Wednesday, April 15, 2009
The 1936 season, split into a tournament style competition in the Spring and a more conventional schedule in the Fall, kicked off professional baseball in Japan. Everything was new, and no player exceeded 150 at bats. The home run leader that Fall slugged 2, and the stolen base leader, Hisonori Karita, ended up with 16. Number four on that SB list, and in the top ten in batting and rbi, was Seiichi (or Kiyokazu) Hayashi, patrolling the outfield for the Kyojin in both the Spring and Fall seasons. In the Spring tournament he, along with Harayasu Nakajima, led the Giants with 1 home run, and in the Fall he led the new-born Giants in batting, rbi, stolen bases and hits. The Giants, the premiere team in 1936, a team that had already been playing professionally longer than any other team, won the first championship that year despite going 18-9 to the Tigers 24-6 due to their dominance in the tournaments played earlier in the season. One reason for that dominance was their ace, Eiji Sawamura, who outpitched everyone and went 13 and 2 in 15 games, winning almost twice as many games as his nearest competitor.
Unfortunately for both Hayashi and the Giants, he was drafted into the military in January of 1937 (according to Japan Baseball Daily), and would not return to a Giants uniform until 1940, after which he was never very affective and ultimately retired at the end of the 1947 season, another casualty of the long Pacific War.
During that mythic 1936 season, Hayashi patrolled the pre-Korakuen outfield with a sometime pitcher, sometime infielder, jack-of-all-trades named Hachiro Maekawa. While not providing pitching support to the Hall-of-Fame aces of the early Giants pitching staff, he filled gaps and supported every aspect of the team from 1936 through 1938. Though he played some in the industrial leagues, his true calling was in coaching young ballplayers. Born in Hyogo Prefecture, he returned to manage the Takigawa Middle School team, where, in the early 1940's, he taught the finer points of the game to a young Noboru Aota (below).
In 1946, with all of the weary soldiers returning from the war, Aota found himself on the Braves with an old friend and teacher in the bullpen- Maekawa. He pitched well, winning three and losing three while providing veteran leadership to a young pitching staff and easing young Aota back into the league that he would soon dominate.
The benefit Aota gained from not only learning the game early from a member of the original professional team in Japan, but also having the chance to then share the clubhouse and bench with that same teacher, cannot be measured. No doubt he received more intimate coaching and feedback than his teamates, and it is no wonder that he honed his skills so quickly and was back with the Giants within 2 years, setting records as a superstar.
Up Next: Miracles!
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Kazuo Kasahara was robbed- not until the two league system formed in 1950 was an award given to the rookie of the year. Maybe it's fitting that Kasahara had his phenomenal 1948 season before the award existed- stats like those deserved a rookie of the decade award.
In right field for the Hawks in 1948, sharing the outfield with Toshio Kawanishi and Kazuo Horii, the rookie Kasahara became the first player in the history of professional baseball in Japan to hit 40 doubles. At the same time, he became the first player to score 100 runs in a season, no doubt aided by Hall of Famer Tokuji Iida's 92 rbi (though his 72 rbi placed him second on the Hawks, four ahead of manager/infielder/HOF star and 1948 MVP Tsuruoka). This combination of talent brought the Nankai team the first of several championships they would win over the next decade.
With Takahiso Bessho and Susumi Yumi on the mound, and fellow rookie Chisuke Kizuka already tearing up the basepaths, Kasahara and the Hawks won the second to last championship of the one-league system, edging out Aota, Kawasaki and the powerful Giants by 5 games. This was the beginning of a dynasty that would capture four of the first six Pacific League Championships.
A key factor in that dynasty would join the Hawks two years later, and win the 1951 Rookie of the Year while sharing first names with Kasahara (too bad they could not share the ROY award).
Sharing the infield duties up the middle with Chusuke Kizuka, as well as at the hot corner, Kazuo Kageyama (right) blazed into the Hawks line-up in the first year of the Pacific league and set the record for triples in a season (only to be broken the following season by Masayasu Kaneda- see below). While Kizuka was setting the mark for stolen bases in a season, Kageyama's triples helped the powerless Hawks (they were perennially at the bottom of the home run list) establish themselves as one of, if not the top team in the Pacific League. This combination of speed and golden gloves (the Hawks were at the bottom of the errors list each season as well) helped Kageyama, Kizuka, the veterans Tsuruoka, Kasahara and Iida, win and win- beating out the Lions, their nearest competitor in 1951, by 18 and a half games.
The Million Dollar Infield of Kageyama, Kizuka, Tsuruoka, Iida and Okamoto won the Best Nine (that is, a Hawk won the Best Nine for each infield position) in both 1951 and 1952, a feat that would not be accomplished again until the 1968 Giants, who also added catcher Masahiko Mori to the Best Nine trophy case - the Hawks would have accomplished it twice more, in 1953 and 1955, if not for the stellar play of Futushi Nakanishi at third base for the Lions.
