Home run king and gentleman

Times Staff Writer

IT is four hours before the night’s first pitch will be thrown and Sadaharu Oh is already in his temple, standing behind the batting cage simulating a hitter’s swing, talking religion. Oh’s house of worship is a ballpark -- any ballpark will do, but in this case it’s the Fukuoka Dome in southern Japan where he is manager of the Softbank Hawks -- and his temporal faith follows the scripture on hitting a baseball.

“It’s all about bat speed and how sharply you swing,” he says, explaining why batters don’t need Popeye arms, a Schwarzenegger chest or a vial of pharmaceuticals to hit home runs. “Bigger players tend to put more emphasis on power instead of technique. But for smaller players, the ball flies as long as you hit the sweet spot.”

Oh knows the feeling. In his days as a player with the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants from 1959 to 1980, he hit more home runs than any professional player who has ever stepped into a batter’s box: 868. More than Babe Ruth (714), more than Hank Aaron (755), and probably more than whatever number San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds -- who at 751 is closing in on Aaron’s Major League Baseball record -- finishes with.

And though there are Japanese fans who say Oh’s 868 should be recognized as the true home run record, Oh is having none of it.


“I am the man who hit the most home runs -- in Japan,” he says diplomatically. “The Japanese media want to describe me as the true record holder. But I never considered myself that way.”

The answer is characteristically humble from a man whose public persona could be described as the anti-Bonds. Oh is revered by fans and is unfailingly polite, even with a media he thinks often oversteps its bounds. He is an ambassador for his sport who, along with Aaron, founded the World Children’s Baseball Fair, which for 17 years has brought kids from five continents together for a week of baseball clinics and a cross-cultural exchange.

Even in the age of Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka -- the current generation of Japanese stars who have made the Pacific crossing for stardom and riches in America’s major leagues -- the 67-year-old Oh continues to be a public face of Japanese baseball.

After laying down his bat at home plate and walking off the field in a dramatic farewell in 1980, Oh became a successful manager with the Giants -- Japan’s New York Yankees -- then the Hawks, a second career that reached another peak in the spring of 2006 when he managed Japan’s national team to victory in the inaugural World Baseball Classic.


Shortly after the tournament ended, Oh was diagnosed with cancer, and his entire stomach was removed. He vowed to those who sent get-well cards that he would soon be back on the diamond. Within months he was managing again, sometimes requiring an intravenous tube for sustenance in the dugout.

“I know I’ll never fully recover,” he says now, noticeably thinner than a year ago but still vigorous. “My brain remembers what it’s like to have an appetite. But I can only eat little by little.”

His extraordinary life story makes Oh a national treasure in a country where, also remarkably, he has never been a citizen and which is notoriously lukewarm -- or worse -- toward its minorities. He was born in wartime Japan to a Chinese immigrant father and a Japanese mother. His father was imprisoned by Japanese authorities for part of the war. And as a teenager, Oh’s mixed heritage barred him from a national youth tournament for not being “pure Japanese.” Because of nationality laws at the time of his birth, he carries a Taiwanese passport. Yet he expresses no resentment over the discrimination he and his family faced.

“I don’t have bitter memories,” he says. “I heard my father was put in a prison camp, but I don’t remember it at all. I actually have good memories of the postwar period because the Japanese people were a defeated nation and my father was from a country that was on the winning side. So we were provided with plenty of food and candies.”

He says he never felt the need to change nationalities.

“Everybody knows I am not Japanese, so I didn’t find it necessary,” he says. “It was my choice, my will.

“I feel lucky,” he says.

IN a sport obsessed with statistics, Oh’s 868 does not resonate with American baseball fans, is never mentioned alongside magic numbers such as the 56 of Joe DiMaggio’s consecutive game hitting streak, or Ruth’s 714 that was the gold standard for home run hitters until Aaron smashed it on his way to 755.


But Oh argues that the true measure of greatness is how a player performs in his era.

“You can’t compare unless you are playing in the same conditions,” he says. “The best measure is how much of a gap you can create between people playing in the same period,” and by that standard he calls Ruth baseball’s true home run king.

“What was great about Babe Ruth is that he hit so many home runs at a time when other players hit so few,” Oh says.

Yet unlike Aaron, Oh is ready to acknowledge Bonds -- dogged by allegations of steroid use -- as the American record holder if and when he passes 755. Aaron has been openly disdainful of the man about to break his mark. He says he will not be in attendance to watch Bonds go by and has professed such indifference to the challenger that he facetiously told reporters that he did not know how to spell Bonds’ name.

But Oh, though he says steroid use should be condemned, notes that Bonds, even if he did use them, still had to hit the home runs to reach the record. Oh complains that the media have focused unfairly on illegal substances after the home-run-derby years of the1990s when everyone in the sport turned a blind eye to steroid use.

