THE HIDDEN FORTRESS
Had you grown up in the late 1970s, you might have scraped together your meager allowance to purchase a paperback copy of the Guinness Book of World Records. Only a buck and a quarter if memory serves. Eager to look up the great baseball records, we would thumb past the creepy picture of the man with the three foot fingernails and come to
the sports section. There, we beheld two grainy black and white photos of the home run kings: Not Babe. Not Roger. And not Hank, newly anointed. Two strangers to this Midwestern lad: Josh Gibson and Sadaharu Oh.
The accompanying article stated that old Josh hit close to 90 homers in one year, a statistic
that blew our easily blowable mind. Below that was the astonishing news of Sadaharu Oh,
with a photograph showing him belting one of his 868 homers out of some strange dome.
The photos haunted this young boy for yearsthese curious men shook the complacency
that said baseball was just the American and National Leagues. It was hard enough coming
to grips with Toronto and Montreal.
Of Josh Gibson, more is known today than his Japanese counterpart. Much has been
written of the Negro Leagues in the last twenty years, and more books and articles appear
every year in the mainstream press and the scholarly works of the Society of American
Baseball Research. Thankfully, a small percentage of these players have been given their
rightful places in the Hall of Fame. Sadly, this cannot be said for the men of Japanese
baseball. In light of the new imports from Japan, we believe it is time to open the doors,
beginning with the greatest, Sadaharu Oh.
Sadaharu Oh is one of the most intriguing baseball players ever to step into a uniform.
Like Babe Ruth before him, Oh was a pitcher, although playing not in the big leagues, but
for Waseda Commercial High School, in the ferociously competitive Japanese high school
leagues. As their ace, he carried his team through the Koshien tournaments, a national
obsession involving over (believe it) 1,700 teams, and won. Later, he found that he was
unable to compete with college pitchers, but, as Red Barber would say, he could swing the
stick, so well that the Tokyo Giants signed him to play first base.
Problem was, Oh had this strange hitch that kept him from being able to hit big league
pitching. Before each swing, Oh would jerk his bat back, wasting just enough time to make
inside pitchesrequiring that short, compact motionunhittable. Pitchers soon
discovered this weakness and capitalized on it. Oh was lost. His first three seasons he was,
at best, a mediocre player, and his career seemed to be spinning to a short close. Then
came Hiroshi Arakawa.
In what reads like something of the baseball equivalent to Memoirs of a
Geisha, Sadaharu Oh was blessed with a patron
watching him from the shadows. Arakawa-san, a
former player with the Mainichi Orions, was a
brilliant teacher, who followed Oh's career in
high school, clandestinely urged the Giants to
sign him and then, as if from the fogs that tumble
down the slope of Mt. Fuji, appeared like a spirit
to help solve Oh's hitting problems. Together,
they built a grueling regimen that included Aikido,
swordsmanship, and Zen to overcome the young slugger's
hitch. Arakawa-san patiently worked with Oh for
almost twenty years. He taught Oh the famous (in
Japan) 'flamingo stance' in which Oh stood on
his left foot while the right came up, poised
to step into the swing. This ended the hitch,
for if Oh jerked the bat back it would, as Arakawa-san
said, send him "on his ass". Oh's mastery
of this stance helped him to become one of the
most feared hitters in Japan, and generated some
of the greatest offensive numbers in world baseball
Sadaharu Oh belongs in Baseball's Hall of Fame. We are aware that this suggestion
comes with critics, harrumphing about the sanctity
of Cooperstown as if it were the Vatican. There
are those who would argue that Oh would not have
hit anywhere near as many home runs in the majors,
nor have come close to breaking Aaron's record
of 755. Oh, with his usual modesty, concurs, and
so do we. No doubt the American Major Leagues
are a far cry better than their Japanese counterpart.
The fences in Japanese stadiums are shorter than
most here. The pitching isn't quite as consistent.
Still, Oh's numbers transcend these drawbacks.
Consider: Oh hit for averagehe was a .301
lifetime hitter who also managed to go as high
as .355 and won the batting title five times.
A highly regarded fielder, Oh won nine diamond
glove awards (the equivalent of our gold glove).
He won two triple crowns, nine MVP awards, and
hit a home run every 10.7 times at the plate (Ruth
hit 11.8; Aaron 16.4). In 110 games against American
Major Leaguers, All-Star squads that toured Japan
in the 1970s (and included facing such pitching
luminaries as Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, and Jim
Palmer, to name a few), Oh hit 14 doubles and
25 homers, a .260 average and a .524 slugging
percentage, which hold their own (and were played
at the end of Japan's baseball season, which is
considered, even by Americans, to be much more
grueling than ours).
