Why Oh’s Home Run Record Stands

In the third of a three-part series in the Japan Times on the remarkable baseball career of Sadaharu Oh, Robert Whiting reveals another reason why nobody in Japan has been able to break Oh’s record of 55 home runs in one season.

The one big black mark on Sadaharu Oh’s reputation was, of course, the unsportsmanlike behavior of the pitchers on his team whenever foreign batsmen threatened his single season home run record of 55.

The phenomenon had first surfaced in 1985, when American Randy Bass playing for the Hanshin Tigers, who went into the last game of the season — against the Oh-managed Giants at Korakuen Stadium — with 54 home runs.

Bass was walked intentionally four times on four straight pitches and would have been walked a fifth, had he not reached out and poked a pitch far outside the plate into the outfield.

Oh denied ordering his pitchers to walk Bass, but Keith Comstock, an American pitcher for Yomiuri reported afterward that a certain Giants coach imposed a fine of $1,000 for every strike Giants pitchers threw to Bass….

A replay of the Bass episode came during the 2001 season. American Tuffy Rhodes, playing for the Kintetsu Buffaloes, threatened Oh’s record.

With several games left in the season, Rhodes hit the 55 mark. But during a late season weekend series in Fukuoka, pitchers on the Hawks refused to throw strikes to Rhodes and catcher Kenji Johjima could be seen grinning during the walks.

Again Oh denied any involvement in their actions and Hawks battery coach Yoshiharu Wakana admitted the pitchers had acted on his orders.

“It would be distasteful to see a foreign player break Oh’s record,” he told reporters….

A second replay occurred in 2002, when Venezuelan Alex Cabrera also hit 55 home runs, tying Oh (and Rhodes) with five games left to play in the season. Oh commanded his pitchers not to repeat their behavior of the previous year, but, not surprisingly, most of them ignored him. There was more condemnation from the public, but, curiously, not from Oh, who simply shrugged and said, “If you’re going to break the record, you should do it by more than one. Do it by a lot.”

Such behavior led an ESPN critic to call Oh’s record “one of the phoniest in baseball.”

In Oh’s defense, there was probably nothing he could have done to prevent his pitchers from acting as they did. Feelings about “gaijin” aside, it was (and still is) common practice for teams to take such action to protect a teammate’s record or title….

Still, amid all the fuss about protectionism in baseball, it is noteworthy that no one in the Japanese game ever sees fit to mention the fact that Oh hit most of his home runs using rock hard, custom-made compressed bats.

A batter using a compressed bat, it was said, could propel a ball farther than he can with an ordinary bat. Compressed bats were illegal in the MLB when Oh was playing in Japan, and were outlawed by the NPB in 1982 after Oh retired, but well before Bass, Rhodes and Cabrera had Japan visas stamped into their passports.

One of the enduring ironies, of course, is that Oh was born a Japanese citizen in Taiwan in 1940, but became a citizen of the Republic of China after Japan lost the war in 1945. His name is variously rendered as 王貞治, Wang Chenchih, Wáng Zhēnzhì, or Ō Sadaharu.

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Filed under baseball, Japan, nationalism, U.S.

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