Robert Whiting on NJ flunkey-cum-baseball hero Oh Sadaharu’s legacy


Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan\Foreign Residents and Naturalized Citizens Association forming NGO\「ジャパニーズ・オンリー 小樽入浴拒否問題と人種差別」(明石書店)JAPANESE ONLY:  The Otaru Hot Springs Case and Racial Discrimination in Japan

Hi Blog. Here’s an article which made me conclude something that I have been suspecting all along.

Baseball hero Oh Sadaharu, a Zainichi Taiwanese, is retiring. He has done a lot for baseball and no doubt for the image of NJ in Japan (especially the Sangokujin, Tokyo Gov. Ishihara’s pet NJ to target as potential criminals).

But I am not a fan. As the article rather euphemistically headlines below, Oh’s record was hard to beat. That’s because anyone who came close, particularly a line of foreign baseball players, was stopped because they were gaijin. Even by Oh himself. Now, that’s unsportsmanlike. I will cheer anytime anyone does well as a personal best, especially when they overcome great personal odds (Oh was not allowed to play Korakuen High School baseball tournaments because Japan didn’t, and still doesn’t to some degree, allow foreign players to play in Kokutai leagues where “they might qualify for the Olympics and become national representatives” sort of thing).

But Oh for years now has struck me as a person who earns his laurels and his pedestal, then pulls the ladder up behind him, even for others who face similar obstacles. It’s one thing to discriminate because discrimination is the norm and you’re just playing ball. It’s another to go through the discrimination yourself, then turn around and abet the discrimination against others. It’s hypocritical, and Oh should have known and done better. He chose not to. And now that we have an authority on Japanese baseball, Robert Whiting, coming out and indicating as such in the article below, I’m ready to draw this conclusion:

Oh Sadaharu may be a baseball hero, but he’s an Uncle Tom and a turncoat, and that tarnishes his image as a genuine hero. Shame on you, Sadaharu. Arudou Debito in Sapporo

More on discrimination against NJ in the Kokutai here.


Equaling Oh’s HR record proved difficult

Special to The Japan Times, Friday, Oct. 31, 2008

Third in a three-part series

PART I — Devoted to the game: Looking back at Oh’s career
PART II — Oh’s career sparkled with achievements as player, manager

News photo
Back in the day: Sadaharu Oh, Hank Aaron and CBS-TV announcer Brent Musburger are seen at an exhibition home run contest held by the two prodigious sluggers on Nov. 2, 1974, at Tokyo’s Korakuen Stadium. Aaron won 10-9. (C) STARS AND STRIPES

The one big black mark on Sadaharu Oh’s reputation was, of course, the unsportsmanlike behavior of the pitchers on his team whenever foreign batsmen threatened his single season home run record of 55.

The phenomenon had first surfaced in 1985, when American Randy Bass playing for the Hanshin Tigers, who went into the last game of the season — against the Oh-managed Giants at Korakuen Stadium — with 54 home runs.

Bass was walked intentionally four times on four straight pitches and would have been walked a fifth, had he not reached out and poked a pitch far outside the plate into the outfield.

Oh denied ordering his pitchers to walk Bass, but Keith Comstock, an American pitcher for Yomiuri reported afterward that a certain Giants coach imposed a fine of $1,000 for every strike Giants pitchers threw to Bass.

A subsequent investigation by the magazine Takarajima concluded that the instructions had probably originated in the Giants front office, which wanted the home run record kept in the Giants organization.

Except for an editorial in the Yomiuri Shimbun’s archrival, the Asahi, demanding to know why Oh did not run out to the mound and order his pitchers to throw strikes, the media remained silent, as did then-NPB commissioner Takeso Shimoda, who had often stated his belief that the Japanese game would never be considered first class as long as there were former MLB bench-warmers starring on Japanese teams.

Of course, the reality was more complex. There were many imports who were in fact gifted hitters, but were kept out of big league lineups by other shortcomings in their game or by bad luck — simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, Shimoda and like-minded critics failed to see such shades of gray.

A replay of the Bass episode came during the 2001 season. American Tuffy Rhodes, playing for the Kintetsu Buffaloes, threatened Oh’s record.

With several games left in the season, Rhodes hit the 55 mark. But during a late season weekend series in Fukuoka, pitchers on the Hawks refused to throw strikes to Rhodes and catcher Kenji Johjima could be seen grinning during the walks.

Again Oh denied any involvement in their actions and Hawks battery coach Yoshiharu Wakana admitted the pitchers had acted on his orders.

“It would be distasteful to see a foreign player break Oh’s record,” he told reporters.

