John Holway / the japanese insider
The press conference in mid-town Tokyo resembled the weigh-in before a heavyweight title fight as Hank Aaron and Sadaharu Oh shook hands and agreed to come out fighting the next afternoon.
It was November 1 1974, and Aaron, the new all-time home run champ with 733, had just flown in from Atlanta on a 17-hour flight to defend his title in a one-on-one home run contest against Oh.
Hank hadn't swung a bat in a month,, had arrived without his personal willow, and was exhausted after his long flight.
It was the second time the two had met, Aaron reminded the press; the first was seven year earlier in Vero Beach Florida, the Dodgers training camp. I heard from Clete Boyer [former Braves third baseman, who played in Japan] that Oh was a very good hitter. He has won two triple crowns, and I never have. Im looking forward to tomorrows contest.
Aaron had a 15-pound weight advantage, but Oh was six years younger:
Weight 174 189
Height 510 60
Age 34 40
Lifetime hrs 634 733
At exactly 12:30 the next afternoon the two men shook hands at home plate in Korakuen Stadium before 50,000 fans, who were there to see the visiting New York Mets in their tour of Japan. Countless more watched on TV.
Aaron proposed that each man get 20 swings, and Oh agreed. Aaron tossed a coin and Oh called it. He won and elected to bat first. In round-one, Oh would get five swings, then Aaron would take five, and repeat it for four rounds.
Round one. The Japanese challenger whipped three balls into the rightfield bleachers 330 feet, 396 feet, and 412 feet.
Then coach Joe Pignatano pitched to Hank, who was using Ed Kranepools 34-ounce model. The American champ smashed a 369-footer to left on his first swing and followed with a 380-foot drive in his third swing.
Score: Oh three, Aaron two.
In round two, Oh pumped three more balls into the bleachers, the third one measured at just under 400 feet.
Aaron came back with a 396-foot drive in his first swing, and followed with three more into the seats.
Score: Oh 6, Aaron 6.
In round three, Oh led off with a homer, and he seemed to be relieved. His next drive flew into the stands at the foul line. The Japanese umpire in right signaled fair ball, but home plate umpire Chris Pelakoudas over-ruled him. Even Aaron appeared ready to protest. On the next swing Oh pulled another close to the pole. Once more the rightfield umpire raised his hands, fair, but Peladoukas again waved his arms, foul.
In his turn at bat, Hank hammered three balls over the wall to take the lead.
Score: Aaron 9, Oh 7.
In the final round, Oh lifted one just over the wall for number eight. After a ground ball, he hit another 400-footer to tie Hank. He had two swings left. The first was a line drive that fell short of the stands. The last swing was a fly which also dropped on the playing field.
Hank needed one home run to win. His first swing was a fly to left. The second was a ground ball to third. His third produced the longest drive of the day, a tape-measured 429 feet.
Final score: Aaron 10, Oh 9.
Hank hurried over to Oh to shake hands.
The Mets Felix Millan, a former teammate of Aaron, watched the contest from the dugout. Hank had strong wrists, which allowed him to keep his drives away from the foul line, Felix said, but Oh, a typical pull hitter, lost two homers down the line. You cant say Oh won, Millan said; on the other hand, you cant say he lost.
Oh is only 34, Hank said. He has a chance to hit over 800. [Ohs final total would be 868]. Winning todays contest proves nothing. If there is any meaning, it is that we made the fans happy.
Since then Aaron and Oh have worked together to develop youth baseball around the world.
Yoichi Nagata has written extensively about Nisei baseball in America and is co-editor of the Japanese Baseball section in Total Baseball.