John Holway / the japanese insider
By John B. Holway
Some time this summer Lefty O'Doul will enter the pantheon of Japan's Hall of Famers. He certainly was one of the important figures in the development of the Japanese professional game, and he made a key contribution to one of the ten best games ever played in Japan, a game I saw back in 1953.
Lefty first visited Japan many times between 1934 and 1953. Was it his love of the game -- or something else -- that drew him back again and again?
O'Doul first visited Japan in 1934 with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Charlie Gehringer, Al Simmons, Lefty Gomez, Connie Mack etc. They won 17 straight including 1-0 over teenager Eiji Sawamura, who whiffed Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, and Gehringer in a row.
He returned after the war with his San Francisco Seals in 1949, and again in 1951 with an all-star squad including Joe DiMaggio, who hit the last home run of his career on the tour.
Lefty made his last visit with DiMag and Marilyn Monroe in 1953. After a tour in Korea, I was stationed in Tokyo that autumn, when Leo Durocher and the NY Giants visited.
That spring the Kyojin (Giants) had taken spring training in America. They won only one exhibition, 9-7 over New York when little shortstop Saburo Hrai hit a two-run homer. A little submarine baller, Tatsumi Otomo, beat Sacramento of the Pacific Coast League but lost to the St Louis Browns 40-3. They must have learned something, though, because they came home and won the pennant by 16 games. Otomo won 27 games and lost seven in the short (130-game) season, plus three more wins in the Japan Series.
That October the New Yorkers arrived in Tokyo for a series. Willie Mays was in the army, but the rest of the Giants, who finished second in the NL, were there. After watching the Japanese play each other for a season, it was a shock to see the visiting catcher get up from his crouch and stand head and shoulders above the batter.
The Yanks easily walked over the Japanese, mostly by blowout scores. They can' do that any more, but half a century ago, if you wanted to root for the underdog, you rooted for the Japanese.
But New York ran into trouble against Shoichi Kaneda, my favorite Japanese player of all time, at least until Ichiro.
Kaneda was a young left-hander then, with a good fastball and curve and a smooth slide step delivery. He played for the last-place Swallows, who usually won about 54 games a year -- 27 of them by Kaneda ("the golden rice paddy"). He also had a temper, which was unusual for a Japanese -- he was actually Korean and thus subject to discrimination from the Japanese players and fans. He's the only Japanese player I saw argue when his manager came out to the mound. Kaneda went on to win 400 games, mostly with the lowly Swallows, and strike out 4,000 men. At one time he held the world strikeout record until Nolan Ryan broke it. Anyway, he almost beat New York, finally losing 3-2.
Tokyo had an American I liked -- Wally Yonamine (Yo-na-mi-nay), the leadoff-hitter and centerfielder, who had played pro football with the 49ers. He wore glasses and led the Japanese league in batting a couple of times, though he was considered a "dirty" player by the Japanese because he slid into second with his spikes high. Billy Loes of the Dodgers once called him the toughest man he ever pitched to when they were both in the Western States League.
Clean-up hitter Tetsuji Kawakami, was nick-named "the Lou Gehrig of Japan," the first Japanese to hit 25 homers in a year. Although getting old, he had won a homer-hitting contest against the New Yorkers.
I recall Leo giving instructions to the Japanese players before a big crowd in Korakuen Stadium. He ordered them around like high school kids.
The next morning I called Leo at the Imperial Hotel and received a sultry hello from his wife, Lorraine, the movie star. When Leo took the phone, I stuttered something as tactfully as possible about these players being big stars and perhaps he might modify his approach. Leo exploded and suggested several anatomically challenging places I could put my advice.
The next game I went to, Otomo paired off against relief ace Hoyt Wilhelm, who had never started a game in the major leagues. Before the game Giant coach Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons gave a pitching clinic at home plate. Takumi must have been listening carefully.
After the game began, Durocher, coaching at first base, called out to his runner to go down on the next pitch, and he was thrown out by catcher Jun Hirota, a graduate of the University of Hawaii.
Meanwhile, in the Tokyo dugout, O'Doul was calling the pitches, and Otomo got ahead in the count on almost every man, then gave them bad pitches until they popped up or rolled out. He and Wilhelm battled into the eighth, tied 1-1.
The Giants' old nemesis, Hirai, batting eighth in the lineup, pulled another homer into the leftfield bleachers against Wilhelm, and Otomo went on to triumph 2-1. Durocher reportdly offered him a Giant contract.
It was one of O'Doul's finest moments in Japan.
Some Japanese researchers suggest that Lefty's love affair with Japan may have gone beyond baseball. Rumors have been flying that he had a koibito, or lover, and although details are hard to track down after 50 years, one theory is that she was a geisha. Apparentlly no one living today can verify the story.
Whatever happened to her? How did she survive the bombing raids during the war? How did he find her again? Why couldn't they marry? We may never know, but those of us who are romantics at heart can imagine the bitter-sweet possibilites.
It would make a hell of a movie, wouldn't it?