Meet Sadaharu Oh, a production-line toiler who for a change is happy in his work. The job is manual and repetitive - rapping a baseball over distant fences to tumultuous applause. As the undisputed home-run king of baseball-crazy Japan, Oh swings the fastest, meanest bat in the East. He makes $500,000 a year in salary and endorsements, is a genuine national hero and the living idol to every Japanese boy old enough to say "Yomiuri Gaints," the name of his team.
He joined the Giants 19 years ago and since 1958, when Eisenhower was our President, Oh has been cracking round-trippers at a metronemic 40 or more a year. The grand total to date is 748, and counting. The numbers matter greatly because if his samurai spirit stays strong and his 37-year-old motor skills hold out just a little longer, Oh will soon become the most prolific home-run hitter in world baseball history. He surpassed Babe Ruth's career mark of 714 last September and is closing fast on Hank Aaron's all-time record of 755.
Bowie Kuhn has snootily declared that Oh's achievement will not be recognized because the Japanese don't, after all, play in the American major leagues. To the millions of Japanese fans who couldn't pronounce the baseball commissioner's name even if they knew it, the objection is irrelevant. When Oh belts the record-breaking 756th to end the national vigil, the Japanese are going to celebrate it as a world record.
Oh is modestly confident of hitting the necessary eight homers in the remaining 38 games of this season. "I think I can do it," he said. In understated Japan, that's almost a boast.
"It's going to be the biggest thing here since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon," predicts Bob Whiting, author of "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat," a new book on Japanese baseball.
Oh is only 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds but he has the arms of a lumberjack, superlative eyesight and lightning relexes. He still is an agile smooth-fielding first baseman and wants to keep playing for another five years.
Above all, he's happy in his work. "There's no better feeling than hitting a homer," he grinned. "It's like ecstasy."
Four hours later, Oh steps up to the plate. The stadium is a muggy 85-degree cauldron and the 60,000 expectant fans have paid in sweat for this moment. Every eye is riveted on the lean frame with the excalibur bat.
As the opposition's star hurler rears back, the heavy-hitting lefthander snaps his leading leg off the ground with the smooth action of a highwayman cocking a pistol. He holds the famed flamingo stance for an instant and steps, bat connecting solidly with the pitch. The ball takes the Orient Express up past a bank of floodlights and on into the night. Its return to earth is celebrated with pounding drums, whistles, streamers and the cry of the faithful. "Oh home run, Oh home run."
Oh saunters around the bases and savors the moment: "You can run slowly and there's nothing the other team can do but watch the runners come in," he explained earlier.
Arguments over whether Oh is a better home run hitter than the Babe or Aaron, who retired last year, are interesting but unresolvable. It's like asking whether George Washington was better general thatn George Patton. The Japanese don't play in the major leagues and Oh has never faced an All-American fireballer like Nolan Ryan - although he says he would like to have tried it, three or four years ago.
Japanese baseball experts aren't talking world record because they know the vulnerabilities of any such claim. The ballparks here are smaller. As the home run flies, it's only 300 feet from the plate down the line to the outfield fences instead of the usual 330 feet in the U.S. By general agreement, the pitching is slower here and super sluggers like Oh are allowed to crowd the plate without fear of brush-back pitches.
Nobody really wants to talk about it, but there's another factor called "the Oh ball." If Oh chooses not to swing at a borderline pitch, few umpires are ready to challenge his superb eyesight and judgment, so more often than not they call it a ball.
Hiroshi Arakawa, Giant batting coach who advised Oh to adopt the one-legged stance as a way of curing his lateness in getting around on the ball, is as good a judge as anyone: "It's nonsense to compare him with the Americans. Even though he hits more home runs than Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, they are greater . . . Oh is very great as a Japanese, but we don't know how many homers he would have hit in America."
Giant temmate Clyde Wright, 34, who pitched for the California Angels for eight years, is an Oh fan: "He's super, a heiluva guy. I've told him if he kept both feet on the ground he might hit 1,800 homers."