The NPB commissioner on watch, Hiromori Kawashima, denounced his behavior as “unsportsmanlike,” and there was some outcry from the media.

However, this did not help Rhodes, who went homerless the rest of the way. Rhodes remained convinced that there was a “Code Red” that kicked into action whenever a foreign player did too well.

A second replay occurred in 2002, when Venezuelan Alex Cabrera also hit 55 home runs, tying Oh (and Rhodes) with five games left to play in the season. Oh commanded his pitchers not to repeat their behavior of the previous year, but, not surprisingly, most of them ignored him. There was more condemnation from the public, but, curiously, not from Oh, who simply shrugged and said, “If you’re going to break the record, you should do it by more than one. Do it by a lot.”

Such behavior led an ESPN critic to call Oh’s record “one of the phoniest in baseball.”

In Oh’s defense, there was probably nothing he could have done to prevent his pitchers from acting as they did. Feelings about “gaijin” aside, it was (and still is) common practice for teams to take such action to protect a teammate’s record or title.

In all three assaults on Oh’s record, the respective front offices had a decided interest in the outcome. Oh’s 55 homers was a Yomiuri record, while executives with the Hawks believed Oh’s status as a record-holder brought the organization favorable PR.

No pitcher on any of Oh’s teams wanted to be the one who gave up the homer that cost Oh that particular spot in the record books.

Finally, there was the question of Oh’s own personality. He was a product of his life experiences and his father’s life experiences as a member of a minority group in Japan. He surely knew better than to make waves and to embarrass the executive suits that had so much invested in him.

Still, amid all the fuss about protectionism in baseball, it is noteworthy that no one in the Japanese game ever sees fit to mention the fact that Oh hit most of his home runs using rock hard, custom-made compressed bats.

A batter using a compressed bat, it was said, could propel a ball farther than he can with an ordinary bat. Compressed bats were illegal in the MLB when Oh was playing in Japan, and were outlawed by the NPB in 1982 after Oh retired, but well before Bass, Rhodes and Cabrera had Japan visas stamped into their passports.

Oh’s finest hour as a manager was perhaps his performance in the 2006 inaugural WBC. He had passed his 65th birthday and his age was starting to show. Moreover, he was not in the best of health, and was months away from a bout with cancer that would spare his life but cause a rearrangement of his digestive system.

News photo
Thanks for the memories: Sadaharu Oh has left a lasting impact during his 50 years in baseball. His 868 career home runs is a record that may never be surpassed in Japan. AP PHOT

The NPB owners, after long negotiations, had agreed to participate in the tourney but the NPB Players Association refused to cooperate. They were upset over the March schedule which they felt would interfere with their spring training.

Another thing that bothered them was that they had been completely left out of the loop in the discussions leading up to the WBC, both by the NPB owners and the American organizers of the event.

The NPB owners, with typical arrogance, had not bothered to inform the players of what had been going on, much less seek their consent or consult with them about the terms of participation in the WBC, until long after the tournament was announced.

More important, the players were skeptical of the event itself. They did not particularly think it was a worthy use of their time.

To break the impasse, senior executives from Yomiuri (which had agreed to sponsor the Asian round) prevailed upon Sadaharu Oh to manage the team, hoping that the presence of one of the most revered names in Japanese baseball history could somehow change the dynamic. Their first choice, Shigeo Nagashima (naturally), was not available due to the aftereffects of his stroke.

Oh had his own (secret) misgivings about the event, but true to his agreeable nature, finally agreed to take part. “I’ll do it for the welfare of Japanese baseball,” Oh had said a well-publicized remark, “I’ll do it for the future. For 50 years from now.”

Ichiro Suzuki, among others, was, initially, not impressed.

“What difference does it make if some old guy is going to manage the team?” he reportedly told acquaintances, “That doesn’t make it a real event.”

But the “old guy” was persistent. He threw himself into the job with typical perseverance. His own story was a tale of continued perseverance and triumph over personal tragedy.

Oh began a courtship of Ichiro and Hideki Matsui and he did it with the grace and diplomacy that was typical of him. He worked very hard to persuade them individually how important it was that Japan participate, that they participate.

Japan’s greatest slugger approached them as if they would be doing him a personal favor if they joined the team. In the end, Ichiro agreed to play, although Matsui felt too strong an obligation to the Yankees to leave spring camp.

Oh drove his players hard and the cool, aloof Ichiro somehow magically transformed into a fiery leader, exhorting his team to greater effort in practice and in the actual competition.

Japan went on to win the tourney — despite its three defeats overall — on a succession of steadily improving performances and a managerial strategy which combined caution with aggression.

