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B.K.S. Iyengar

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ILLUSTRATIONS by LEO HERSHFIELD, from THREE MEN ON THIRD and LOW AND INSIDE.

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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 years—these 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 pitches—requiring that short, compact motion—unhittable. 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 history.

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 average—he 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 (including—and especially—pitcher), 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 counterparts—a 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-amazing—12 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.

The 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 choice.

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 player representative.

HOLIDAY READINGS

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 baseball.

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 League encyclopedia.

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!

Movie of the Week



Sadaharu Oh, A Zen Way of Baseball

By Sadaharu Oh
and David Falkner







© 2002 Loafer's Magazine. All Rights Reserved.