Getting to know Sadaharu Oh

5 Jan

Long before Curt Schillling’s bloody sock there was Sadaharu Oh’s bloody hand. Oh was pitching for the Koshien high school championship in 1957 in front of a crowd of 60,000 spectators cheering wildly. The blisters on his pitching hand had long since rubbed raw and blood stained the baseball. Oh kept going despite the pain to win the game and briefly become a national sports icon. He is selected to represent Japan in the National Athletic Games, but suddenly falls into disfavor when it is discovered he is the son of a Japanese mother and Chinese father and therefore not “Japanese enough” to represent his nation. So began the legend of Oh.

Sadaharu Oh was born on May, 20, 1940 in Sumida, Tokyo, Japan to his adoring parents who like all parents felt their child was destined for something special. Oh didn’t disappoint them going on to join the NPL (Nippon Professional League) in 1959 at the age of 19. Initially it looked like he wasn’t going to make it when they decided that despite his stellar high school performance as a pitcher he wasn’t good enough for the pro level at that position. The choice was made to move him to first base where he struggle mightily despite putting in hours of extra practice each day. He finished that first season hitting only .161 with seven home runs and felt very fortunate to get a second chance the next year.Over the off-season, Oh met with a samurai who changed his batting stance to one in which the left handed hitting Oh raised his right leg before swinging. It changed his life and history forever.

The following season Oh improved his defense and raised his average to ,270 with 17 homers and 71 RBI’s which was enough to prove he merited a place on the Yomiuri Giants. It wasn’t until 1963 however that he really broke out and began an eight season streak in which he hit at least .300, pounded out 40 or more homers, drove in over a hundred runs, and in seven of those season he also scored 100 or more runs. In 1967 he just missed scoring 100 runs crossing the plate only 94 times. The memorable season however is 1964 when he slugged his way to a record 55 home runs in one season, an NPL record which will be discussed later in depth to to it’s significance and controversy.

All told, Oh went on to play 2,831 regular season games in which he compiled a stat line which is beyond impressive, it is legendary. Oh scored 1.967 runs, drove in another 2,170, collected 2,390 walks, 5,862 total bases, a career .634 slugging percentage, and of course 868 home runs. Each of those totals ranks number one all time in the NPL. His 2,786 hits and 422 doubles each rank third all-time, while his .301 batting average is 14th on the all-time list. Oh did everything at the plate and id it well. Upon his retirement he was a 15 time All-Star, 9 time MVP, 9 Japan Series Crowns (World Series equivalent), and the world home run Leader having eclipsed Hank Aaron on September 3, 1977.

When his playing days ended, Oh went on to manage the Yomiuri Giants from 1984-1988. He became the manager, general manager, and vice president of the Fukoka Hawks in 1995, remaining in place officially until 2008. In 2007 he did announce he would leave the game indefinitely when he underwent a gastroectomy. Before doing so he managed the 2006 Japanese National team to the first WBC title ever.

As was stated earlier, Oh’s home run legacy fell under great scrutiny due to some overt nationalism which caused an uproar in the sports world and soiled his reputation forever to some degree. His single season record of 55 home runs has been challenged three times but never broken. In 1985, 2001, and 2002, a foreign born player challenged the record. In 1985 Randy Bass reached 54 homers, Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes reached 55 in 2001, and Alex Cabrera likewise got to 55 in 2002. Aside for almost breaking the record and being foreign born, they shared tow more similarities; each had to play a team manged by Oh late in the season with the record on the line, and in each instance all pitchers refused to throw them anything that was remotely hittable.

It became so blatantly obvious what was happening that Bass often stood at the plate gripping the barrel of his bat rather than the handle to show his disrespect and knowledge of what was happening. Fans roundly booed him as they did Rhodes and Cabreara feeling any foreign born player breaking such a “sacred” record would soil the game. When Rhodes challenged the record, Oh’s pitching coach admitted openly he instructed his pitchers to not throw anything he could hit or they would face fines and/or suspension. Wakanara (Oh’s pitching coach) stated; “I just didn’t want a foreign player to break Oh’s record.” When Gonzalez challenged the following year it was more of the same.

Pitchers on Oh’s team openly stated later they wanted to throw strikes and play the game right. They never got the chance, the record was never broken, and as such Oh’s legacy and greed to protect his record soiled his international reputation, as a competitor, sportsman, and person. The record has since been tabbed as number two on the list of sports phoniest record s of all-time.

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