John Holway / the japanese insider
JAPANESE IN COOPERSTOWN?
By John B Holway
Jim Albrights Cooperstown nominations brought back memories.
I saw my first Japanese game in 1949 in Beppu, a hot-spring resort in Kyushu. The Lions big left-handed slugger, Hiroshi Oshita (pron. Oh-shta by the Japanese and Oyster by visiting American players) slugged a homer, and two kimonoed girls came out to home plate to present him with a live chicken.
Kaneda was my favorite player. He was a sophomore in 1952, when I came back from Korea and won over 20 games every year despite pitching for the last place Swallows, winning half of their victories in a 130-game schedule. He didn't get to a good team until late, after Japan instituted free-agency for ten-year veterans, and the Giants snapped him up, but his big years were over. He ended with 400 wins and 4,000 Ks, which no one else has ever done. Yoichi Nagata and I wrote a New York Times piece about him.
Kaneda was a tall, slim lefty and had a stylish slide-step stride, something like Koufax. He was also temperamental, standing on the mound, arguing with his manager.
But he got hit pretty hard by visiting Major Leaguers, as did all the Japanese then (1952-55). The Americans typically won 14 out of 15 games by scores of 12-2, 9-1 etc. Of course, they really brought great all stars Berra, Lopat, Roberts, Mathews, Kuenn, Slaughter, Sauer, etc. Still, I don't think Japanese baseball was anywhere near big league standards then. I remember the shock, after watching Japanese play each other for months, to see an American hitter step up to home plate, head and shoulders bigger than the Japanese catcher. The gap has narrowed now, if not disappeared. Hard to say how Kaneda would have done with someone like George Bamberger, Mel Harder, Johnny Sain, or Leo Mazzilli coaching him.
I did see a little side-armer named Otomo beat the (Mays-less) Giants 1-0. They said Lefty O'Doul was calling pitches for him, but that has been disputed. He stayed ahead of the hitters, and they won on a home run in the eighth against Wilhelm. The Japanese called it one of the ten greatest games in their history.
I also saw the legendary Starfin in the last year of his career. He was Russian and bigger than the other players. His big statistics in the mid-1930s, like Sawamuras, are hard to evaluate. Both might have done well in the u.s. majors, but we just dont know. I also saw Bessho, but it was near the end of his career. And Sugishita, who won 30 games in 54 to lead the Dragons to the pennant.
I think its conjecture to try to compare Japanese statistics of that era to the Major Leagues.
One guy I didn't see was Inao (pron. E-now), who came along later. He was so sensational that his manager pitched his arm off. He won about 35 games one year, plus pitched in six Japan Series games, winning four of them. Then his arm went to hell. He might have been another Nomo. A lot of pitchers of his era were destroyed by over-work. Kaneda is all the more amazing, because he maintained his excellence for a long career,
A few years after I left Japan in 54, a young kid, Murakami, was sent to the San Francisco giants rookie camp. He stayed to be one of the leading relief pitchers in America. Very popular. Hed bow and take off his hat to anyone who made a good play behind him. The Japanese demanded he come home, where he had only one winning season. Was it because Japan was a tougher league than the N.L? Or was it because, as he said, his coaches wouldn't let him use the delivery he had been taught in America?
If you're measuring Japanese professional players for Cooperstown, its discriminatory not to include Randy Bass, the be-whiskered former Houston Astro who might have broken Ohs single season record if manager Oh hadn't ordered his pitchers to walk Randy every time up on the final day? Or Boomer Wells, another great slugger?
Among the hitters, the guys I saw were just too small to compete with the Americans. Kawakami, the god of batting (Kami means god in Japanese) was best, but his homers came in the small parks, about 280 feet down the line.
Fujimoto would be another like Kawakami, whose home runs cannot be compared to u.s. homers, both because of the short fences and the calibre of the competition in their era.
Nakanishi was a short, stocky third baseman Durocher called him Hack Wilson -- who could konk the ball pretty hard, but his career was short.
Chiba hit number-two in the Giants lineup, a right-hander, and in three years I saw him pull only one ball to leftfield, like a right-handed Pete Runnels.
What about Yonamine, the former 49er football player and Giants leadoff man, who won a couple of batting titles? He was criticized for sliding too hard to break up double plays American-style.
I saw Nagashima in 1973. He hit a rope down the leftfield line to win the game in the tenth. He was Japans biggest star, because he was pure Japanese, unlike his teammate, Oh, who was half-Chinese. His wedding was bigger news than Ohs record hitting.
Like all Asians, the Japanese are very race-conscious. (Kaneda was Korean, which was also a handicap in his career.)
Kinugasa, one of Hiroshimas red bat twins, is an example. His father was a black GI, and the Japanese pitchers went gunning for him. They deliberately hit him to try to break his consecutive-game playing streak, hence his frequent injuries. I don't think that would have happened in America. I talked to Kinugasa when he came to America to see Ripken break his record. I asked them both, is it harder to do it playing 130 games a year until an older age, or 162 a year at a younger age? They both agreed the latter is easier.
I never saw most of the post-1955 stars, so I can't evaluate them.
I never saw Nomura, but he was second only to Oh and played a difficult skill position, catcher.
I didn't see Fukumoto, but from what I've read, he was a legitimate base-stealer. He stole against Bench, for example.
At one time the Japanese held four major world records strikeouts, steals, homers, and consecutive games played. Only the home run mark is still standing.
I also saw Oh at the end of his career. He didn't hit a homer, but he singled to right and singled to left. He hit top u.s. pitchers well Palmer, Seaver etc., averaging about 35 homers per 550 at bats against them. After seeing what Matsui and Ichiro can do, I am sure Oh would have hit very well in America. Oh was half-Chinese (Oh means King in Japanese and is pronounce Wang in Chinese. Wang Chien-Ming is pronounced Oh in Japanese. As a rookie, Oh whiffed a lot and was dubbed Strikeout King.)
Mihara is an interesting manager. A winning manager for the Giants, he was a POW in Siberia during the war. When he was repatriated several years after the war, he replaced Giants skipper Mihara, who went to the other league, opening up quite a rivalry.
Kawakami also had a great managerial career. I think he was a follower of Zen principals, which he employed on his teams.
But if it were my decision, I'd put Oh and Kaneda in Cooperstown, and maybe Sawamura, Starfin, Inao, Nagashima, Fukumoto, Nomura, and Kinugasa. And Mizuhara and Kawakami.