Friday, January 30, 2009

Tamotsu Uchibori, a catcher who spent his entire career with the Yomiuri Giants, was part of the select group of players who made up the first professional team in Japanese Baseball History, playing an instrumental role in the first two golden eras of the Tokyo team. Of the four catchers to play on the early Giants teams, two died in the war in the Pacific. Uchibori was in Burma with one of them, Masaki Yoshiwara, who was considered to be an instrumental part of the early Giants and, by some, the best of all Giant's catchers. Though Uchibori hit safely only three times in Japanese Professional Baseball's inagural season, he handled most of the primary catching duties for the 1937 seasons (Spring and Fall- for a pitching staff that included future Hall of Famers Eiji Sawamura and Victor Starffin), recorded 71 total bases and 34 rbi in 308 at bats.

Though Uchibori's stats are not impressive, he played on many of the great early teams as well as having a few good years after spending five or six years at war. At 17, he is on the manifest for the M.S. Chichibu Maru, sailing from Yokohama on Valentines day in 1935 (along with Sawamura and Takeshi Nakayama, a fellow catcher who would later catch Sawamura's first no-hitter) for the Dai Nippon Tokyo Baseball Club's tour of North America. This was the team, formed by the Yomiuri Shimbun to, at first tour the U.S. and Canada, and then become the first professional team in Japan. By June, the team had made their way into the prairie provinces of Western Canada, to the town of Saskatoon. On the evening of June 19, Uchibori and his battery-mate, Eiji Sawamura, took on the Saskatoon All-Stars for 9 innings and shut them down 14-0. Uchibori scored a run and stole a base while recording 16 putouts and probably chatting with umpire "Bunny" Clouston. When the Dai Nippon team returned to Japan and became the Tokyo Giants, Uchibori continued until 1938, went off to war, and did not return until 1946. He became their primary catcher for the Giants during the birth of their second golden era, and was splitting the catching duties with Toshiyaki Takemiya when Noboru Aota returned to the team in '48.

Note on Sources: I pull much of my information from Daniel E. Johnson's statistical book of Japanese Baseball, the works of Rob Fitts and Robert Whiting, the Data Warehouse on the Japan Baseball Daily site as well as bits of information from my ongoing research into the subject. The cards are all from my collection. If you have any questions please feel free to email me.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Unruly Bronco, Unruly Mustang, Restive Horse- these are some of the ways that Noboro Aota's nickname- jaja-uma - have been translated. His strength was legendary- accounts in the oral histories of Rob Fitts have him tossing grenades almost 230 feet- and his position at retirement as all-time home run leader in Japan illustrates the power he possessed. He liked to drink-while fighting with Takehiro Bessho he tore down a friends home and then drunkenly left- a flawed hero, like any hero should be. I am not sure why I venerate/revere a restive horse, why I collect these old heroes from a place I have never been. Maybe it is something handed down from civilization to civilization, but I am not sure if it is Zeus or Brahma who is responsible.

His first home run, some time in July or August of 1942(seven months after pearl harbor),a year when Seizo Furukawa led the league with 8 (I will feature him in the coming weeks), and the Giants were known under their wartime moniker the Tokyo Kyojin....... was the home run leader in five separate seasons 48, 51, 53, 56-57, the first of which he shared the title with teammate Tetsuharu Kawakami, when they were the only two players in the league to hit more than 20. That season he also led the league in batting, and came in third in the RBI race and just missing the triple crown and making his first best 9 along with Chusuke Kizuka (who I will also feature soon).....From his retirement in 1959 to 1963, when Yamauchi overtook him (albeit briefly, before he was taken over by Nomura and then Oh) Aota was the all time home run leader, though, I am not sure what, if any, fanfare was made about the feat. Here is a list of the all time leader at the end of each season beginning in 1938:

1938- 21 Nakajima, Haruyasu (15 Yamashita, Yamashita)
1939- 27 Nakajima, Haruyasu (22 Kageura, Masaru)
1940- 31 Nakajima, Haruyasu (22 Kageura, Masaru)
1941- 34 Nakajima, Haruyasu (23 Karita, Hisonori)
1942- 41 Nakajima, Haruyasu (23 Karita, Hisonori)
1943- 44 Nakajima, Haruyasu (25 Karita, Hisonori; Kageura, Masaru)
1944- 44 Nakajima, Haruyasu (25 Karita, Hisonori; Kageura, Masaru)
1946- 44 Nakajima, Haruyasu (33 Kawakami, Tetsuharu)
1947- 44 Nakajima, Haruyasu (39 Kawakami, Tetsuharu)
1948- 64 Kawakami, Tetsuharu (53 Oshita, Hiroshi)
1949- 91 Oshita, Hiroshi (88 Kawakami, Tetsuharu)
1950- 117 Kawakami, Tetsuharu (115 Kozoru, Makoto)
1951- 139 Kozoru, Makoto (133 Aota, Noboru)
1952- 156 Kozoru, Makoto (151 Aota, Noboru; Fujimura, Fumio)
1953- 178 Fujimura, Fumio (170 Kozoru, Makoto)
1954- 199 Fujimura, Fumio (191 Aota, Noboru)
1955- 220 Fujimura, Fumio (208 Aota, Noboru)
1956- 233 Aota, Noboru (224 Fujimura, Fumio)
1957- 255 Aota, Noboru (224 Fujimura, Fumio)
1958- 262 Aota, Noboru (230 Kozoru, Makoto)
1959- 265 Aota, Noboru (230 Kozoru, Makoto)
1960- 265 Aota, Noboru (230 Kozoru, Makoto)
1961- 265 Aota, Noboru (230 Kozoru, Makoto)
1962- 265 Aota, Noboru (230 Kozoru, Makoto)
1963- 265 Aota, Noboru (262 Yamauchi, Kazuhiro)
1964- 293 Yamauchi, Kazuhiro (274 Nomura, Katsuya)
1965- 316 Nomura, Katsuya (313 Yamauchi, Kazuhiro)
1966- 350 Nomura, Katsuya (331 Yamauchi, Kazuhiro)
1967- 385 Nomura, Katsuya (349 Yamauchi, Kazuhiro)
1968- 423 Nomura, Katsuya (370 Yamauchi, Kazuhiro)
1969- 465 Nomura, Katsuya (400 Oh, Sadaharu)
1970- 507 Nomura, Katsuya (447 Oh, Sadaharu)
1971- 536 Nomura, Katsuya (486 Oh, Sadaharu)
1972- 571 Nomura, Katsuya (534 Oh, Sadaharu)
1973- 599 Nomura, Katsuya (585 Oh, Sadaharu)
1974- 634 Oh, Sadaharu (611 Nomura, Katsuya)
1980- 868 Oh, Sadaharu (657 Nomura, Katsuya)

And why do I dote on him? Frank Gifford fumbled twice in the greatest football game ever played, and then went on to marry Kathy Lee. Fred Exley could only stand in the background as he cheered Frank on- We are all fan’s even if we want to be heroes, and heroes are strange.

"The question took me unawares, and I did not answer her for a long time. I had never before tried to articulate what the thing was, and I was fairly sure that whatever I said would come out badly and be taken all wrong. But I thought I would say something. The heavy hum of the wheels was beneath us, the darkness of the cab enshrouded us the atmosphere seemed conducive to talk. I told her about my first year in New York, how I had had this awful dream of fame, but that, unlike Gifford- who had possessed the legs and the hands and the agility, the tools of his art- I had come to New York with none of the tools of mine, writing." -Exley, "A Fan's Notes"230-231.

Each post I plan to highlight the career of a player who, like Aota, was great in his day but has not been recognized by the Hall of Fame. I am not endorsing their enshrinement- just showing the images and feats of great players from the past. Since the focus is on Home Runs, here is a great home run hitter of the 50's:

Satoshi Sugiyama

He was an instrumental part of the 1954 Dragons championship team- a team for whom he hit almost half of the home runs in the season: 28 of 70. He also led the league in rbi and, along with Michio Nishizawa, a rookie infielder named Noboru Inoue (who would go on to be one of the star infielders of the 50's), and Shigeru Sugishita, led the Dragons to a 86-40 mark, winning the Cental League from the Giants by 5 and a half games. They were led by Hall of Famer Shunichi Amachi, a former Mejii University catcher in his fourth year as Dragons mangager. They won the series, only the fifth ever played, in 7 games against the first of the powerhouse Lions teams- though Sugiyama played in only one game and got only one hit (thought he did score a run). The Dragons would not win another Series until the Perfect 7th game of the 2007 Series. That season he was one of the three outfielders to be named best 9 in the Central League, along with Hiroyuki Watanabe and Wally Yonemine, and was voted to the all star team as well.

Beginning in 1948 he was one of the top hr hitters of the 1950's- by 1959 he was one of only five players to have accumulated 200 home runs, along with Aota, Fumio Fujimura, Makoto Kozuru and Michio Nishizawa. However, his 789 strikeouts leads all of these home run hitters. In only his second season, 1949, he was one of the five players to hit more than 30 home runs, along with Fujimura, Nishizawa, Betto and Oshita. He also twice led the leauge in strikeouts, and never broke the 100 rbi barrier. In 1952, when the power surge caused by the expansion to two leagues had died down, he made the best nine for the first of two times while leading the league in Home Runs with 27 and hitting .306 with a .639 slugging percentage. He spent his last year helping the newly christened Buffaloes (a name much more charming and appropriate than Pearls) climb out of the cellar- they finished with fewer than 90 losses for the first time in three seasons. After he left, the Buffaloes lost a record 103 games in 1961, while he went on to a long coaching career.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

When I dreamed up this forum, the idea was to shine a light on the great players of the early era of baseball in Japan- players like Aota who were great but had not yet been recognized by the Hall of Fame. However, this morning I learned of the election of Aota to the Hall- I am filled with both excitement and sadness. Excitement for the one to whom I believe this honor is a long time coming, but sadness that the unsung hero of my story will no longer be the flag-bearer of the cause. Still, I think it is a good place to begin, at an ending. So, from now on, this will highlight other players who will one day be recognized as Aota has been......
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