Some of Oh's supporters have made the mistake
of trying to suggest that he would have hit this-and-such
in the Majors, speculations that we'll steer clear
of (though if you're interested, check out Jim
Albright's spirited analysis). Problem is,
like the Negro Leaguers before him, you could
never really predict how they would have fared
against the Major Leagues. Could you really say
that every great Negro Leaguer would have succeeded
under the sometimes harsh glare of the Big League
spotlight? Would Satch and Josh been able to have
played as brilliantly as they did in the heat
of the Major leagues? Conversely, how would arch-racist
Ty Cobb have fared against African American players?
Statistics alone do not make a Hall of Fame plaque. In fact, one of the best arguments that
can be made for Oh is in the guise of Martin Dihigo.
Dihigo was enshrined posthumously in 1977. Considered one of the most versatile
players in history, he made the rounds of the
Negro Leagues, the Mexican Leagues, and the Cuban
and Venezuelan leagues. An all-star at nearly
every position (includingand especiallypitcher),
Dihigo is the only man to with a plaque in four
different Hall of Fames, one for each country
he served. But Dihigo's record is the same recipe
as many of his Negro League counterpartsa
cup of eyewitness reports, a heaping tablespoon
of statistic, and a shot of legend. Dihigo's numbers
against the white Major Leaguers is less-than-amazing12
hits in 49 tries, one homer, resulting in a .249
average (according to our sources he did not pitch
in these games).
Yet Dihigo has a plaque, and rightfully so. Legions of players will (or would)
attest to the fact that Martin Dihigo was one
of the greats. El Maestro (as he was called),
nor any of the other players in the Negro Leagues
shouldn't be denied entry based solely on their
numbers. In fact, many more should
be elected. This having been said, however, if
statistics are what you need (and the Veterans
Committee certainly dotes on them), then Japanese
baseball is better organized, now and in Oh's
day, than the Negro Leagues ever were. They have
the statistics and the eyewitnesses
(including many from American big leaguers) to
back up any claims. While Oh certainly would not
have clobbered 868 home runs in his career as
a player with, say, the Detroit Tigers (we can
dream if we want!), he was the greatest player
for a league that is now being recognized as having
great players (like Ichiro Suzuki, whose Japanese
statistics pale in contrast to Oh's). Admission
of the Negro League greats is due primarily to
their tremendous talent, but it is also partially
due to baseball's continued quest to rectify the
injustices of the past. There's no guilt behind
arguments that Sadaharu Oh should join the Hall.
Maybe that's what's keeping him out.
As baseball is becoming increasingly global,
isn't it time that the Hall of Fame give consideration
to Japanese players? Wouldn't it make sense from
a public relations standpoint? Inducting Sadaharu
Oh can only help capture a larger Japanese audience.
Japanese baseball has a long, glorious, and fascinating
history, and its players can only add to the considerable
appeal of the Hall. Ichiro proved that Japanese
players can hold their own in our leagues, so
why not Oh? And visiting Oh's plaque would be
a unique experience. Imagine seeing his special
handmade Ichii bat, hand carved from the mysterious
yachidamo tree that grows only in remote regions
of Japan, sitting in the case like a baseball
Excalibur. Study Oh's stance, ponder his philosophy
and wisdom that make reading about baseball often
so profound. Oh was a fan's player, who gave autographs
at every opportunity, made time for his fan clubs,
and never had a tantrum on the field or in the
press. We need more of that in baseball.
If you support Sadaharu Oh's induction into the Hall of Fame, don't just gripe and
grumble: please send the Veterans Committee your comments. Remember, it's your Hall, too.
DUMB AND DUMBER
Topping our gift list this year is a dunce cap, size seven. Preferably fleece, blue or black with yellow lettering.
Well, well, well. For the second
issue in a row, we have mangled the name of one
of the great players in history. As reader Mark
Johnson of Minneapolis wrote: "You begin
your article (see "Looking
Backward", last issue) with the mention
of "Bobby Thompson of the '51 Giants".
99% of baseball fans know it is spelled Bobby
Thomson." Well, well, well. Does that
make us one of the elite 1%? Readers may recall
that just two issues ago we spelled Duke Snider
"Snyder" and were rightly taken to task.
Apologies to Messrs. Johnson and Thomson, and
promises to our readers to rely on Total Baseball
rather than our own soft memory.
HE NEVER HAD IT MADE
So it was decreed that Cal Ripken's breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive streak record was
baseball's most memorable moment. Good lord. We have to beg this question: is there
any feat in baseball more predictable than that one? Memorable perhaps to those folks still
wishing they'd won their high school's perfect attendance pin, but really, what thrills were
there in that record-breaking game (and please, Cal's homer is hardly worth mentioning)?
