Sunday, May 6, 2018

Takesue


Summer, post-war Tokyo.  The heat on the streets could be known to drain the energy from young and old alike, healthy and not, moral or immoral.  The heat in dead summer was stifling, and its no surprise that it was expressed most poetically by Akira Kurosawa.

In his film Stray Dogs, the protagonists, two detectives, spend an extended amount of time seeking a gun on the melting streets of Tokyo.  This investigation eventually brought the two cops to Korakuen Stadium, where a local dealer is confronted, the viewer can spot another duel in the sweltering heat, similar to that between criminal and crime fighter - that between pitcher and batter.

The batter is the God of Batting, Tetsuharu Kawakami.  The pitcher, at least for that blistering summer of '49, was the master of the strikeout - Shissho Takesue.

Thirty years later, in the opening days of the 1970 season, crime once again entered the stadium where Takesue worked, infiltrating his pitching staff and forcing him from the game.  Four pitchers were eventually banned for life after organized crime elements, known as bakuto, persuaded them to throw games for bribes, a scandal known as the Black Mist.  Takesue took leave of his position as coach for the Nishitetsu Lions, who had won the Pacific League pennant in his second year as a coach.


In between, Shissho Takesue led a life of relative harmony, devoid of much drama or crime, fulfilling a dream of playing professional baseball.  Yet, like those fictional protagonists melting on the streets of Tokyo, he burned out in a flash.

His success as a coach can be traced 30 years prior, to that summer of 1949, the final year of the old one league system, when Takesue had erupted onto the scene with a wicked sidearm delivery that propelled him from the industrial leagues to one of the best pitchers in Japan.

Takesue's unique delivery, a sidearm so low it was almost underhanded, contributed to his success in 1949.  He had developed his delivery only because of a shoulder injury incurred during WWII.

He had pitched in school in Fukuoka before traveling to Manchuria to play for the Dalian High Commercial School.  After returning to Japan he played for industrial teams prior to the start of the war, but success had eluded him.  That was, until his injury forced him to adopt a sidearm delivery that added velocity and created a rise in the ball that fooled batters.

Takesue then found a spot in the post-war industrial leagues, pitching in 1948 for the Nishinihon Railroad team.  The team was stocked with future professionals and ran deep into the playoffs.  Despite suffering from a gallbladder infection Takesue pitched admirably, winning all of his games and gaining national recognition.


Soon, Japan's professional league came calling.  The league had grown exponentially in popularity during the post-war years, as well as  interest from investors seeking to profit off of the large fan turnout.  The Nankai Hawks, managed at that time by future Hall of Famer Kazuto Tsuruoka (Yamamoto), competed with the Hanshin Tigers for his services.  After some confusion over contracts, Takesue was persuaded to sign on with Tsuruoka and the Hawks.  It proved to be a good match.

The sidearm delivery that had proven so effective in the industrial leagues baffled hitters at Japanese baseball's highest level.  Because this was the final year of the single league system, Takesue faced all of the top professional hitters of the day, including Tetsuharu Kawakami, Makoto Kozuro, Karao Betto, Hiroshi Oshita, and Noboru Aota.  Though the Hawks finished fourth in the league, he dominated hitters and along with Tokuji Iida and Chisuke Kizuka was the star of the team.  He finished the season among the league leaders in ERA, wins, and innings pitched, while leading the league in strikeouts with 183. 

He was also one of the few bespectacled pitchers in pro baseball on either side of the Pacific. He and fellow glasses-wearing pro Kaoru Betto would be the stars of the 1949 season, giving hope to all those prospective ballplayers just short of 20/20 vision. 

Though there was no post-season in '49, Takesue would find a place on what can be described as a combination playoff and All-star pitching staff.  At the close of the season, as the league executives brokered expansion details, US occupation leaders embraced the leagues popularity in turn and orchestrated the first visit of professional ballplayers from the states since 1934. 

The San Francisco Seals arrived after season's end and played a series of games against various teams as well as an All Star team comprised of the best of the '49 Season.  In a game against the Seals on October 29, 1949, Takesue pitched in relief of Victor Starffin before 70,000 rabid fans.  It was still scoreless when he found himself with the bases loaded and two outs in the 7th.  With the fans roaring the loudest they had all day, he was able to get Leroy Jarvis to hit into an inning ending ground out.  Later, catcher Jarvis complimented the submarine pitcher and rated him as good as any PCL pitcher.  Unfortunately, one of only two hits that day given up by Takesue and Starrfin was a home run by Dick Steinhauer in the ninth to give the Seals a slim 1-0 victory.

By the beginning of the 1950 season, professional baseball in Japan had officially split into a Central League and a Pacific League, nearly doubling the number of teams and, in turn, the number of opportunities for ballplayers across the country.

