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The question most often posed about Sadaharu Oh by parochial Americans (a species every bit as prevalent as ugly ones) is whether or not he would be a great star in the United States. It is not an admirable curiosity, being diverting as well as condescending, and keeps us from properly considering the man in his own environment, in his own context. Of course Oh would be a bum if he played over here, just as Winston Churchill never could have cut it in the U.S., just as Chekhov never could have dented The Great White Way, just as Nijinsky never could have gotten to first base with our gen-u-wine major league dancers. Because there are only 113 million Japanese and because they have been playing baseboru for only 105 years, it is foolishness to think that a single one of these tiny little folks could excel at our great American game.
Mister Oh—Japanese often address one another in this formal manner—is an extraordinary figure, make no mistake. There are two things that immediately establish his singularity. First, he has a highly distinctive batting style. Second, no athlete has ever been more revered in his country. To be sure, others in smaller or less sophisticated lands—Pel� in Brazil, for example, Nurmi in Finland, Borg in Sweden—may have attained comparable stature, but at 37 Oh-san reigns supreme in one of the most powerful industrial nations on earth.
Baseball is unchallenged in Japan as the national game; there is no football for competition, no basketball. Nor does Japan have any renowned boxers, runners, tennis stars. It is most significant, perhaps, that Oh surpasses Babe Ruth more as a national figure than he does as a home-run king. There is not even any great Japanese hero in show business. There is no reigning Japanese Robert Redford, not even a Japanese King Kong, because the Japanese—ever mindful of commercial trends—have turned from Godzilla to soft porn. As a popular cultural celebrity, there is in this rich island nation only one supreme hero, and that is Sadaharu Oh, Mister Oh, Oh-san, No. 1.
Marty Kuehnert, the astute American sporting goods executive who once ran a Japanese baseball team, married a Japanese and has lived in Japan for years, says, "No one in America can conceive of Mister Oh's place here. He possesses almost a godlike image."
It is an event to see him bat, which helps explain why there is seldom an empty seat whenever he plays with his team, the Yomiuri Giants of Tokyo. When Mister Oh stands at the plate, one senses not only that here is a national treasure but a natural wonder. If it has been your lot all your life to watch hitters, thousands of them, good and bad, old and young, rich and poor, of all races, colors and creeds, all of them attempting to strike a baseball while keeping both feet on the ground...and then suddenly before you looms the figure of a champion hitter about to club the old horse-hide with one foot held aloft—poising it there, as in the manner of the hokey-pokey ("You put your right foot in and you shake it all about")—the scene is at once astounding and discombobulating.
Oh's foot-aloft batting style is, in fact, a feat of exquisite concentration and balance—almost physiological legerdemain—but so peculiar is it that at first shocked glance one's thoughts tend to run to the irreverent (dogs addressing hydrants) or to the comic (the boutonniered Jackie Gleason, grasping glass instead of bat, bellowing, "And awaaay we go").
The pitcher prepares again. Oh, who stands just under 6 feet and weighs 174 pounds, positions himself in the very rear of the box. He smooths out the dirt and taps the plate, in the comfortable manner of Father, resting in his La-Z-Boy and knocking ashes from his pipe. Pitching a batter tight, never mind a bean-ball, is not acceptable in Japan, and dusting off Mister Oh would be akin to blasphemy. Dug in now, Oh cocks his bat. It is long and thin, 34�", 33 ounces. He holds it far down at the bottom—barehanded, no batting glove—and he tilts the barrel forward, an odd maneuver, almost as unusual as the leg lift. Sometimes, as he awaits the poor pitcher's delivery, Oh actually rests the bat on the peak of his helmet.