In that 1951 season, Kageyama led the league in triples for the second season in a row (including becoming the first player after the war to hit three triples in a game, still a record tied with six others), while also leading in runs scored and coming in second in batting (behind Oshita, by an amazing .068!- .383 to .315). His 42 stolen bases ranked third (Kizuka was, once again, first), and his .403 on base percentage was second on the Hawks to fellow Kazuo, Kasahara's .418. That season, Kasahara (the other Kazuo, rookie of the 40's) also led the Hawks with a .507 slugging percentage, and provided the veteran leadership the Hawks needed- two years later, however, he was shipped off to the Unions.
Kazuo Kageyama, however, stayed with the Hawks until 1959 (when, after winning five of the first ten Pacific League pennants, the Hawks finally won their first Japan Series), but his productivity took a nose dive after the 1954 season. He led the league in triples almost every season until then, was the Pacific League's leader in triples for the 50's, and he is in the top 15 all time.
"The real trouble with war (modern war) is that it gives no one a chance to kill the right people." Ezra Pound said that in an epilogue to his tribute to Gaudier-Brzeska, the young sculptor who, days before being killed in an attack on Neuville St. Vaast, carved the Virgin Mary from the discarded butt of a rifle- an enthusiastic participant in the defense of France during the first World War- and at the same time a man of sensitive yet blinding artistic vision.
The image of Japanese ballplayers off to war is much like that of Gaudier-Brzeska, instead carving bats from the discarded rifles before charging out of the trench to their destiny. Even star players were thrust into glorious, yet terrifying roles that resulted in kamikaze missions and POW camps. The 1946 season, statistically at least, shows the weariness of that war- and the toll it took on all of the players who returned. Masayasu Kaneda, however, seems to have escaped that weariness. He came back with energy- in 1946 he not only led the league in batting, but set a new record for hits. A career Hanshin Tiger, and the popular captain of the team in the 50's, Kaneda played three lackluster seasons before the war, but returned to hit .347 while collecting 200 total bases for the first of 5 seasons. His true talent was in his combination of speed and power- a talent that led him to be the premier triples hitter in the 1950's.
The following season, in 1947, this talent, along with the blinding speed of Shosei Go and the power of the human locomotive, Fumio Fujimura, led the Tigers to their last championship for decades. Kaneda's 11 triples tied for the league lead, and his .311 average led the Tigers (who, as a team, led all teams in batting average by 25 points) and landed him second in batting in the league. He was also third in the league in runs scored, and carried a .419 slugging percentage.
1948- though he had a decent year (.280 average with 20 stolen bases and 75 runs scored), he was edged out of the limelight by the stars mentioned above- but he returned in 1949 to have his best season. That season he became one of only five players, along with Tokumitsu Harada in 1950, Yoshinori Hirose in 1965, Kenjiro Tamiya in 1956, and Kazuo Matsui in 2000, to hit at least 10 triples and 10 home runs while also stealing at least 20 bases and hitting 30 doubles (a 10, 10, 20, 30). (Yutaka Fukumoto came close in 1973 with 29 doubles, 10 triples, 13 home runs and 95 stolen bases, as did Toshio Naka several times in the 1960s, Shoichi Busujima in 1962, Shigeo Nagashima in 1960, Yasumitsu Toyoda in 1956, and Karao Betto in 1952.) This all around speed and power helped Kaneda score 108 runs and carry a .464 slugging percentage in that last year of the one league system.
After an off year in 1950, Kaneda had a career year in 1951- setting the all time mark for triples in a season (18), while hitting .322 and slugging .511. His 58 rbi and 81 runs scored kept up his eight year average of at least 50 rbi and 70 runs (1946-1953, though in two seasons he dipped one or two runs/rbis below average). Though the Tigers finished third, 20 games behind the powerful Giants, they were in close competition with the second place Dragons thanks to Kaneda's year. Along with Noboru Aota and Yoshiyuki Iwamoto, he was elected to the Best Nine- Outfield for the second of three times in his career.
By the end of his record setting season, he had accumulated 74 career triples (a total that would reach 103 by the time he retired in 1957), putting him one ahead of Shosei Go on the all time list, a position he would hold until 1970 when Shoichi Busujima (who had ended the 1969 season tied with Kaneda at 103, and who will be covered in a later post) surpassed him for the number one spot. Only Kaneda, Busujima and Hall of Famer Yutaka Fukumoto have over 100 lifetime triples- of those three Kaneda accomplished the feat in the fewest amount of at bats (5354ab to 7148 and 8745 ab, respectively). In addition, he hit more than 10 triples in a season six times, a feat no one has matched. And every season that he led the league in triples, he also led the league in doubles. His ability to consistently put himself into scoring position helped him to score 881 times, placing him at number three on the all time list when he retired in 1957- behind only Kawakami and Makoto Kozuru- as one of the premier run producers of the 1950's.