The final, a 10-6 triumph over Cuba played at Petco Park in San Diego, riveted the nation. It was watched by one out of every two Japanese, a total audience of roughly 60 million people, which made it one of the most watched sporting events in the history of Japan.

It ignited an enormous national cheer back home. It was an ironic ending for a team that had not wanted to participate in the first place.

With the WBC victory, Oh was now more popular than he had ever been and it was a fitting cap to his career. Yet in a survey conducted by Sangyo Noritsu University to determine the “Boss of the Decade” the following year, Oh finished well behind Nagashima in the voting, despite having a higher lifetime winning percentage, at the time.

Somehow the results were not surprising.

Oh had fought against adversity his whole life, it seemed. As a youth, he had been banned from participating in an important national tournament because he was not a Japanese citizen, even though he was the best player on his team.

As a pro, he had to cede the spotlight to the more popular, pure-blooded Nagashima, despite the fact that he was arguably the best player in baseball during the Giants glory years, and as Giants manager had been faced with a team that did not wholeheartedly welcome his leadership.

Oh’s years with the Hawks, successful as they were, were marred by other difficulties. Among them was the premature death, in 2002, of his wife Kyoko, who succumbed to stomach cancer. That was followed by the inexplicable theft of her ashes from the family graveyard, never to be retrieved.

And then came Oh’s own bout with stomach cancer. In the middle of the 2006 season, Oh underwent laparoscopic surgery in which his cancerous stomach was completely removed.

But the thing about Oh is that you never, ever heard him complain — about anything. He just sucked up whatever misfortunes life dealt to him and went on to the next challenge. He always tried to look at the bright side.

When he returned to manage the Hawks in 2007, several kilograms lighter and looking, as one reporter put it, “like an underfed jockey,” he acted as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do.

“Yes, I don’t have a stomach anymore,” he said, the last time I saw him, in the fall of 2007 when he appeared at a Foreign Sportswriters of Japan event to pick up a Lifetime Achievement Award, “but now I can eat as much chocolate as I want.”

However, the Hawks fell further out of contention in that ’07 season and were eliminated in the playoffs for the fourth straight year.

In 2008, the Hawks dropped into last place and Oh announced his resignation and his retirement from field managing. He referenced ill health, but also took responsibility for the team’s failure to win another championship. “Managers should not stay that long in one place,” he said.

The announcement of his retirement prompted a wave of tributes from the prime minister’s office on down, as well as a special newspaper editions and TV reports lauding his accomplishments.

People seemed to sense that with Oh’s retirement they had lost something more than just a baseball hero, that they had lost a connection to an era in Japan where the values of hard work, selflessness, and responsibility mattered a lot more than they do now.

Professor Saito summed it up when he eulogized Oh in an interview with NHK. “We are living in an era of instant gratification,” he said, “People these days want everything now and they give in too easily to adversity. But not Oh. He has shown us what the true meaning of ‘doryoku’ is.”

Johjima had flown back from the States to attend Oh’s farewell game on Oct. 7, 2008.

“Oh was a great human being,” he said when it was all over, “He was special, as a player, as a manager, as a man. He was a baseball father figure to me. It was a huge honor to play for him.”


PART I — Devoted to the game: Looking back at Oh’s career
PART II — Oh’s career sparkled with achievements as player, manager

8 comments on “Robert Whiting on NJ flunkey-cum-baseball hero Oh Sadaharu’s legacy

  • I feel sad you speak about Sadaharu Oh in such a way. It’s also too bad you just posted the negative part of the three part series on him. The article as a whole was very praising of Oh and didn’t come to any of the same conclusions that you did about Oh’s overall character.

    The whole home run thing was no doubt controversial, but it is a statement of the whole culture of NPB. This sort of thing happens from time to time when such records are close to being broken. Not just by NJ. Past “heroes” of pro-yakyu are often protected.

    I am not sticking up for him or the Giants/Hawks organizations or the ways of NPB, but I don’t feel that one issue alone overshadows his amazing career as both a player and a manager.

    Also note that Oh is half (or double) Japanese and has been granted the 国民栄誉賞 (People’s Honor Award) for his service to the country. He has also led Japan to the WBC championship. He is as much a victim as anyone else of the policy forcing people to adopt only one citizenship and I don’t think it is fair to call him a turncoat. He was Japanese all along just as he was Taiwanese all along. Too bad the law doesn’t accept that.