A great moment is one that keeps you on the edge of your seat, amazed and wondering
about the outcome. We all knew exactly when Cal's number was going to roll over, and
like the 100,000 mile mark on Dad's old Volvo, nothing was going to stop it. Don
Larsen's perfect game could have been broken up in the last out, Aaron might not hit the
big one the game you're watching, and even Lou Gerhig's farewell, well, that was a tear-
jerking moment, but even then, you couldn't know what he was going to say. We're not
one to suggest that Ripken shouldn't have pursued the streak"nor do we buy the naysayers
argument that he would have been better if he'd taken a break (he wouldn't have)"but
most memorable? No way.
most memorable moment was Jackie Robinson's breaking
the color barrier. For sheer drama, for baseball
thrills, and for the fact that this event was
a watershed in American History, and what some
consider a necessary prelude to the Civil Rights
Movement, there is nothing of greater excitementšor
consequence. African American ballplayers shouldn't
be thankful for Robinson's sacrifice"everyone
in baseball should be, player and fan alike. American
professional baseball begins in 1947. Consider
all the great feats prior to that year: DiMaggio's
streak, Williams' .401, Johnny Vander Meer's back-to-back
no hitters to name but a few. Speculate with us:
would Joltin' Joe have hit in game 31 against
White Sox hurler Hilton Smith? Ted might not have
whacked all those hits on the last day of '41
against A's pitcher Satchel Paige. And Vander
Meer might not have been so successful against
a Dodgers squad boasting the likes of Ray Dandridge
and Buck Leonard at the corners, slugging away.
Certainly no one can predict what other records
might have been made, or whether or not some would
have stood with an earlier integration. Everyone
from Ty Cobb to Christy Mathewson would have been
affected by playing against the best players,
black and white, in all America. Even today it
boggles the mind: for all the ink rightfully spilled
on Barry Bonds, had he swung the lumber fifty-five
years ago he would only be a cipher, as obscure
as Oscar Charleston is to many fans today. The
fact remains that since 1947, baseball has truly
represented the population of this country. Robinson's
feat"the story of baseball itself"is the only
THE MOISTURE SEEKERS
According to rule 8.02(a)(3), the pitcher shall not "expectorate on the ball, either hand, or
his glove." 'Expectorate' in the highfalutin' language of the MLB rulebook, means, of
course, 'spit'. No spitballs. We believe that the time has come to return to past glories,
and revive this sloppy pitch.
The rule dates back to 1920, created in the aftermath of the beaning of Cleveland's Ray
Chapman, who ultimately died of his wounds. One of the arguments was that the spitter
was an uncontrollable force, barely reigned in by even the most talented of pitchers.
Swell"for the days when batting helmets were considered the stuff of milquetoasts. Since
then, however, safety has become all the rage, and rightfully so. Consider Barry
Bonds"the guy wears enough plastic to keep bullets off. That argument is over.
Legalizing the spitball is good for business. Rule changes increase fan awareness, even
when they're dull. Spitballs would raise eyebrows, and that means that the eyes beneath
them are watching your product. Although the offense in baseball is not whirling out of
control (batting averages have actually declined), a spitball serves this most glorious
purpose: it's fun. Considering the growing rigidity of baseball, wouldn't adding the spitter
add some zest? Even better, legalizing the spitter would further connect baseball with its
past, always a selling point. And it adds some roughage to the diet of hurlers.
Interested? Urge the Commissioner and your MLB
Out here in Minnesota, there's snow accumulating on the ground, and the windows are
frosted from the chill. Plastic wreaths and electric menorahs decorate our neighbor's
homes. We're on the verge of war and a change in government. It's the perfect time for
We're not talking hot stove leagues, we're talking books. As many baseball fans will
attest, the offseason is a great time to lose oneself in reading about the noble sport. Many
times the postseason is discouraging, and it's sometimes nice to rid oneselves of the politics
and the money, and books offer a welcome relief. The literature of baseball knows no
bounds, bleeding, usually with ill-effect, even into fiction and poetry. No sport enjoys such
a literary heritage as baseball. Do you really expect to see the Library of America Football
Anthology? All NASCAR fans read is the advertisements on their hero's jacket.
That having been said, the time is also right for gift-giving, and Mudville would like to
suggest these winsome titles for the baseball fan on your list:
Veeck, As In Wreck
and The Hustler's Handbook. Even
USA Today's Paul White has joined the chamber
chorus in praise of Bill Veeck. Not only do these
titles give the fan a taste of some great lore,
they also offer some ideas to help raise baseball
from its ongoing public relations quagmire. Veeck
was all about fun, and he incorporated it into
business like no one before or after. Although
Wreck is the more popular of the two, The
Hustler's Handbook (now out of print) has
a touch more wit, less of Veeck's personal life,
and fascinating insights into the Black Sox scandal
and the Dodgers move west, not to mention the
fascinating profiles of Branch Rickey and Horace
Stoneham. Essential reading.