One of those teams, owned by the Nishi-Nippon Railroad Company, or Nishtetsu, had evolved out of their club team and was called the Nishitetsu Clippers As the Clippers player-manager, Kaname Miyazake led a mismatched team that included several former Hawks, including Takesue, and many players taking advantage of the expansion rosters.

Though he was among the league leaders in ERA and finished with a record of 12-6, Takesue pitched in nearly half the innings he had pitched the previous season, a sign that his sidearm approach, born of an already injured shoulder, had already begun to wear out in it's own right. The Clippers did not fare much better, finishing only a few wins out of the cellar of the Pacific League and leading the league as a team in errors and fielding the second worst team ERA.

In 1951 the Clippers merged with the Pirates to become the Nishitetsu Lions, and Takesue was once again paired with a Hall of Fame manager.  Osamu Mihara had managed the Yomiuri Giants from 1947 through the end of the 1949 season.  As the Giants entered the Central League in 1950 Mihara was replaced with his former Giants teammate and rival Shigeru Mizuhara.  Though Mihara would go on to lead the Lions to several Japan Series titles later in the 50's, he could only lead them to a second place finish behind Takesue's old team the Hawks.  Though his stats were fading, the submarine pitcher still had a decent year.  He finished 11-7 and was selected to represent the Pacific League in the first All Star series in NPB history.

The following season was not as rosy.  Despite a modest 3.64 ERA he finished with a 2-8 record having pitched just over 100 innings.  The Lions fared much better under Mihara's leadership but were still a few years away from their first Japan Series appearance.  Unfortunately, Takesue would not be a part of those championship teams.  He only pitched 30 innings in 1953, posting a 7.55 ERA that must have disappointed Mihara, who let him go at seasons' end.

Shissho Takesue began the 1954 season with the Takahashi Unions.  Though he was not the workhorse he had been in '49, he combined with future hall of famer Victor Starffin to fill out the Unions' rotation, posting a respectable 2.95 ERA over 125 innings pitched.  Unfortunately, the expansion Unions had the second worst offense in the Pacific League and committed more errors than any other team.  Takesue finished with an abysmal 3-4 record pitching, once again, for a team just barely out of the cellar.

He would only pitch 6 innings over 14 games in 1955, giving up 14 runs on his way to an ugly 19.50 ERA. His arm no longer able to toss either overhead or submarine, Takesue decided to announce his retirement at the age of 32.  The only bright spot from the '55 season was witnessing his teammate Starffin become the first 300 game winner in the history of the sport in Japan.

It's possible that, without developing his sidearm delivery, Shissho Takesue would never had made it in pro ball to begin with.  Nonetheless, the rapid decline of his skills must have been bittersweet enough to convince Takesue to continue his charmed involvement in pro ball.  After spending time as a broadcaster, he accepted the position as pitching coach during the 1962 season for his former team the Lions. In his first year as a coach the Lions reached the post season.  They finished the season in 3rd place, but the following season, in part thanks to a 2.69 team ERA, the Lions won the pennant. 

Takesue would continue as pitching coach for the rest of the decade, managing some of the best arms in the game, until the fateful decision by Masayaki Nagayasu, along with a handful of other NPB ballplayers, to accept money from organized criminals to fix games.  Though Takesue was, as he had been in the background of Kurosawa's film, simply an extra in the narrative of the scandal, he would retire from his role in uniform and move to the background, taking work as a scout.

Shissho Takesue died at the age of 75 in June of 1998.  He would never have fathomed, as the cameras rolled during that magical 1949 season that he would finally hang up his uniform as a result of a similar act of crime, real, this time, instead of fictional. Never the less, he could be proud of a career that defied expectations and helped usher in the modern era of pro ball in Japan.



Sunday, April 1, 2018

Ohtani

     Shohei Ohtani won his major league debut as a pitcher today, only a few days after his Opening Day debut in MLB as a designated hitter.  It remains to be seen if he can continue in his duel role with the Angels, one he played so well with the Nippon-Ham Fighters.  But after his first few days in a California uniform it seems probable that he may become the first two-way player the majors have seen in quite a while.
     Sadaharu Oh (right) knows all too well how difficult such a role can be to pull off.  A star on the mound and in the batters box in high school, Oh came to the Giants in 1959 with the potential to dazzle with both arm and bat.  However, the Giants, seeing the power in his swing as far superior to his arm, moved him to 1st base and instructed him to focus all of his energy on hitting.  Though not an immediate success, he would go on to set the all time home run record and become an international phenomenon. 
Coming up next: Takesue!