    — I can accept all this. I just can’t accept that Oh betrayed the fundamental creed of a person in his position: Sportsmanship. And a level playing field. Regardless of nationality. It’s just an irony (and of direct relation to that this person pulled up the ladder behind him regarding NJ in Japan. Sorry, people are welcome to draw their own conclusions, but those are mine.

  • ‘Uncle Tom’ definition: “A black person who is regarded as being humiliatingly subservient to white people.” (

    ‘Turncoat’ definition: “One who traitorously switches allegiances.” (

    For your ‘Uncle Tom’ analogy, who is ‘Oh’ being ‘subservient’ to? The Japanese society he’s been a part of for his entire life? His employers? And as for being a ‘turncoat’, who is he ‘traitorously switching allegiances’ to?

    I’m not saying Oh was ‘right’ in not allowing his record to be broken, but the verdict is still out on whether he explicitly informed his players to avoid throwing hittable balls. I highly suspect that the respect his players felt for him and his legacy would have prevented them from throwing ANY suitable pitches, regardless of his instructions. And aside from the racial angle, as Whiting points out, Oh also may have felt a tremendous obligation to his former team who sustained him for so many years. Whiting thoughtfully and extensively chronicled the entire scope of a man’s life, listing his successes and possible failures. (Whiting’s article was balanced, not completely laudatory, but, in the end, admiring of the complexity of one man’s life. You call Whiting a ‘baseball authority’, and then essentially disagree with the entire scope of his presentation and conclusion.)

    Oh grew up half-Chinese in Japan after the Second World War. There is no comparison whatsoever between his experience as a bi-racial individual throughout childhood, adolesence and adulthood in Japan since infancy with your experience as a minority in Japan since your early twenties. None. To slur him and his legacy comes across as ill-informed and infantile.

    Being sensational and provocative with word-choices is one thing. (‘Uncle Tom’ is one of the most hateful phrases in English — and taking it outside of its historical African-American cultural context not only makes little linguistic sense, but it belittles its original intent.) When the hateful terms you use don’t even make sense within the context you provide, you end up sounding like you’re deliberately, blatantly being over-the-top simply to generate false controversy, and your argument comes across as nothing more than sensationalistic hyperbole — being ‘provocative’ for the sake of attracting attention.

  • Just imagine if the opposite happened when Ichiro was closing in the hits record. If Major League pitchers walked him, the Japanese media would have gone into a frenzy. Tuffy Rhodes and Cabrera would have likely passed Oh’s record, rather than just tie it, if NPB pitchers had pitched to them.
    The Japanese media doesn’t say anything about teams protecting records here. But I don’t think it is only racism, althought that’s a big part of it, the pitchers might well have done the same thing if a Japanese player were nearing the record.
    I don’t have much respect for Oh, and none for managers like Hoshino.

  • ronya smith says:

    Your attack of Oh borders on defamation. For a man who has been fighting defation suits, your readers expect more from you. Shame on you, Debito!! We can be in total disagreement with someone without denigrating them as a consequence!!!!! In my opinion, you have committed contempt: You have dishonored a great baseball player, and spoken ill of the dead.

    Keep it clean, Sir Debito. A little less prejudice, and a little more discretion wouldn’t hurt you!

    — And knowing the definitions of “defamation” (and of what defines life; Oh is not dead) would help your debating skills as well.

  • And I find it distressing and disappointing that you, who has spent a lot of time trying to abolish the word “gaijin”, chose to use a racist term, “Uncle Tom”, to describe Oh.

    It never hurts to say sorry and admit you have made a mistake.

    — Sorry, but that’s my opinion about Oh. There’s a huge difference between classifying a whole people (ca. 98% of the world, in fact) as outsiders etc. based on appearance and birth — regardless of whatever they ever may say or do or contribute, and classifying one individual with a disparaging term based upon his individual behavior. Worlds apart.

  • gaijinalways says:

    I think the idea that he used compressed bats (which were not used in the major leagues and also not used later in Japan) to set his record speaks a lot for the so called ‘record’.

  • Oh’s record is tarnished if there ever was one.*** Three asterisks for the three times it occured. Oh often calims he did not order his pitchers to give intentional walks. Maybe so, but any manager with a iota of sportsmanship whould have ordered his pitchers to challenge those batters and give them a fair chance to break the record. (I believe an American manager would do so in a similar situation in the U.S., and if the pitcher disobeyed would yank him.) Those of us that have been here since 1985 will never forget those discraceful events in Japanese baseball. I lost respect for the game here–and for Oh–after that and see no reason to change my feeling. Also, being half gaijin, why hasen’t he stood up for foreign players, for example fighting against the 3 gaijin per team rule, etc. His character did not match his playing skills, for sure.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>