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Baseball Analysis  John Holway / the japanese insider



John B Holway

Some time this summer Lefty O'Doul will enter Japan's Hall of Fame. As he well deserves. One might say that, without Lefty, we might not today be watching Ichiro, Nomo, Sasaki, and Ishii etc. with more poised to follow them.

Although Lefty batted .398 in the National League in 1929 and .349 lifetime, so far his short (11-year) career has worked to deny him a plaque in Cooperstown. However, if the shrine also considers his contribution to making baseball an international game, he is long overdue to enter the U.S. Valhalla too.

Lefty played a key role in one of the ten greatest games in Japanese baseball history, when they beat the New York Giant s 2–1in Tokyo back in 1953. I know; I was there.

O’Doul visited Japan many times between 1931 and his death in 1969. He first arrived with a superstar squad that included Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Charlie Gehringer, Al Simmons etc. They returned in 1934 with Babe Ruth (plus catcher/linguist Moe Berg, who undertook to do a little spying on the side, in addition to his athletic duties).

The Americans won 17 straight against college and industrial teams. They didn’t take the games very seriously. On one rainy day, Ruth skylarked under an umbrella, and Gehrig sloshed around in rubber galoshes. On a sunny day Simmons lay down in the outfield when Grove went out to pitch.

But the horseplay stopped abruptly when they faced an 18 year-old high school kid named Eiji Sawamura, who whiffed Gehringer, Ruth, Gehrig, and Foxx in a row. Gehrig’s homer in the eighth finally beat him 1-0.

The next year a Negro League squad visited Japan and the Far East. One of them, Rap Dixon, smashed the longest home run ever seen in Meiji Shrine Stadium. Unlike the whites, they held the scores down and didn’t clown to make the Japanese lose face. Another Japanese historian, Kazuo Sayama, in his book, Gentle Black Giants, says it was this tour, not the earlier white major league trips, which inspired the Japanese to start their own professional league.

O’Doul accompanied Sawamura’s team when it sailed to the States in ‘36. Japanese historian Yoichi Nagata says it was Lefty who suggested their name, Tokyo Giants, which would become as prestigious in Japan as “Yankees” is in the States.

He also suggested putting Chinese characters instead of English numbers on their uniforms to spark curiosity among U.S. fans.

Indeed, crowds followed them, waving scorecards to be signed. As Sawamura scribbled, one hopeful fan thrust a contract into his hands.

O’Doul became manager of the San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League.

Meanwhile, another youngster, a Japanese- American named Cappy Harada, was playing semipro baseball in California and being scouted by the St Louis Cardinals.

Then came Pearl Harbor, and the next day Harada joined up. He spent the war as a Japanese translator and scout, working with the Navajo “ghost talkers” in the jungles of New Guinea and the Philippines. On a parachute drop behind enemy lines, their plane crashed into a mountain, breaking several of Cappy’s bones, and for 17 days the Navajos cared for him until Australian soldiers finally reached them. “I owe a lot to the Navajos,” he says, “they were great guys.”

Reassigned to General MacArthur’s staff, Harada was shot by a sniper in the Leyte landing in the Philippines, then was shot in the head by a Zero fighter that strafed the hospital. Another few inches, “and that would have been the end of it.”

Harada was luckier than Sawamura, who went down with his torpedoed troopship in 1945. (Today Japan’s Cy Young Award is named the Sawamura Award in his honor.)

Cappy’s wounds ruled out hopes of a baseball career, so he stayed in the army in Tokyo, where General Douglas MacArthur gave Lieutenant Harada the job of reviving baseball in Japan , starting with high school ball.

In 1949 MacArthur asked Harada to look into bringing an American goodwill team to Japan. Cappy flew to San Francisco and asked O’Doul to bring the Seals. Lefty immediately agreed.

Nagata calls it the most crucial of all the American visits, which had begun almost 40 years earlier, in 1911. But this was special as Japan struggled to recover from the devastation of the worst war in history.

Harada asked MacArthur for permission to raise both the U.S. and Japanese flags before the first game. “Go ahead and do it,” Mac replied.

When the U.S. National Anthem was followed by the Japanese anthem, Harada remained at attention in a salute. One U.S. colonel was so furious, he demanded that the Supreme Commander fire Harada. “It’s OK,” MacArthur replied. “I told him to do it.”

The tour was a financial success, and O'Doul donated the profits to Japanese charity. He and Harada became lifelong friends. “We pissed in many a pot together,’ Cappy says.

Two years later Lefty and Cappy returned with another all star team that included Joe DiMaggio, who hit his last home run on the tour.

In the spring of 1953, the Kyojin (Giants) took spring training in California. Against Pacific Coast League teams they won three and lost 11. One of their victories was by a little submarine baller, Tatsumi Otomo, who beat Sacramento. Against big league clubs, they were1-4, inclujding Otomo’s loss to the St Louis Browns 4-3. Their victory was9-7 over the New York Giants 9-7, when light-hitting shortstop Saburo Hirai hit a two-run homer.

The visitors must have learned something, because they went home and won the pennant by 16 games. Otomo won 27 and lost seven in the short (130-game) season, plus three more wins in the Japan Series.

As a Korean vet stationed in Tokyo, I and spent many an evening that summer at Tokyo’s Korakuen Stadium.

