Friday, February 20, 2009

Kizuka & Kanayama- Theft Champs of the 1950's

Chusuke Kizuka and Jiro Kanayama are number 4 and 6 on the all time stolen base list, respectively, and are the only players from the immediate post-war era to steal more than 400 bases.

From the beginning of professional baseball in Japan, the inside game has always reigned- speed had always been more popular than power. Read Rob Fitts' book on Wally Yonamine- though the style of base running has changed, the stolen base has been consistently popular throughout- NPB teams averaged 109 sb per season in 1946, 104 for PL in 52, 99 for the CL in 1963, 99 in PL in 1980, 52 by CL in 1993, 67 in PL in 2008. A slight decline, but still enough

From 1956, three years before his retirement, to 1970, Chusuke Kizuka (above right) was the all time stolen base record holder- like Aota, his achievement has been lost to time and the overwhelming achievments of his successors, including Yutaka Fukumoto and his record shattering 1065.

Here is a list of the all-time stolen base leader at the end of each season (2nd place in parentheses)

1936 (S&F)- 27 Karita, Hisanori (17 Matsuki, Kenjiro; Hiramasu, Toshio)
1937 (S&F)- 56 Karita, Hisanori (49 Yamaguchi, Masanobu)
1938 (S&F)- 71 Karita, Hisanori (66 Yamaguchi, Masanobu)
1939- 98 Karita, Hisanori (78 Matsuki, Kenjiro; Shima, Hidenosuke)
1940- 116 Karita, Hisanori (85 Ishida, Masayoshi)
1941- 123 Karita, Hisanori (100 Tsubouchi, Michinori)
1942- 144 Tsubouchi, Michinori (126 Karita, Hisanori)
1943- 180 Tsubouchi, Michinori (154 Go, Shosei)
1944- 196 Tsubouchi, Michinori (173 Go, Shosei)
1946- 222 Tsubouchi, Michinori (200 Yamada, Den)
1947- 243 Tsubouchi, Michinori (238 Go, Shosei)
1948- 273 Go, Shosei (279 Tsubouchi, Michinori)
1949- 287 Go, Shosei (279 Tsubouchi, Michinori)
1950- 316 Go, Shosei (307 Tsubouchi, Michinori)
1951- 344 Tsubouchi, Michinori (316 Go, Shosei)
1952- 344 Tsubouchi, Michinori (316 Go, Shosei)
1953- 344 Tsubouchi, Michinori (341 Kanayama, Jiro)
1954- 374 Kanayama, Jiro (362 Kizuka, Chusuke)
1955- 415 Kanayama, Jiro (400 Kizuka, Chusuke)
1956- 434 Kizuka, Chusuke (433 Kanayama, Jiro)
1957- 464 Kizuka, Chusuke (456 Kanayama, Jiro)
1958- 478 Kizuka, Chusuke (456 Kanayama, Jiro)
1959- 479 Kizuka, Chusuke (456 Kanayama, Jiro)
1960- 479 Kizuka, Chusuke (456 Kanayama, Jiro)
1961- 479 Kizuka, Chusuke (456 Kanayama, Jiro)
1962- 479 Kizuka, Chusuke (456 Kanayama, Jiro)
1963- 479 Kizuka, Chusuke (456 Kanayama, Jiro)
1964- 479 Kizuka, Chusuke (456 Kanayama, Jiro)
1965- 479 Kizuka, Chusuke (456 Kanayama, Jiro)
1966- 479 Kizuka, Chusuke (456 Kanayama, Jiro)
1967- 479 Kizuka, Chusuke (456 Kanayama, Jiro)
1968- 479 Kizuka, Chusuke (456 Kanayama, Jiro)
1969- 479 Kizuka, Chusuke (467 Hirose, Yoshinori)
1970- 495 Hirose, Yoshinori (479 Kizuka, Chusuke)
1971- 531 Hirose, Yoshinori (479 Kizuka, Chusuke)
1972- 573 Hirose, Yoshinori (479 Kizuka, Chusuke)
1973- 577 Hirose, Yoshinori (479 Kizuka, Chusuke)
1974- 583 Hirose, Yoshinori (479 Kizuka, Chusuke)
1975- 593 Hirose, Yoshinori (504 Fukumoto, Yutaka)
1976- 595 Hirose, Yoshinori (566 Fukumoto, Yutaka)
1977- 627 Fukumoto, Yutaka (596 Hirose, Yoshinori)
1988- 1065 Fukumoto, Yutaka (596 Hirose, Yoshinori)

He was voted to the best nine (similar to being an all star, but selected at the end of the season- one for each position including pitcher) as shortstop for the last two years of the one-league system (48 and 49) and as shortstop in the first 3 years of the Pacific League. After one year off he was again voted to the Best 9 as a shortstop in 1955. His best seasons corresponded to the best years of the Hawks, beginning in 1948 when his best-9 performance (assisted by Kazuo Kasahara, who will be discussed in another post soon) at shortstop helped his team capture the championship from the newly invigorated Giants, the only time in Kizuka's career that his Hawks would best the powerful Yomiuri team.

