The question most
often posed about Sadaharu Oh by parochial Americans (a species every bit as
prevalent as ugly ones) is whether or not he would be a great star in the
United States. It is not an admirable curiosity, being diverting as well as
condescending, and keeps us from properly considering the man in his own
environment, in his own context. Of course Oh would be a bum if he played over
here, just as Winston Churchill never could have cut it in the U.S., just as
Chekhov never could have dented The Great White Way, just as Nijinsky never
could have gotten to first base with our gen-u-wine major league dancers.
Because there are only 113 million Japanese and because they have been playing
baseboru for only 105 years, it is foolishness to think that a single one of
these tiny little folks could excel at our great American game.
So now that we
have that settled, let us examine this athlete who has hit 742 home runs, more
than Babe Ruth and, soon, more than Henry Aaron, more than anyone in the
Oh—Japanese often address one another in this formal manner—is an extraordinary
figure, make no mistake. There are two things that immediately establish his
singularity. First, he has a highly distinctive batting style. Second, no
athlete has ever been more revered in his country. To be sure, others in
smaller or less sophisticated lands—Pel� in Brazil, for example, Nurmi in
Finland, Borg in Sweden—may have attained comparable stature, but at 37 Oh-san
reigns supreme in one of the most powerful industrial nations on earth.
unchallenged in Japan as the national game; there is no football for
competition, no basketball. Nor does Japan have any renowned boxers, runners,
tennis stars. It is most significant, perhaps, that Oh surpasses Babe Ruth more
as a national figure than he does as a home-run king. There is not even any
great Japanese hero in show business. There is no reigning Japanese Robert
Redford, not even a Japanese King Kong, because the Japanese—ever mindful of
commercial trends—have turned from Godzilla to soft porn. As a popular cultural
celebrity, there is in this rich island nation only one supreme hero, and that
is Sadaharu Oh, Mister Oh, Oh-san, No. 1.
the astute American sporting goods executive who once ran a Japanese baseball
team, married a Japanese and has lived in Japan for years, says, "No one in
America can conceive of Mister Oh's place here. He possesses almost a godlike
It is an event to
see him bat, which helps explain why there is seldom an empty seat whenever he
plays with his team, the Yomiuri Giants of Tokyo. When Mister Oh stands at the
plate, one senses not only that here is a national treasure but a natural
wonder. If it has been your lot all your life to watch hitters, thousands of
them, good and bad, old and young, rich and poor, of all races, colors and
creeds, all of them attempting to strike a baseball while keeping both feet on
the ground...and then suddenly before you looms the figure of a champion hitter
about to club the old horse-hide with one foot held aloft—poising it there, as
in the manner of the hokey-pokey ("You put your right foot in and you shake
it all about")—the scene is at once astounding and discombobulating.
batting style is, in fact, a feat of exquisite concentration and balance—almost
physiological legerdemain—but so peculiar is it that at first shocked glance
one's thoughts tend to run to the irreverent (dogs addressing hydrants) or to
the comic (the boutonniered Jackie Gleason, grasping glass instead of bat,
bellowing, "And awaaay we go").
This pitch is low
and far outside, as are so many to Mister Oh. Question to Clyde Wright, ex-U.S.
major-leaguer, now a teammate on the Giants: What do they throw to Oh-san?
prepares again. Oh, who stands just under 6 feet and weighs 174 pounds,
positions himself in the very rear of the box. He smooths out the dirt and taps
the plate, in the comfortable manner of Father, resting in his La-Z-Boy and
knocking ashes from his pipe. Pitching a batter tight, never mind a bean-ball,
is not acceptable in Japan, and dusting off Mister Oh would be akin to
blasphemy. Dug in now, Oh cocks his bat. It is long and thin, 34�", 33
ounces. He holds it far down at the bottom—barehanded, no batting glove—and he
tilts the barrel forward, an odd maneuver, almost as unusual as the leg lift.
Sometimes, as he awaits the poor pitcher's delivery, Oh actually rests the bat
on the peak of his helmet.