You Gotta Have Wa, by Robert Whiting. Fascinating, sharply-written look at the madness
of Japanese Baseball, the book suffers only from its lightweight historical perspective (it
focuses primarily on the mid-70s through the 80s). Most interesting are the stories of
culture clash with the gaijin (foreigners, outsiders), and the tale of Sachio Kinugasa,
Japan's "Iron Man" who took his consecutive games streak through 2,215 (taking five
years longer than Cal would"his league plays but 130 games a year), knocking in 504
homers in the process, and at one point playing with a broken shoulder.
Red Smith On Baseball is fantastic, if only to savor the beauty of the written word. Smith,
a columnist for the New York Herald-Tribune and, later, The New York Times, could be, at
turns, a gentleman and an irascible bastard. And he penned some of the finest, most
articulate columns ever written about baseball. This collection includes his famous article
about Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard Round the World", with the famous opening: "Now
it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead.
Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic,
can ever be plausible again." On Baseball's only setback is its stupefyingly dull cover,
easily the worst marketed book of the past few years.
We're not keen on trivia collections,
but Luke Salisbury's The Answer is
Baseball is one of the most thought
provoking of this genre. Not merely a collection
of mind-benders designed to stump the casual fan
and stroke the ego of the SABRites, Answer
asks its mindbender, then ponders the nature of
the question itself before throwing its curveball
answer. Our fave: Which pitcher has the best lifetime
record against the Yankees? (the answer might
surprise you"we'll blab it next issue).
Tiger Stadium was the center of our baseball world, and no book captures its personality as
well as the Detroit Free Press' The Corner. Absolutely one of the finest baseball books
ever created, it is a must for those still pining for the old warehouse. Its charm comes from
the fact that the editors were unwilling to give us the usual bland, coffee-table history
penned by the team hack, but gathered some of the best"and weirdest"memories from
the dozens of people who played, worked, and spent their free time at Michigan and
Trumbull. Full of gritty photographs, wonderful fan and player reminiscences (from the
likes of Mark Fidrych, Hal Newhouser, Sparky Anderson, and Mickey Lolich, to name but
a few), it also includes dead-on articles like Drew Sharp's indictment of the unwelcome
attitude toward African Americans and Mitch Albom's "Day of the Dead Milkmen", about
fleeting hero Jim Walewander. A book of heartbreaking beauty, The Corner's honesty
makes it almost as much of a treasure as Tiger Stadium itself.
As we stated above, the Negro Leagues
need more Hall of Fame representation, and perhaps
no book supports this argument more than John
Holway's The Complete Book of Baseball's
Negro Leagues. Holway's dogged research
makes this book the proper companion to any Major
Finally, local Minnesotans can rejoice in their baseball past with Stew Thornley's slim little
volume, On To Nicollet. The Twin Cities are rich in baseball history, and the Millers of
old managed to eclipse even the stately Twins, boasting seventeen former Hall of Famers
(including Ted Williams, Ray Dandridge, and Willie Mays, to name but a few). Especially
attractive are the photos of old Nicollet Base Ball Park, at the corner of 31st and Nicollet.
Considering the way that corner looks today, it almost makes us cry.
Of course, you can buy these books anywhere, but we always encourage a trip to the local
used bookstore. Bargains galore can be found via email at R. Plapinger Baseball Books.
At your request, Mr. Plapinger will send
you a catalogue for the fair price of $4, which doesn't just include available titles, but many
of his wry comments, such as this one in his listing for Ford Frick's autobiography: "Some
day you'll sit your child on your knee and explain 'see, once there was a time when there
was a man called the Commissioner. And this Commissioner fellow, see, way back when,
he wasn't an owner, or even a former ownerš" Good prices, good selection.
The plugs continue: if you're like us, you're loathe to dogear your books, yet want to
remember a certain line or paragraph. Never fear, for Book Darts are
the solution. These brass markers slip right on the edge of a page, and won't damage even
the oldest volumes (the same can't be said for post-it flags).
Gift certificates might be a good idea, as Stephen J. Gould's Triumph and Tragedy in
Mudville: My Lifelong Passion for Baseball is scheduled for a March release. Mr.
Gould's science writing is brilliant, and we expect this to be one of the best titles of the
year, if not the decade.
With that, the editors at Mudville Magazine wish everyone a wonderful holiday season!