during World War II, when Japanese troops had rampaged through northern China and arguably dealt a killing blow to the ROC’s ability to effectively run the country, were not easily forgotten, certainly not by the ROC’s leader, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek.
Still, when Oh visited Taiwan to receive an “Outstanding Overseas Chinese Youth Award” in 1965 the press, controlled either directly or indirectly by Chiang’s government, embraced Oh as a superlative example of Chinese success, an athletic powerhouse prospering in the free world. Taiwanese journalists raved about his gentlemanly conduct and his good looks, as he dutifully put on baseball demonstrations for the press and fended off questions about his love life. As the titles poured in, Oh took on praise in Japan and Taiwan and beyond.
He embodied a certain type of baseball stardom, at least from his era, what feels like a galaxy away from the social media infused sporting culture we all live in today. Oh was very much a standard bearer in playing the game the right way, a sentiment that although expressed differently in Japanese contexts would hold special meaning for many baseball fans back in the United States. He could be quite taciturn and in his autobiography quite brusque, revealing that he and his old teammate Nagashima had never had a terribly close relationship; but he was also observant of a specific type of Japanese baseball etiquette, being sure to shower praise on his old coach Arakawa, a display by proxy of his own respect for seniority and the purity of baseball.
Oh himself eventually became a living monument within the game, coaching his Yomiuri Giants, the Fukuoka Hawks, and the Japan national baseball team, winning a Central League pennant, three Pacific League pennants, two Japan Series titles, and the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006. However, it was as manager that Oh became embroiled in one of the biggest controversies of his career.
The single season home run record finally fell in 2013, when Curacaoan-Dutch outfielder Wladimir Balentien finished the season with 60; but this was not the first time a foreign ballplayer had a chance to topple Oh’s record. In fact, Oh had managed teams on three occasions facing up against foreigners looking to pass the 55 home run mark, in 1985 (Randy Bass), 2001 (Karl Rhodes) and 2002 (Alex Cabrera). On all three occasions strikes proved hard to come by, with varying tales being told. Was it Oh who told his players not to throw hittable pitches? He said no. In 2001 Oh’s pitching coach Keisaburo Tanoue claimed he had ordered the pitchers not to throw to Rhodes, and denied his boss’s involvement.
I’ve never believed Oh told anyone to walk any of the players pushing against his record. This is in part because, from what I know of him, it doesn’t really add up, but it’s mostly because there is a simple answer. Who would dare to go down in history as the pitcher who gave up Oh’s record? At least with the man himself standing there? How could you walk to the dugout and face him?
He was too big, too special, too integral to the meaning of Japanese baseball. As a younger man he had struggled with ambiguity around his ethnic and national identities, but after 868 home runs and a successful career as manager he was not merely untouchable: he was a pillar of the game.