“Yes, I feel sorry for him,” Oh says of Bonds. “At that time, steroids were not banned. Did all players who took steroids hit more home runs?

“Of course they’re not a good thing, and young players should be told they’re bad,” he says. "[Bonds] made a mistake, and he has to accept that steroids will follow him the rest of his life. But I suppose he’s not taking them now, and he’s still hitting home runs at age what, 43, 44?” (Bonds turns 43 this month.)

“You can’t change what happened in the past. And the fact is: He hit those home runs,” Oh says.


Oh’s power came from something considered unnatural in its day: his swing. During an exhibition tour to Japan by the Dodgers in 1961, Oh got a look at Frank Howard, who attacked the ball the same way -- but was a 6-foot-7, 250-pound goliath. The Japanese slugger realized his physical limitations.

“If that was what it took to be an authentic home run hitter, I never really would match up,” Oh wrote in his candid 1984 biography, “A Zen Way of Baseball.” “But as I had no way of being transformed into a physical giant, I was left with what I was.”

At the time, Oh was on the verge of being a professional washout. He had established himself in his first three seasons as a minor celebrity who partied hard into the Tokyo night and a batter whom pitchers found deliciously easy to strike out.

Facing an early end to a promising career, Oh placed his future in the hands of Hiroshi Arakawa, a hitting instructor and philosophical mentor who brought the discipline of martial arts to Oh’s hitting approach. Arakawa decided Oh needed to program a pause into his swing, and the result was a singular, flamingo-like batting stance.

Highlight reels from the 1960s and ‘70s show the left-handed-hitting Oh waiting for pitches with his right leg poised above the ground like a man caught in a minefield, followed by a swift, short slash of the bat as he uncoiled through the strike zone.

“He could stand in that position on one leg and you couldn’t push him over, his balance was so good,” says Wally Yonamine, the Hawaiian-born star with the Giants whose career was ending as Oh’s took off.

The newfound source of power sent baseballs jumping off Oh’s bat and out of ballparks. He went on to lead the Japan leagues in home runs for 15 of his 22 seasons, including 13 in a row.

It was Arakawa who set Oh to believing at the time he could break Ruth’s record.

“I had never thought about it at all,” Oh says. “I was looking at hitting 100 or 200 home runs, but he set the bar higher. He told me the number. And from then on it was printed in a corner of my brain.”

JAPAN’S victory in the World Baseball Classic was an enormous morale boost at home for a sport that has been under pressure here in recent years.

Star players have left Japan to test themselves against the world’s best in Major League Baseball, soccer has emerged as a competing magnet for young athletes, and Japan’s professional teams have been unable to shake off the cobwebs of complacency to modernize their game.

Amid the gloom, a team of Japan’s best survived a rocky start in the preliminary rounds of the Classic to reach the final and defeat Cuba, 10-6.

To some, the result offered vindication for Japanese baseball, long dismissed in the U.S. as an inferior brand of the American pastime. The sport, transplanted more than a century ago, developed its own aesthetic in Japan, a “small ball” game suited to the smaller physical build of the players, which saw more emphasis on singles hitting and sacrifice bunting than slugging.

But Oh, whose records were always discounted by American fans as the product of a minor league, does not invoke the Classic victory to claim Japanese superiority or even equality with Major League Baseball. He even says winning was not really the point.

“Our aim was to expand baseball in the world, to show that baseball is not only played in one part of the world but in a wider area,” he says.

He is among the optimists who see China as baseball’s next frontier, believing that Major League Baseball’s nascent investment there will produce Chinese players in the U.S. before long.

There is still a touch of the traditionalist about Oh. He manages according to the tough Japanese code that occasionally sees managers pull players out of a game mid-inning for making egregious mistakes.

But Oh is not among those who lament the exodus of Japanese stars to the U.S. Given the chance, he says, he too would have liked to have faced major league pitching.

“It was impossible during my time, but sure, I would have tried if I’d had the chance,” he says. “It’s natural that one wants to climb a higher mountain if it’s there.” He figures he would have hit 30 homers a year in the American majors.

And so he goes on, baseball at the center of it all. Oh has three daughters; his wife, Kyoko, died of stomach cancer in 2001. (Her ashes were mysteriously stolen a year later and haven’t been recovered). Baseball sustains him, friends say. He talks about the sport with an enthusiasm that would embarrass those players who make it look as if they are doing fans a favor by showing up at the park.

“I was away from baseball for six years, but I was bored,” he says before heading back to the field, where he is soon demonstrating to another player how to move his hands through the strike zone. “I traveled, visited Russia, Canada, Italy. But I never got the satisfaction I did with baseball.

“I enjoy the fascination of the games,” he says. “Nothing can replace this.”