My favorite player was a lanky young lefty, Shoichi Kaneda. He had a good fastball and curve with a smooth slide step delivery and played for the last-place Swallows, who usually won about 54 games a year -- 27 of them by Kaneda.

Kaneda also had a temper, which was unusual for a Japanese (he was actually Korean and thus subject to discrimination from Japanese players and fans). He's the only player I saw who would argue when his manager came out to the mound. “He was his own manager,” laughs the New York Giants’ Daryl Spencer, who later played in the Japanese leagues. He remembers seeing Kaneda warm up on the sidelines, then stride to mound and tell the startled hurler to go sit down.

Kaneda wanted to play in the States, but the language barrier was a problem, and Harada counseled him to stay in Japan. He went on to win 400 games, mostly with the lowly Swallows, and strike out 4,000 men. He broke Walter Johnson’s world strikeout record and held it until Nolan Ryan broke his. The achievement is recognized Cooperstown, where his glove is on permanent display.

Another of my favorites was an American – centerfielder Wally Yonamine (Yo-na-mi-nay), the “Nisei Jim Thorpe,” who wore glasses but also played pro football with the 49ers. Harada signed Wally for the Tokyo Giants, and he led the Japanese league in batting three times -- Billy Loes of the Dodgers once called him the toughest man he ever pitched to when they were both in the Western States League. However, Japanese considered Wally a "dirty" player because of the way he slid into second to break up the double play.

Clean-up hitter Tetsuharu Kawakami was nick-named "the Lou Gehrig of Japan" by Americans and “the god of batting” by the Japanese. He was the first Japanese to hit 25 homers in a year. Although he hit only six in 1953, he could still beat the visitors in a home run hitting contest.

That October Lefty and DiMag came back to Tokyo with Joe’s new bride, Marilyn Monroe, plus Leo Durocher’s New York Giants, who had finished second in the National League . After watching the Japanese play each other all season, it was a shock to see the American catcher get up from his crouch and stand head and shoulders above the batter.

The Americans easily walked over the Japanese, mostly by blowout scores. They can't do that any more, but half a century ago, if you wanted to root for the underdog, you rooted for the Japanese.

However, the visitors had a close call before they scored three runs off Kaneda in relief for a 3-2 victory.

I recall Leo conducting pre-game instructions, ordering the Japanese players around like high school kids before a big crowd in Korakuen.

The next morning I called him at Tokyo’s venerable Imperial Hotel and received a sultry hello from his wife, movie star Lorraine Day. When Leo took the phone, I stammered as tactfully as possible that these players were big stars and perhaps he might modify his approach. Leo exploded and suggested several anatomically challenging places I could put my advice.

In the next game coach Freddie Fitzsimmons conducted a clinic on the pitching mound. One intent listener was Otomo, who would pair off against Giant hurler Al Worthington in the game. Durocher, on the third base coaching line, cupped his hands and called to his runner to go down on the next pitch. Catcher Jyun Hirota threw him out by a mile -- Leo didn’t know Jyun was a graduate of the University of Hawaii.

Meanwhile, O'Doul sat on the Tokyo bench calling high and low pitches while Hirota set the target inside or out. Otomo got ahead of the hitters and had the Americans popping up or hitting balls into the ground. “They must have had a good book on me,” Spencer laughs, “I struck out four times.”

At the end of eight innings the score was 1-1, and Hoyt Wilhelm, the future Hall of Fame reliever, came in. Their nemesis, Hirai, lined a knuckleball into the leftfield bleachers for a 2-1 triumph. Giant owner Horace Stoneham tried to buy Otomo’s contract, but he wasn’t for sale.

O’Doul would return often to Tokyo until his death in 1969, spurred by a love of baseball – and a purported romance with a brown-eyed geisha he met in 1951. Lefty disagreed with most Americans, who said the Japanese could pitch and field but couldn’t hit. According to O’Doul, Japanese hitters needed only to be more aggressive.

Lefty “was a genius in spotting talent,” Harada says. He took a look at one hard-drinking young pitcher and announced, “This guy isn’t a pitcher, he’d be a great hitter.” He turned out to be right – the boy was Sadaharu Oh.

Meantime, in the winter of 1952 I sat cross-legged at a low table, wrapped in a haori, or house jacket, typing Japan Is Big League in Thrills, the first book ever done on the subject in English.

It seemed a little foolhardy to predict that Japanese would be playing in the major leagues within a generation, but by 1964 Harada signed a kid pitcher named Masanori Murakami to a San Francisco Giants minor league contract.

“He came to camp and right away made a big hit,” Cappy says. Fans and players liked the way he swept off his cap off and bowed to each teammate who made a good play behind him. He was so good that the Giants brought him up at the end of the year as a reliever, and he quickly became a hit with the many Nisei in the Bay area. He struck out 15 men in 15 innings, with an ERA of 1.80, won one game and saved another.

Next spring Murakami returned to the Giants, won four and lost one with nine saves.

The Japanese promptly demanded that the Americans send him back. They also demanded a hands-off policy that would keep their stars at home, an agreement that lasted 30 years.

Harada, now 82, still plays golf twice a week, has written a book in Japanese, “Bridges Across the Pacific,” and consults with Japanese firms on opening doors in this country.

Incidentally, one black American G.I. left a son in Japan. The boy, Sachio Kinugasa, grew up to hit 504 homers and break Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-game playing streak. In 1996 he sailed to the land of his father to see Cal Ripken break his mark.

Holway/Lefty O'Doul

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