Aaron: "You think you can do that without a cue card?"
"Gom-bah-tay," said Aaron, confidently.
Aaron was cool.
Just how significant he considered the contest could be deduced from the fact
that he had brought no bats across the Pacific with him. In the morning he had
taken 10 minutes of preliminary batting practice, using two of Oh's bats and
cracking one. Then he borrowed one of Kranepool's 220-A Adirondack Bat Company
models. It is an ounce lighter and half an inch longer than Aaron's 34-ounce,
35-inch personalized bat, but "the handle feels good," said Henry. To a
ballplayer, grip comfort is important.
The next item was
the selection of pitchers. Met Coaches Rube Walker and Joe Pignatano split the
warmup pitching to Aaron, and Henry decided that Pignatano's delivery, more
overhanded, was better suited to the background. Mr. Oh, a lefty hitter,
loyally stayed with Kiniyasu Mine, regular right-handed batting-practice
pitcher for the Yomiuri Giants.
In his 16 seasons
with the Giants, Oh has hit 634 home runs. Oh is 34 and intends playing six
more seasons. He has been averaging well over 40 home runs a year. It does not
take a computer to figure that by 1980 he could soar past Aaron's ultimate
total. What then? Is the world to recognize Sadaharu Oh as the greatest
home-run hitter who ever lived? Would Henry Aaron then be willing to concede
Not on your
teriyaki. "That would be totally unfounded," said Aaron, when asked the
hypothetical question. "I don't think there's any comparison with the home
runs he hits here and the ones I hit in the States."
The ball parks in
Japan are smaller, the fences shorter. At Korakuen Stadium, the big one, it is
90 meters down each line, 292.5 feet. On the other hand, the regular season is
only 130 games, compared to 162 in the States. Additionally, Oh is walked 150
to 160 times a year, mostly intentionally, so he has about half as many at bats
If all this
sounds reminiscent of the Aaron-Ruth controversy that raged around Henry's
assault on the Babe's total, that's not the half of the irony. Sadaharu Oh's
father came from China. (Chinese were brought to Japan a generation ago to do
the menial work.) Socially, it has been an ordeal for Oh to establish his
greatness. It must amuse Henry Aaron when he recalls the reluctance of
Ruthophiles to accept a black man as the new home-run king.
Sadaharu Oh is
the reincarnation of Mel Ott with high cheekbones. He cocks his front leg in an
exaggerated lift as the pitcher releases the ball. He is not big (5'10",
174 pounds) but is powerful, and he has a magnificently fluid home-run stroke.
He won the toss and was first up. The format had been agreed upon: each man
would hit 20 fair balls, alternating in five-swing segments.
Oh drove three of
his first five balls high and far into the seats in right, and some 50,000 fans
cheered, and some 50,000 cameras clicked.