Some years ago Casey Stengel put down Japanese baseball by saying, "They're trying to play ball over there with little fingers." But last week Japan's best team, the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, finished a six-game tour of Florida by playing American teams to a standstill, three games to three, and in Arizona Japan's second-best team, the Tokyo Lotte Orions, had victories over the Cubs, the Angels and the Athletics. Talk was that it wouldn't be many years before Japan would be truly major league—either by being expanded into, as California and Canada have been, or by having its champion play in an international World Series. American baseball men are well aware that in 65 home games last year the Yomiuri Giants outdrew the Los Angeles Dodgers, who played 81 home games, by 809,858. The 1962 Dodgers set the American attendance record by drawing an average of 33,193 fans per game; the 1970 Yomiuris averaged 38,568. Baseball tickets in Japan cost about the same as in the U.S., and far fewer of them go unsold. It's enough to make a man think big.
For the last 10 or 15 years Japanese players have come to U.S. training camps the way Latin American military officers visit the U.S. War College. But this spring was the first time that full Japanese teams came over to play exhibition games with American major league clubs, and the Yomiuris-Orioles game March 11 was the first meeting in this country between reigning U.S. and Japanese champions.
Baltimore won 6-4 and left no doubt that its claim to the championship of the world was warranted, even though the Orioles were aided by an obstruction call against the Yomiuris' 5'6" shortstop, Yukinobu Kuroe, which seemed to strike the crowd in Miami Stadium as petty. On the other hand, the Japanese got away with batting men out of turn. Estimates of how many varied, but one of them was definitely Koji Ano, who had earlier pinch-hit for Kazumi Takahashi and then replaced Masahiko Mori defensively. Why the umpires can't keep these things straight is inexplicable.
Before the game the Yomiuri party, which included 31 newsmen, was awed by the phenomenon of Boog Powell, who was later described proudly by Pitcher Takahashi as not only the biggest man he had ever seen but also the biggest man he had ever struck out. "American baseball is power," observed Coach Shigeru Makino. "Japanese people is small." "Sumo," said a Japanese player, pointing to the hulking Powell.
Boog posed for the press with Sadaharu Oh, who is known as "The Babe Ruth of Japan" (Oh, when asked if he was known as the Babe Ruth of Japan in Japan, smiled as though acknowledging an excellent question and said no). Oh felt the 6'4" Powell's biceps, then Powell's massive hand encased the 5'10" Oh's biceps.
"He makes more money than I do," Powell said.
"Forty-seven home run," said Oh, in explanation. That was how many he hit last year—12 more than Powell.
Oh, a smooth-swinging, left-handed hitter and first baseman, is of Chinese parentage. Someone said that in Chinese Oh means "one," which is the number on his back and also his teammates' name for him. In Japanese, says publicity man Yosho Ono, "Oh" has the same meaning as in English, so headlines on the order of "Oh You Oh" abound.
As a rookie Oh got started the way Willie Mays did—he went 0 for 35 before he got his first hit, a home run. Soon after that, at the suggestion of a coach, he began to lift up his right leg at the beginning of his swing. Mel Ott, the New York Giant Hall of Famer who hit 511 home runs, used to do the same thing. Although Oh failed to hit a homer in Florida, he impressed American observers as a first-rate power hitter, and Americans who have played in Japan say that when Oh hits a home run it is usually of international status.
Through an interpreter Oh revealed that all but two or three of his teammates could beat him at arm wrestling and that all his power was in his legs and hips. When word of that disclosure reached Ted Williams in Pompano Beach, Williams was delighted. He spent the next few days citing Oh in support of his own long-held convictions about the importance of the hips in the swing. Oh makes more than $100,000 a year—his older teammate, Third Baseman Shigeo Nagashima, is paid $130,000—and he is regarded as a national hero.