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
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."
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.
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.
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."