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One Swallow is making a summer of baseball history in Japan. He is Masaichi Kaneda, lanky left-handed pitcher for Tokyo's Kokutetsu Swallows, and U.S. major leaguers touring Japan think he might yet make his way in big-time American baseball. At 31, Kaneda has become the winningest pitcher in Japan's pro baseball history. He is having one of his best—and busiest—years, knocking off 22 victories for the Swallows by the end of July. He has been saving face for his team for the past 14 seasons, and the face of the Swallows needs a lot of saving. They usually hover close to the bottom of the six-team Central League. Even with Kaneda they made first division only once (third in 1961). They have finished fourth four times, fifth five times, and an ignominious last the rest of the time.
But Kaneda's skill and versatility, and his liveliness as a character, seem to make up to Japanese fans for the undistinguished record of the Kokutetsu Swallows. In a country where pitchers throw hardly anything but curve balls, Kaneda has a rip-roaring fast ball with a hop to it, a sharp-breaking sinker, and an assortment of curves and changeups that have batters popping up constantly. He supplies drama even when the play has an unhappy ending, and the fans have made him something of a national hero, comparable in Japanese affections to Taiho, the sumo (wrestling) champion. Kaneda is the highest paid player in Japanese baseball, earning an estimated $60,000 a year.
He was born in Nagoya of Korean parentage but early in life became a naturalized Japanese. He started playing baseball in high school in Nagoya and left school to join the Swallows late in the 1950 season.
Kaneda holds almost every pitching record in Japanese baseball. By August he had appeared in more games (750) than any other pitcher, hurled more innings (4,491), and struck out more batters (3,736), the latter figure far surpassing Walter Johnson's Stateside mark of 3,497. He holds the single-season strikeout record (350 in 1955) and the single-game strikeout mark (15 in 1952 and again in 1954). In 1958 he strung together a record 64? scoreless innings. In 1955 he pitched a record 34 complete games. Used as both starter and clutch reliever, Kaneda has won 20 games or more in each of the past 12 seasons and hit a high of 31 in 1958. He also has one no-hitter to his credit.
In June he tied the record of Takehiko Bessho, now retired, who used to pitch for the Yomiuri Giants and who won 310 games in 17 years of playing with the hardest-hitting team in Japan. But the historic No. 311 proved hard to come by. He tried first against the Taiyo Whales and lost a 2-1 decision on a couple of feeble ground singles in the eighth inning. After an unusual three-day rest (he usually starts every third game, relieves in between) he tried again at his hometown, Nagoya, against the Chunichi Dragons. It was a stifling hot night with the temperature in the 90s. Again his teammates let him down. One run was scored when a Kokutetsu outfielder lost an easy fly ball in the lights, and the winning Dragon run in a 5-4 decision reached base on an infield error.
Just two nights later, this time in relief against the Hiroshima Carp in Tokyo, Kaneda tried again. His effort was nigh perfect. He pitched the last four innings, struck out seven batters, walked nobody, allowed only two singles. For a change he got some hitting support, and Kokutetsu came from behind for an 8-4 victory. Winding it up with a flourish, Kaneda struck out Hiroshima Third Baseman Tatsuo Okitsu with a blazing fast ball.
Having run out of records to break in Japan, Kaneda is now eying Stateside records. His next goal is to surpass Warren Spahn and become the winningest pro left-hander in the world. Says Kaneda, "It shouldn't be too difficult. Spahn is ageless, but at 42 how much time has he got left? I am still young and feel fine." Kaneda figures that if he can last as long as Spahn and maintain his current pace, he can top Cy Young's alltime record of 511 victories. He leads both Japanese pro leagues (Central and Pacific) in victories, strikeouts, appearances, complete games and innings pitched. His earned-run average (1.65) is best in either league. Since he joined the Swallows, Kaneda has scored 45% of his team's victories, saved an estimated 20% more in relief. Kaneda's career won-lost record is now 318-247, and his career earned-run average is 2.23.
Last fall, when the Detroit Tigers were in Japan on an exhibition junket, Bob Scheffing said: "I'll take him right now and put him in my starting rotation." Kaneda is flattered by all this but does not really think he could make it. "Oh, I'd last a while," he says, "but not long. I've seen American baseball, and the emphasis is too much on the fast ball. A pitcher throws his arm out in a relatively short time. Here we throw many fewer fast balls, only enough to vary the basic routine of curves, sliders and sinker pitches. Pitchers last longer. I feel as though I could go on for at least 10 more seasons. I'd like to match Cy Young's record, and in Japan I think I can make it. It would be a great honor to pitch in the American major leagues, but there is more to be gained here. And I feel I owe something to Japanese baseball, which has been so good to me."
On the mound Kaneda looks thoroughly professional. He pitches rapidly and shakes his left wrist between pitches to keep it loose. Each inning he starts his warmup routine by strolling halfway back to second base and beginning his warmups from there with long hard throws, advancing a few feet for each pitch until, after three throws, he has reached the mound.
American players who have batted against Kaneda all agree he is major league caliber. Jim Marshall, now with the Chunichi Dragons, says, "I've seen faster pitchers back home but none that are more consistently hard to hit. He moves the ball real well and his sinker is the best I've ever seen." Bob Nieman, who is also with the Dragons, adds, "Just ask Mickey Mantle about Kaneda. The last time the Yankees were here in Japan on tour, Kaneda fanned him eight or 10 times and Mantle was muttering all winter long."