August 15, 1977
It is as revered in the Far East as it is in Far Rockaway, N.Y., a cause for celebration whether your game is baseball or beseboru. "Whether you're in America or Japan," says Sadaharu Oh, "the home run is the ultimate challenge."
Oh in Japanese means "king," which describes the 58-year-old Oh's rank among the nobility of home run hitters. He hit 868 homers in his 22-year career with the Yomiuri Giants of Tokyo, including 55 in 1964 to set the Japanese single-season record. Oh developed his lefthanded stroke by repeatedly swinging a samurai sword until he could cut a straw doll in half with one slice. On Sept. 3, 1977, he delivered his most memorable blow. Swinging from his familiar flamingo stance—his right foot aloft as he awaited the pitch—he supplanted Henry Aaron as the world's alltime sayonara leader when he deposited number 756 into the rightfield bleachers of Tokyo's Koraku-en Stadium.
Oh retired in 1980 and became the manager of the Giants in '84. Though he guided his club to a Japan Series appearance in '87, he resigned after five seasons. Following a stint as a television analyst, he returned to the field in '95 to manage the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. He and his wife, Kyoko, who have three adult daughters, live in Fukuoka.
With the exploits of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa being played up on the front pages of Japan's dailies and on NHK-TV, Oh followed this year's home run chase as if he lived on Waveland Avenue. "The games were on television very early in the morning, so they were hard to watch," he says. "But I always checked the highlights." He is convinced that McGwire, despite his sumo wrestler-like strength, would never hit 70 homers in Japan. "Pitchers wouldn't go right at him," says Oh, who had 2,504 bases on balls during his career. "I think Mark would be very frustrated here." He thinks McGwire, who was walked 162 times this season, could have received at least 200 free passes from Japanese pitchers.
Whenever Oh is interviewed by a Western journalist, he's asked to partake in the parlor game of imagining how he would have fared against the likes of Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan. "Out of four levels, my fielding at first base would have been top-level, but my hitting would have been just second-level," Oh says. "American stadiums are much bigger, and everything about the game is faster. I was a fastball hitter, so it would have been quite a challenge. But I would have liked to have tried."