Kizuka began his career as a more balanced player, averageing 50 rbi and 45 sb a season in his first two seasons (48 and 49), but by 1950 had transitioned to a run scorer, stealing a then record 78 bases and scoring 94 runs while hitting .301. In his first 10 seasons, he stole 30 or more bases, and for his career posted an 81% success rate, second only to Yoshinori Hirose for players with more than 400 stolen bases. He played his entire career for the Nankai Hawks, under Kazuto Tsuruoka (aka Yamamoto), the Hall of Fame player/manager, and alongside Tokuji Iida, Kazuo Kageyama and Kazuo Horii, helping them to three consecutive pennants between 1951 and 1953, then again in 55, though they lost to the Giants (and Aota in 51 and 52) in each series. In 4 Japan Series he was terrible at the plate, batting .123 in 81 at bats, but he did steal 3 bases and hit a home run in the 53 series off of Takehiso Bessho (one of two homers in the same inning). The 1951 series was his best, with 4 hits and a stolen base, though his manager and fellow middle infielder Tsuruoka hit .421- and yet, the Hawks still lost in 5 games to Kawakami, Aota, and the rest of the powerhouse Giants. In the '55 series, Kizuka hit only .074 with two hits, one stolen base and one sacrifice, but was awarded Outstanding Technique in the Hawks 7 game loss.

In 1949, Kizuka came close to breaking the single season record for stolen bases, set the year before at 66 by Toshio Kawanishi, and then broke it the following season. That 1950 season was the first following the expansion of the NPB into two leagues, Cental and Pacific. Almost all previous records were broken during that 1950 season, due perhaps to the addition of 7 teams that spread the talent thin. Stolen bases were not immune: Kizuka and Jiro Kanayama set the standard (while shattering Kizuka's previous record) with 78 and 74, respectively. This mark stood until 1956, when it was broken by Akiteru Kono, and then set for good in 1972 by all time stolen base champ and Hall of Famer Yutaka Fukumoto at 106.

Jiro Kanayama (above) began his career in 1943 with the Chunichi Dragons, then known under their war-time moniker of Nagoya, but was used primarily in pinch hit situations as a sacrifice. In '44, however, he led the league in home runs, albeit with 3 in only 35 games. Like Kizuka, he was a middle infielder, and, for most of his career, he was paired with Hall of Famer Makoto Kozoru. They made a good pair in the field as well as at the plate, a fact that is most evident in the 1950 season. While Kozuru led the league in home runs and rbi for the Central League champion Robins, Kanayama led the league in at bats and stolen bases (setting the pace along with Kizuka in the Pacific League) while scoring 104 runs and hitting .311 (and supported by Shoji Arakawa, who led the league in triples and scored 88 runs as well).

Kanayama and Kozuru first played together on Dragons in the inagural season after the war, and helped the last place team in '46 move to 2nd place in '47. The 1947 Dragons were aided by slugger Seizo Furukawa (who will be covered in a later post), whose 11 home runs tied Noboru Aota of the Braves for 3rd on league leaders list. Kozuru and Kanayama moved together to the Flyers in '48, and then together to the Stars in '49, but did not do too much in helping Hiroshi Oshita ('48 HR leader and Flyers star) or Victor Starffin ('49 wins leader and Stars ace) out of the cellar. It was not until they moved (again, together) to the Robins in 1950 that they both hit their stride.

For the next 6 seasons, Kanayama averaged 52 thefts per season, and 68 runs per season, aided by Kozuru's slugging. He led the Cental League, or came in 2nd, in stolen bases every year between 1950 and 1952, but the Robins slid quickly, from champs in '50 to last place in '52. So, in '53, both he and Kozuru moved again, this time to the Hiroshima Carp. There they both wound down their career in Hiroshima [alongside Ryohei Hasegawa, the only hall of fame pitcher with a losing record thanks to the hapless Carp and Fibber Hirayama, who, upon his arrival from California received a huge welcoming parade in Hiroshima], helping the lowly Carp avoid the bottom of the Central league, but never helping them to achieve a .500 mark.