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Arky Vaughan

After Arky Vaughan died in a freak fishing accident in the summer of 1952 he was rightfully remembered as an All-Star infielder and batting champion for the Pirates and Dodgers. As the years passed his career was lauded as worthy of the Hall of Fame, and he was eventually enshrined there.  Missing from that narrative was Vaughan's role in the 1949 San Francisco Seals tour of Japan.

Arky (real name Joseph Floyd) never even made it to Japan, even if his fame preceded him.

After three years off from baseball, he had come back to the Dodgers in 1947, where he would get to play in the only World Series of his career.  Despite a resurgent spring that left him with a .325 average at the end of '47, he spent a less than stellar two year stint with Brooklyn.  At the close of the 1948 season, he was seemingly at the point of ending a stellar career.  Thought a star in his day, modern metrics reveal a career even more valuable than most contemporaries considered.  He never won an MVP, but was a consistent leader in  OPS and, as measured today, WAR, finishing his career with 72.9 according to Baseball Reference.

At the start of 1949 Vaughan decided to play one more season in the sun, but this time closer to home.  He signed on with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League and would eventually play in 97 games, roughly half of the teams games that season.  Though he hit .288 with 6 triples, he was already set to hang up his spikes by July, telling reporters "when this season is over I'm going back to my home in Uklah (120 miles north of San Francisco) and buying another cattle ranch."  He sat out almost the entire month of August before hanging it up officially on September 3, citing a gall bladder issue.  He would be comfortably resting in Northern California when the Seals were welcomed by thousands of fans in a parade through Tokyo on October 12.

The Seals won 10 games and lost 1 during their trip through Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe.  They faced an All-Star team composed of the stars of Japan in 1949, including Makoto Kozuru, Kaoru Betto, Tetsuharu Kawakami and Noboru Aota, as well as the Yomiuri Giants and Army/Navy/Air Force squads. Almost every game sold out, with some games drawing nearly 60,000 fans who waited in overnight lines to obtain tickets.

Several sets of menko cards were produced in the time leading up to and during the Seals tour of Japan, including the set cataloged as JCM 50, which features the card pictured above of Vaughan.  This was not the only set featuring Vaughan, though most known sets included only the players who played in Japan, such as Al Lein, Con Dempsey and Dino Rostelli, as well as Lefty O'Doul.

If he had made the trip, he would have been the most famous player, and, next to O'Doul, the most well known American baseball figure to have visited Japan since the 1934 tour featuring the likes of Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx and company.  So it makes sense that, even with his absence, his likeness would make the trip.

More on the '49 tour to come, as well as part 2 of the history of the Two League system.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Hall of Fame Class 2018

     Though Hideki Matsui will most likely not be elected to the US Hall of Fame in 2018, Matsui, along with Tomoaki Kanemoto, Tatsunori Hara and Masao Taki were elected to the Hall of Fame in Tokyo on Monday, Jan. 15.  The results of the Players Division show Matsui earning 91.3% of the vote and Kanemoto 75.5%, while Hara earned 78.7% of the Expert Division vote and Taki over 75% of the Special Division vote.  Kazuyoshi Tatsunami and Hiroshi Gondo were within 10% of the vote of being elected.  All four will be inducted this summer.
     Hideki Matsui becomes the first position player to be elected the Hall of Fame who spent a large portion of his career in the US.  Hideo Nomo was the first pitcher, and Lefty O'Doul the first contributor.  Before a stellar career in MLB, Matsui won 3 MVPs while hitting 332 home runs, including 4 in the Koshien tournaments (one of which earned him the moniker 'Godzilla'), four Japan Series home runs, and eight All Star homers to go along with his 332 career regular season homers.
     He went on to help the Yankees win two pennants and a Series, winning a Series MVP in the process, and hit enough dingers in MLB to end up with over 500 for his career between the two leagues.
     In You Gotta Have Wa, Robert Whiting wrote that "the traditional Japanese ideal is a humble, uncomplaining, obedient soul like Giants star Tatsunori Hara, who was once chosen in a poll as the 'male symbol of Japan'."
     Whiting continued "Hara went on to have many fine seasons", winning an MVP in 1983 "while helping the Giants win the pennant.  But fans, commentators, and coaches were never satisfied.  They complained that he struck out too often in key situations, that he couldn't hit a decent forkball, that he couldn't hit the 40-homer mark.  He did not have the mark of greatness of an Oh or Nagashima."
     Yet he set a record slamming 20 or more homers in each of his first 12 seasons, and finished  his career sporting a .279/.355/.523 line with 382 homers and 11 All Star Appearances. 
     However, he enters the Hall as a manager, and not as a player (though he came close in his last election as one), bringing 7 pennants and 3 Japan Series titles to the same Giants team for which he hit cleanup for so many years.
     The criticism Hara received while a player, that he was "not tough enough", led to all sorts of remedies taken by coaches, including being sent on a spiritual mountain retreat ["yamagomori"] and "minute of analyses of Hara's batting form", that furthered notions he was "overcoached".  This experience may have influenced his managing philosophy, and led to his success in the dugout.
     The election of Tomoaki Kanemoto is no surprise.  He finished a stellar career with Hiroshima and Hanshin among the all time leaders in hits, homers, and RBIs, as well as setting records for consecutive innings and games played.  Like Matsui, he has four Japan Series homers.  He hit for the cycle in 1999 and added the 2005 MVP to his seven Best Nine selections.
     Masao Taki, elected by the Special Selection Committee, spent his career playing and coaching university and high school level baseball, appearing at many Spring and Summer Koshien's..



