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Move over for Oh-san
Frank Deford
August 15, 1977
Sadaharu Oh's hokey-pokey, bat-on-helmet style may look funny, but any day now Japan's national hero should break Henry Aaron's home run record
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August 15, 1977

Move Over For Oh-san

Sadaharu Oh's hokey-pokey, bat-on-helmet style may look funny, but any day now Japan's national hero should break Henry Aaron's home run record

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Illegal sign-stealing is fairly common in Japan. To hear it, half the population has binoculars zeroed in on the catchers. Last year the Hiroshima Toyo Carp found an effective new way to pirate signs, but this bountiful gift was withheld not only from the two Americans on the team but also from a player who was half-Japanese.

In a sense, then, Mister Oh's rise to national eminence is all the more impressive, inasmuch as he has had to overcome a cultural disadvantage. Yet he has no intention of becoming a Japanese citizen. "Everybody knows I'm Chinese, so what's the sense of becoming Japanese?" he says. "By not having to vote I can think about baseball more." Ah so.

And yet, whatever Oh's heritage may have cost him, his affiliation with the Giants has profited him tenfold. It is difficult for an American to understand the exalted position of the Giants. The Japanese prize harmony, consensus, and the Giants certainly satisfy this need, diamondwise. Essentially, the other 11 teams in the two leagues serve as foils for the beloved Giants. Almost every Giant game is televised nationally—and damn the local gate. A kids' TV cartoon show features the Giants. The Giants may be the only Japanese club to make money. The Pacific League is, to experts, clearly superior to the Central, on the order of our National to American, but the Central outdraws the Pacific three to one.

With nearly 3 million home attendance last year, the Giants almost matched the entire Pacific League. Mister Oh and his colleagues average 45,000 a game at Koraku-en, their home park, which they share with the Pacific League Ham Fighters, who draw 13,600 a game. The stadium was constructed before the "Pacific War" (the Second World War is something else again, it seems, involving a fellow named Hitler and an altogether different bunch), but unlike most of the antiquated parks in the two leagues, Koraku-en is clean and modern, with artificial turf and a $1 million scoreboard that lights up GO! GO! and whatnot. Bright banners and carp streamers wave, pom-pon girls dance on the dugout roof to encourage the shy Japanese to vent their emotions, and vendors hawk everything from noodles to Scotch. The wonder is the Giants ever lose.

In point of fact, from 1965 through 1973 they won nine straight Japan Series. The Giants slipped a bit in '74, finishing second, and when Nagashima retired at the end of that season, going out in a hail of flower bouquets, he was named manager. This proved to be catastrophic. The Giants tumbled to the cellar, and Oh, pressing to help his friend and manager, hit only 33 home runs, failing to win the title for the first time in more than a decade. Coming off two consecutive Triple Crowns, his .285 and 96 RBIs also seemed disgraceful, and he agreed to a pay cut to certify his abject failure. "I saw myself as the main engine," he laments now, "and when things went bad, I felt more irritated, more responsible—and it went on like that, a vicious circle."

Because the Giants' prowess is in real measure a cornerstone of Japanese popular culture, their nosedive became nearly symbolic of national failure. Attendance improved as people thronged the parks to sympathize with poor Nagashima and poor Oh and to cheer them up. Heartened, the Giants bounced back to win another pennant in '76, with Mister Oh leading the league with 49 homers and 123 RBIs while hitting .325. And the beat goes on. This year the Giants are 7� games in front, and Mister Oh has 26 more homers and a .296 batting average.

Given the historical imperatives of the Giants, it should not come as a total shock to learn that the more cynical experts—that is, 98% of them—believe the Giants obtain the benefit of the doubt. Clyde Wright freely admits that he agreed to play in Japan when American players assured him he would get a larger strike zone pitching for the Giants; he allows that he has not been disappointed in this regard. The Japanese respect authority, of course, but they prefer negotiated group decisions; the arbitrary authority vested in one man, an umpire, nettles them. As a consequence, Japanese umpires tend to be wishy-washy sorts who want to harmonize with the will of the public, which is that the Giants win. Mister Oh let it slip once that he got four strikes each time up, and while he denies that remark now, he probably does get four strikes, except when he gets five. The only thing that clouds Mister Oh's record is that he accomplished it with GIANTS written across his breast.

As the greatest Japanese player in history on the "national" team, Mister Oh is a prisoner of fame. Fans have discovered where his house is—in a fancy suburb about 30 minutes from Koraku-en—and loiter there expectantly. The boldest have even ventured into the garage to leave adoring graffiti. Public appearances are impossible, in or out of season. "I can't escape anymore," Oh says. "It has become almost intolerable. But"—and he pauses and draws on his cigarette—"this is a situation which I have caused myself, and since I have invited it, I must overcome it."

Succoring him is the 64,000,000 yen ($215,000) he paid taxes on last year, which includes endorsement fees for such varied products as clothes and cookies, Pepsis and cameras. Presumably, much of his salary is deferred. He is not an extravagant man and he has looked after his family well. He has been married for 10 years and has three daughters. Every Japanese is expected to have a hobby: Oh plays golf to a 12 handicap.

He reasonably expects to enjoy another three or four years with the Giants, and while the nouveau Pacific League indulges designated hitters, it is inconceivable that Oh and the Giants—unlike Ruth and the Yankees, Aaron and the Braves—could ever be rent asunder. On the other hand, it is not unlikely that the Central League might adopt the DH in order to keep its meal ticket around for a few extra years. Oh himself is noncommittal. "I'm so exhausted, mentally and physically, from playing baseball that I've never even had the time to think about the future," he says. "All I know is that whenever I do stop playing, I'm going to take a good rest. I need a pause in my life."

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