Wright wasn't about to join the Aaron vs. Oh controversy, though, "There no way I'm going to get into that," he laughed.
"The pitching is interior here, on the whole," said author Whiting. "But virtually every American player who has seen Oh hit agrees he would be a superstar in the States."
The man himself answers it with the intelligence and self-effecting candor that greatly contribute to his phenomenal popularity in Japan.I've heard these arguments many times," he explained paitently, "I have passed Babe Ruth and I will pass Hank Aaron, but it's only numbers. All you can say is that in Japan a man named Oh hit this number. No more, no less."
The lanky boy who started out in professional baseball 19 years ago as a pitcher now is a hard-used athlete struggling to hold onto his prime. The years of conditioning have hoped the skin close to the bone over his jaw and cheekbones. Baldness is gradually poking through the crewcut that is the distinguishing style of Japanese ballplayers.
He guards his energies carefully these days. The extreme rigors of routine training are not applied to Oh. After night games, he winds down carefully and dines on steak and sashimi (raw fish) before turning in at 2 a.m. Breakfast at 11 a.m. the nest day is a regal affair in Oh's luxurious home. He sits before a giant upholstered baseball mitt while his kneeling wife serves plates of food and ginseng tea, a Korean concoction reputed to have strength giving properties.
With 32 home runs so far this season, Oh is tied for the league lead. In the course of the last 18 seasons, he has won 14 home run crowns, five batting titles and 11 RB1 championships. The slugging first-sacker has been [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] career batting average is a healthy .305.
He admits that it's not so easy these days: "I don't see the ball so early these days. Once I knew it was going to be a homer when it left the pitcher's hand. Now I'm not sure until the moment it goes."
The years of dedication and sacrifice are [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] hit as slashing the ball in half with a sword. For years, he practiced slicing through falling paper sheets with a two-handed sword and took hundreds of practice swings with the bat daily.
Oh's mental approach to his profession has a mystically religious quality. He goes to the plate like a monk to the cell. "The ideal state," he says, "is a cool mind and a hot fighting spirit." When he needs to raise his level of psych-up, Oh stands on his head in the dugout and holds his breath.
Others players say Oh is a tough clutch-hitter and there's no sign that the pressures of the long over-publicized chase of Aaron's records are getting to him. "It's a minus in one way, but the encouragement is a plus," he explained calmly. The man who strikes out with a smile isn't about to start kicking over the water-cooler now.
The code of behavior and the role of the star are two major areas of difference between Japanese and American baseball. Asked about the clash of temperaments among the New York Yankees, Oh was disapproving, in an oblique Japanese way, "If a player acted in this egotistic way in Japan he would find it very difficult to survive if he went into a slump . . . We don't like this kind of behavior."
Ability made Oh a great ballplayer, but it's his character, embodying so many of the Japanese virtues, which accounts for the nation taking him to its heart.The cliched but [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] loyalty, self-discipline, stamina and physical skills that Oh clearly possess. [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]
and at least another $300,000 for endorsing Pepsi-Cola, cakes and baseball equipment. It's hard to state Oh's celebrity status in American terms. He is, quite simply, the best [LINE ILLEGIBLE] stories and he is instantly recognized everywhere from the constant press photographs, posters and television appearances.
He also figures in an international tug-of-war, which is certain to grow more heated as his fame grows. Although he considers himself Japanese. Oh was born in Taiwan and the [LINE ILLEGIBLE]
It's no accident that Oh plays for the Yomiuri Giants, a formidable, star-studded team that has dominated Japanese ball with 13 pennants and 11 championships in Oh's 19-year career. "Playing for the Yumiuri Giants is like playing for the Yankees, only more so," said Clyde Wright, "about twice as more so."
The player and the team have set records [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Oh is not finished yet. His immediate career target is 800 home runs. "Maybe I can reach 850 or 900," he said.