It is a home befitting the Giants, for, with all of the sudden attention lavished on the Hanshin Tigers, the Giants remain the national team. Every one of its 130 games is televised nationally, and still, Korakuen Stadium is virtually sold out every night. Last year the team drew 2,974,000 for 65 dates. The Dodgers, by comparison, led the U.S. major leagues with 3,134,824 for 81 dates.
The Giants, founded in 1934 by Matsutaro Shoriki, owner and publisher of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, were the first Japanese professional team and they've been the best. Baseball actually had been introduced to Japan as early as 1873 by Horace Wilson, an American professor at a Tokyo university, but until Shoriki organized the Giants, the game had been played only at the amateur level. Shoriki invited a major league all-star team from the States, featuring Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Al Simmons and Lefty Grove, to tour Japan in 1931. He brought back another, this one with Babe Ruth, three years later. Both American all-star squads went undefeated, but in the second tour, a 19-year-old Japanese pitcher named Eji Sawamura actually struck out Gehringer, Ruth, Jimmie Foxx and Gehrig in succession, a feat rivaling Carl Hubbell's in that year's major league All-Star Game. Shoriki wanted to see such young Japanese talent develop, so, on the advice of his friend Lefty O'Doul, he formed the Giants. One year after the Giants opened shop, six other Japanese teams joined them in a league, which prospered until the war years. When the Japanese game needed reviving after 1945, O'Doul arrived with his Pacific Coast League San Francisco Seals for a series of exhibitions. The 11 games drew 400,000 fans. The Japanese game was on its way.
And so were the Giants. In the last 34 seasons, they have won 23 Central League pennants and 16 Japan Series championships. From 1965 through 1973, they won nine straight pennants and nine Series titles, an achievement unmatched by any other professional baseball team. The Giants' star of stars for 22 of those glorious seasons was Oh, the greatest home run hitter in the history of baseball. Before his retirement in 1980, Oh's statistics were truly staggering. He hit 30 or more homers for 19 straight seasons; 40 or more for eight straight seasons and for 13 all told. He hit 50 or more three times, the last time when he was 37 years old, in 1977. He was Japan's home run champion for 13 consecutive years. He won 13 RBI titles and five batting championships. He won back-to-back Triple Crowns. He averaged a homer every 10.7 times at bat. Ruth, in comparison, averaged one every 11.8 and Aaron one every 16.4. Conceding that he played in smaller ball parks and against lesser opposition, his numbers remain astonishing. Many American players and managers insist that Oh would have been a star in any league. In Japan, he is a deity. At least he was until he took over as manager of the Giants last year and finished third. He's second this year, but staying close, only half a game behind.
Oh, 45 now, is wearing his Giants uniform, which is virtually identical to that worn by the San Francisco Giants—black and orange lettering, black cap and socks—except that it is in an off-yellow color instead of white. In his day he was considered a large man by Japanese measure—about 5'10", 180 pounds—but now his players are catching up to him in size. Still, he looks powerful, with large sloping shoulders and thick underpinnings. He is entertaining visitors in a reception room just off his office, and he seems comfortable and relaxed. Oh is, in fact, famous for being cooperative. His short-cropped hair is still dark, flecked here and there with gray. He is in all a handsome man with a healthy overbite and deep-set black eyes that are more merry than intense. He could be a middle-aged Japanese businessman.
"The fans have this image of a superstar," he says through an interpreter, chuckling. "They feel a team can win for him anytime." A shake of the head. He is familiar with the managerial misadventures of such superstars as Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby. "I should like to be a great manager, but I'm still learning. In a way, this job was thrust on me. I was willing to draw the line at the end of my career, but I felt an obligation to return, not so much to the Giants as to the fans." He laughs again. "Now I find that I'm much busier than before." And the gaijin? "Ah, with Cromartie and Comstock...I will let them do things their own way as long as it works. I know things are different for them—the strike zone and other things. Well, to complain is easy, but it is not a solution. I'm happy, of course, that Cromartie's child was named after me—and happy that he was born in Japan."
Oh is asked if Japanese baseball is becoming more Americanized. "Your game is stronger, so we follow what you do," he says. "Japan is influenced by America in many things. We change the rules when you do. And since Americans are making more money in baseball, our players want more, too." He pauses and leans forward, hands on crossed legs. "But there is still a strong sense of loyalty here. I don't think that money determines the value of a player. What he is in the minds of the fans determines his final worth. It is the memory that counts. Babe Ruth is yet in the minds of the fans. And Willie Mays. They made far less than players do now. But they will be remembered longer." He leans back in his chair. "I should like to be remembered. Oh, here I will. But I would have liked to have played at least one season at my peak in American baseball. Even now, I'd like to be able to send an outstanding player to your game for a season." He laughs. "But I don't have one in mind." He rises to go. "Everyone wants to be remembered. Only time can tell how great you are. Never money."
Solemnly, politely, he leaves. He walks down a long corridor leading to his dugout, trailed by a phalanx of Japanese reporters who have been waiting for him. At the end of the corridor, he steps through a small open doorway into the fading light of late afternoon. It is a humid day, so damp the air can almost be snatched up in a fist. Oh climbs the dugout steps and walks onto the field, his entourage in tow. There are cheers of recognition as fans catch sight of the No. 1 on his back. He waves gently and turns his concentration to batting practice. Cromartie is at the cage watching his manager, smiling. The American takes in the scene—Oh, his entourage and the cheering early spectators. Then, smiling again, Cromartie steps into the cage to take his cuts. It's all baseball, after all.