A news magazine recently quoted director Ari Folman (Waltz with Bashir) citing his mother as saying "there were no superheroes except for Federico Fellini". Fellini has said that we all have a bit of circus dust in the salty tang of our blood (though Fellini may have been more interested in the clowns than the superheros)- the nature of hero as entertainer as well as warrior- in Japan as well as Rome as well as Israel. Few things in baseball are as entertaining as a stolen base, the air of anticipation, the speed and grace and dramatic meeting of the ball and baserunner. Jackie Robinson steeling home is one of the most culturally significant contributions baseball has made to American culture: think of Jesse Jacksons famous eulogy in which he said that Jackie stole home, and he's safe. Aota, though a warrrior, was entertainer as well, strong as an ox and blasting home runs, fast on the basepaths and the only postwar player to have 250 hr and 150 sb; in addition he is one of only a handful (including Fujimura and most likely a few others) to have over 200hr and 150sb- though the 200/150 club does not have much of a ring to it. A five tool player, as described in the excellent new book by Rob Fitts, was rarely appreciated before Wally Yonemine, and so the 200/150 club members are remembered only for the 200- the heroics of power once again overshadowing the heroics of grace.

Back to the timeline:
Noboru Aota began his career with the Giants in 1942 and 43, but when he returned from the war, he spent two seasons with the Hankyu Braves:

It was with the Braves that he honed the skills that would bring him back to the team most connected with his spirit, the Giants. 1947 saw him tie for 3rd in home runs with Furukawa, and steal 20 or more bases for the second season in a row. The Braves of 46-47 were no powerhouse team, though they had some stars including Den Yamada, the Noguchi brothers (Akira and his Hall of Fame brother Jiro), Rentaro Imanishi, who won 20 games in 47, and Fujio Ueda, who left the Braves the following season to become an umpire. The following season his power and speed would catapult him to the top of the league, and his return to the Giants would help usher in a second golden age for the team.

Next Post: 1948!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Dick Howser is remembered for his abilities as a coach and manager, and not as much for his days in the lineup as a short stop in the American League. However, his 1961 rookie card describes an imposing force: “Dick was a terror last year as his bat reaped destruction through two leagues.” Though it may be hard to picture Howser's bat reaping any type of destruction, the imagery of power and fear instilled by a ballplayer feeds to our perception of them as idols or spirits- gods that produce runs, runs being the blood of the game. Noboru Aota could produce runs at a destructive rate- he is one of the three players who played their careers before 1959 to finish with more than 1000 rbi. The other two are Tetsuharu Kawakami (the God of Batting) and Fumio Fujimura (with a bat named "clothesline"). His durability was matched by his seasonal terror: of the top 7 all time single season rbi record holders, four accomplished their feat in the powerhouse season of 1950, and Aota hit 134 that season, landing him at number 7 on the list (a mark that would be equaled 35 years later by Randy Bass as he helped the Hanshin Tigers win their first ever Japan Series). And between 1948 and 1951, he averaged 110 rbi per season- from the start, Aota was a reaper of runs, tied for the league lead in only his second season, that great 1943 season that was the last remnant of the original professional league. That '43 season was also the season that Den Yamada set the pre-war record for stolen bases in a season.

Yamada set the single season stolen base mark in 1943 with 56 stolen bases, just ahead of Hall of Famer Shosei Go, who had 54. Not too long after beginning his career in 1937, he was the first player, along with Yoshio Gomi (who, according to Japan Baseball Daily, was a POW in Siberia as well as a business owner after the war, opening a taxi stand with Makoto Kozoru and Jiro Kanayama [another SB champ who will be covered in the next post]) to steal 30 bases in a season.
After returning from the war, he did not miss a step in the 1946 season, ending up 2nd in the league in stolen bases with 36 . He played for the Braves that season , leading them in stolen bases, walks and runs, though his teammate, Noboru Aota, fresh from the war, was runner up in sb and runs. Aota led that great Hankyu team in both total bases and rbi, most likely driving in Yamada frequently. However, their best pitcher that year, Jiro Noguchi, who had won between 25 and 40 games for 5 seasons in a row before the war, but, like most of the men returning from that terrible war, was too exhausted to produce much- hence the low statistical record and fourth place finish for the whole team despite the great group of players that season.

Yamada spent his entire career with the Hankyu Braves, and only came close to winning a championship in 1941, when his team came in second to the Tokyo Kyojin (Giants) (who, with the exception of the spring 1938 season, when the Tigers won it all, had been at the head of the league at the end of every season since pro baseball’s inception). The 1941 Hankyu team included Kotaro Mori, who went 30-8 with a 0.89 era- though the season is the definition of a dead-ball era season. Yamada was 10th in the league in batting with his .234 average, and the only player to hit over .267 was Tetsuharu Kawakami, who beat out the competition by 43 points with a .310 mark. Though 6 of the 10 batting leaders were teammates of Kawakami on the pennant winning Kyojin (Giants), Hankyu's team average (led by Yamada) was .207, along with Kyojin the only team to hit over .200. The season ended only a few months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and baseball in Japan did not return to form until Yamada was ready to retire- a fading baseball hero in a time when heros were overlooked so that everyone could forget....
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