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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