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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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Notwithstanding, it takes someone with tremendous balance, reflexes and hand-eye coordination to bat in the peculiar way Mister Oh does. And the one-leg business aside, Arakawa also instructed Oh in batting by dropping a piece of paper and having him try to slice it with a samurai sword as it fell. Even now, when Oh practices swinging, he slashes down with the bat, as you would with a sword. Then at the plate he swings as level as anyone. The most telling assessment of Oh the hitter is that American players who have seen him often and are not conditioned to think of him strictly as a power hitter invariably compare him to one American hitter—Rod Carew.

"When it comes to hitting," Mister Oh says, "I like to think of the batter in terms of a triangle, with his head at the peak. On the one hand, I want to restrict the movement of the head, while, on the other, increasing the movement of the base of the triangle—the hips. That's where a batter's power comes from. I want my center of gravity moving. Frankly, my power is not what it used to be. My explosive power is gone. But now I think I have a more sophisticated reaction to hitting. In fact, now I think I know the game so well that it is difficult for me ever to be satisfied with whatever I do."

Certainly, at 37 he is not the consistent marvel he used to be. Earlier this year, when he had gone more than two weeks without a homer, the Hanshin Tigers actually walked Harimoto to get to Oh. That woke him up. He went with a 2-and-1 pitch low on the outside corner for a wrong-field double—and then hit a home run in three straight games. Teams often employ a Williams shift against Oh, leaving only the third baseman on the left side of the diamond, but Oh deals with the maneuver perfectly, picking his spots as to when to hit away from it. It would be a loss of face, he maintains, if he permitted the shift to dictate to him, but it would also be stupid and selfish for him not to try to pick it apart now and then.

So, all right, how would Mister Oh have done in the U.S.? Unquestionably, he would have been a great star, a drawing card, a Hall of Famer. No sensible person could dispute that. Probably, he would have hit a home run about every 15 or 16 times at bat (like Aaron, Mays and Mantle, for example) instead of every 10.5. It is true that Japanese parks are slightly smaller than those in the U.S.—300 down the lines, 395 to center—but it is also true that Japanese pitchers are not quite as strong and don't throw as hard, so that batters must generate their own power. Had Oh grown up playing in a culture in which the brushback was part of life, he surely would have adjusted. On the other hand, the Japanese season, annually plagued by a long rainy spell, has never consisted of more than 140 games and was stabilized at 130 (ties included) some time ago. Oh once hit 51 home runs in 130 games. Put an asterisk next to that and call him the Roger Maris of Japan.

One American player keeps coming to mind when you think of Oh. When you think of physique, durability, temperament, selflessness, batting genius and all-round ability (both started as pitchers), you think of Stan Musial—or, as some of us know him, the Sadaharu Oh of St. Louis. Musial hit 475 home runs and batted .331. In the U.S. Oh probably would have hit a few more homers and had a slightly lower average, and then, like Musial, be ensconced in the Hall of Fame as quickly as ballots could be distributed.

But because the Japanese are a self-conscious people, holding back their emotions behind polite plaster smiles, so does Mister Oh graciously parry any comparisons to Aaron and American baseball. When he has played touring American teams in Japan or spring exhibitions in the States, he has always leaned over backwards protesting how big and strong the Americans are (one feels that Sony and Datsun offered up the same sentiments the day before they came in and busted up our marketplace). For $20,000 of network money, Oh did engage Aaron in a home-run batting practice gig a few years ago ( Aaron won 10-9), which bequeathed us nothing lasting except a vintage Yogi Berraism: " Aaron could beat that Nip in the dark at LaGuardia."

Mister Oh is himself somewhat more circumspect on the general subject. "When Aaron was going after Ruth," he says, "at least some people pointed out the tremendous differences between the two men, between their times, between their baseball. In that way, just as it is difficult to compare Ruth and Aaron fairly, so is it difficult, I think, to compare me in Japan with them in the U.S. People don't believe me when I say this, but I honestly don't feel any pressure on me with regard to Aaron's record. I'm quite satisfied just to be the guy in Japan who hit 700-odd home runs. That's enough for me."

The Giants are planning a celebration when he hits No. 756. But how much more can this affect Oh? He has been the cynosure of a nation for years. He has lost his privacy and he has played before SRO almost every game. The press can be no more exhaustive. There was a two-hour prime-time TV special on Mister Oh last spring. A newspaper ran a 30-part series on him, and the most revealing aspect of this interminable biography was that there was no more of him to reveal. The 30 parts did not disclose a single new fact about the man, or insight into his character. How can you be oppressed by a number and a distant American name when you are already toting a nation's adulation on your back? "I am honored for baseball," Mister Oh says.

But if he will be spared the pressure that Aaron—or Maris or Denny McLain—had to deal with, he must endure a kind of scrutiny which would be painful to almost anyone in his society. "I am by nature a very shy fellow," Mister Oh says. "I don't like grandstand plays. But I'm never uncomfortable out on the field because I don't have to meet the fans face-to-face. People come to see me concentrate on baseball. They don't come to look me in the face, and I'm grateful for that."

But he will certainly find, as the inevitable No. 756 draws nearer, that there will be a closer and more affectionate examination of his face. Home-run records have marked the men who set them in different ways. Ruth became a phenomenon, Aaron a hero; Oh-san is already both of these, and so he can only become more of a personality. Especially for a man from his culture, that will be the hardest accommodation. But we can expect Mister Oh to make it.

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