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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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There are four teams playing in the Tokyo area, but it is the Giants who have appropriated the capital name and wear Tokyo—in English—across their chests on the road. They were so powerful that for years, unlike the other clubs, they disdained importing American gaijin. A huge Russian pitcher, Victor Starfin, 6'4", 230, born in the northern island of Hokkaido, was an early Giant star, and Wally Yonamine, a Hawaiian Nisei, was a batting champion in the '50s for the Giants, but otherwise the team was content to take the pick of the domestic litter until 1975, when the Giants brought in Davey Johnson to replace Nagashima. Johnson had a miserable first year at third base, but when shifted to second in 1976 he became the first gaijin ever elected an All-Star.

Today the Giants employ two gaijin—Pitcher Wright and Infielder Jack Lind, from the Dodger farm system—just like all the other clubs, because they are not as strong as they used to be. The amateur draft system, as in the U.S., gives the weaker clubs a chance in the market. When young Mister Oh came out of high school in 1959, the bonus system was still in effect and naturally he picked the class team, which paid him a $55,000 bonus. In a country where high school baseball is a passion, the son of a Chinese restaurant owner was already a national figure. In one big game, he clouted a home run so far the ball struck a distant power line and caused a blackout. Still, in the hot hibachi league, a lot of the Punch-and-Judy advocates argued that the kid should stick to pitching.

The Giants paid the $55,000 for a hitter, however. But he was no Al Kaline of Japan. The 18-year-old Oh went 0 for 35 before he hit his first home run on April 26, 1959, and he did not fully mature until 1962, when he hit 38 home runs. By then he was completely committed to the flamingo style, which had been taught to him by a former player named Hirosi Arakawa.

Mr. Arakawa is a chunky little fellow, as animated as he is powerful. He is full of little party tricks. Try to lift him even an inch off the ground—can't do it; and so forth. Also, he has things in perspective. Laughing, he says, "Hey, as long as Oh-san is No. 1, I can make a lot of money." At present, this felicitous association helps keep his prosperous baseball school going and assures his job as a Giants' radio commentator. Arakawa was the Giants' batting coach for nine seasons, as well as a manager and journeyman outfielder with a number of second-rate teams.

" Mister Oh and I were destined to meet each other," Arakawa intones. And so when fate took him for a stroll in the park one day 23 years ago, he spied the 14-year-old Chinese boy playing in a pickup game. Arakawa took an interest in the prospect, his motive at the time being to steer him to his alma mater, the Waseda Business School. Agreeable and pliant, flattered by the attentions of a big leaguer, Oh immediately took Mr. Arakawa's advice and switched from batting right-handed to swinging left.

The one-leg business came a few years later. Mel Ott, an earlier Occidental Giant, was, of course, famous for raising his leg as he swung, but Ott was not the inspiration for Arakawa's instruction. Nor did Arakawa have in mind a particular batting technique, in the sense that Americans change their stance to "get around on the ball better" or to "see lefties better" or whatever. No, it was much more than that.

It will help, perhaps, to read this excerpt from The Japanese, a new book by Edwin O. Reischauer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan and the accepted U.S. authority on the Japanese. On the subject of skill, he writes: "The individual is supposed to learn to merge with the skill until his mastery of it has become effortless. He does not establish intellectual control over it so much as a spiritual oneness with it. We are reminded of the original Buddhist concept of losing one's identity by merging with the cosmos through enlightenment. But the significant point is that acquiring a skill is essentially an act of will—of self-control and self-discipline.... Mastery of a skill is seen more a matter of developing one's inner self rather than one's outer muscle."

To the Westerner this may sound like a lot of mumbo jumbo. "Don't give me all that one-leg stuff," says Clyde Wright. "If Oh-san kept both feet on the ground like everybody else, he would hit 70 a year." But Arakawa taught batting from a mystical, Zen point of view, and Oh bought it that way.

Says Mr. Arakawa: "Frankly, I'm not so sure that you are not more unbalanced starting to stride with both feet on the ground. I'm not so sure. But whatever, a pitcher who sees a batter lift up one foot thinks, 'Aha, you dummy, you have made yourself even more vulnerable to my tricks.' So only a man with a great positive attitude like Oh's could have the confidence to hit this way. You see, it makes him believe in himself, in his ability, all the more."

Mr. Arakawa is an expert in aiki-do, a martial art that combines judo, karate and Zen, and he borrowed various principles of aiki-do in teaching Mister Oh how to swing one-legged. "Aiki-do teaches how, in the most natural way, you can produce the most strength," he explains. "You see, it is not the style itself which gives Oh his maximum power—although it may help. It is the fact that the style permits him to concentrate better." Arakawa has specifically refused to teach Oh the whole discipline of aiki-do, because, he says craftily, " Mister Oh can hit better than me, but he would be inferior to me at aiki-do, and then he would lose confidence in himself."

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