Monday, January 16, 2017

Hall of Fame Class of 2017

Today the Hall of Fame in Tokyo announced that Senichi Hoshino (right), Masaji Hiromatsu, Tsutomu Itoh, Hiroshi Goshi and Merie Suzuki were elected as the 2017 Hall of Fame Class.  Itoh had received the most votes last year of all candidates not elected in the Players Division.  Similarly, Hoshino and Hiromatsu were the leading vote getters among the Expert Division class not elected last year.


Senichi Hoshino (left) played shortstop for Korashiki High School before taking the mound at Meiji University, where he pitched a no-hitter against rival Rikkio University.  Drafted by Chuinichi in 1968, he was a six time all star, who led the league in saves while also posting a 15-9 record in 1974 to win the Sawamura Award.  After retiring he was a commentator for NHK before going on to manage the Dragons, Tigers and Golden Eagles, accumulating 4 pennants and one Japan Series title.


Masaji Hiramatsu (right, and at bottom) won a Koshien Tournement before going on to win a Sawamura award for the Whales.  An eight time all star, he would go on to win just over 200 games, while also setting a Central League record for hit batsmen.  Hiramatsu was also solid at the plate, hitting 25 career home runs. He became a television analyst after retiring in 1984.

Drafted out of High School, Tsutomu Itoh (left) would go on to lead the great Lions teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s as a superb handlers of pitchers.  In addition to his pitch handling, Itoh was the best fielding catcher of his day, setting multiple records for errorless chances and fielding percentage.  He was also good with a bat, hitting 156 lifetime home runs while setting a record for sacrifice bunts.  He acknowledged Wally Yonamine, as well as Tetsuharu Kawakami and Tatsro Hirooka, in his remarks after learning of his election.

Hiroshi Goshi was a longtime Koshien Tournament umpire, and Mirei Suzuki contributed to the improvement and understanding of baseball rules.  For more see the Japan Hall of Fame website.




Sunday, January 8, 2017

Daryl Spencer

Daryl Spencer, who played for the Giants, Cardinals, Dodgers and Reds before leading the Hankyu Braves to their first ever pennant in 1967, died last week.  He was 88.  Though the Braves lost the 1967 Japan Series to the V-9 Giants, Spencer hit 3 home runs in the 6 game series, and would go on to lead the Braves to three more post-season births.

Spencer hit over 100 home runs in a military-service interrupted MLB career, including the first major league home run on the West Coast, for the Giants in 1958.  That he hit it in Seals Stadium, home to the team that, a decade prior, had helped usher in a new era in Japanese Professional Baseball with a triumphant tour that spurned on the two league system, proved somewhat prescient.

After being released from the Reds in 1963, he received several offers from NPB, including one from the Hawks.  He settled with the Braves, and quickly regretted not taking up the Hawks offer after witnessing the close fences at their home park.  Though he may have challenged Sadaharu Oh for some home run crowns with the Hawks, he still hit 36 to come in second in the Pacific League in 1964, 5 behind legendary slugger Katsuya Nomura. 

Credited with introducing the hard slide to the Japanese professional ranks, his skill and leadership, along with some fine pitching from Takao Kajimoto and Tetsuya Yoneda, helped turn the Braves from perennial cellar dwellers into champions.  Having never appeared in the post season in the US, Spencer helped the Braves to consecutive pennants in '67-'68. He was awarded the 'Outstanding Player' award for the '67 Series and the 'Leading Hitter' award in '68. The Braves would return again in 1969 as well, though by then Spencer was back in Wichita.


The team invited him back as a coach in 1971, and, though he showed up overweight with no intention of playing, his coaching duties quickly improved his physique to the point where the team asked him to become a player-coach.  The Braves would go on to another back-to-back pennant run with player-coach Spencer , though they could never clinch a Series victory against the powerful Yomiuri Giants.




Saturday, October 29, 2016

Diamond Diplomacy



A new documentary now in production called Diamond Diplomacy: U.S. Japan Relations Through A Shared Love Of Baseball needs your support!


Go over and see what IndieWire and Rafu Shimpo have to say and then please donate....
 
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