Monday, May 11, 2009

Miracles (pt. 1)
The other night I witnessed, first hand, something miraculous. Chris Richard of the Durham Bulls hit 2 grand slams in the same game, the first player to accomplish the feat in the league since 1957.
In 1936, Tony Lazzeri became the first player to hit two grand slams in one game- not home runs, but grand slams- and only eleven players have done it since in the majors (including Fernando Tatis hitting two in the same inning). In the roughly 300,000 games played since the turn of the 20th Century, only 12 players have done it. In the roughly 50,000 games played in the history of professional baseball in Japan, only one man has done it. Shigeya Iijima.
After the war, Iijima joined the Senators, who would become the Flyers the following year. During the 1946 season, his rookie season, he finished the season seventh in batting with a .312 average and second in home runs with 12, 8 behind fellow rookie and teammate HOF'er Hiroshi Oshita. He also led the Senators in runs, hits, doubles and walks to give him a league leading .426 OBP. All this while splitting fielding duties between first and third base. The following two seasons, the bespectacled Iijima's performance slowly declined, and by the middle of the 1948 season he was only hitting .206 and splitting first base duties with five other players. The presence of three future Hall of Famers, compounded by his age (born in 1918, he had been a 28 year old rookie in '46 and was now looking to be an old 30) most likely led the Flyers to believe that his poor numbers were not going to ever rebound- he was expendable. The following season he found himself, along with Makoto Kozuru (another future HOF teammate from the Flyers in '48), on the Stars of Daiei- leading them to a third place finish, five and a half games ahead of the Flyers. The pair led the Stars in almost every category, and the 31 year old Iijima finished the season with a .548 slugging percentage and 25 home runs, as well as 67 walks, all within the top five in the league.
The following season, several teams were added and two leagues were formed, and Iijima and the Stars took up shop in the new Pacific League. Even with the dramatic rise in stats that resulted from the influx of new players and new stadiums, Iijima still placed third in the PL in home runs and slugging percentage, and won his first of three Best Nine awards for the outfield. With the departure of Kozuru to the Robins, Iijima became the power-center of the Stars, leading them in almost every offensive category (though it is important to point out that Victor Starrfin, while pitching 35 games for the Stars, filled in a number of times at first base, compiling 114 at bats with at .333 batting average, 18 rbi and a .468 slugging percentage). During that four year span ('49-'52) Iijima's slugging percentage never dipped below .500, and he was the premiere run producer for his team (though the Stars never placed higher than third).
His least productive year during that span was 1951, yet it was in October of that year that he hit his two grand slams (off of a fairly terrible Braves pitching staff that had only one pitcher [4-3] with a record over .500). How was it that Iijima came to perform such a feat- a very good hitter at the tail end of a "dead ball" era, though certainly not at the top of the power-hitting elite in the league? Was his performance that October a fluke, or the rest of his career just unlucky enough to fall at the wrong time? Why has no one else done this- and why Iijima? How much does chaos and randomness affect the performan, and legacy, of a player- how does it ensure his place in any "hall of fame"? More on this in part II of this post.

A .282 career hitter, his 115 home runs were enough to place him at 11 on the all time home run list when he retired in 1955. Though he did not play long enough to compile the stats one might associate with a Hall of Famer, he packed a lot of power into a career that essentially began when he was 30 because of the war. What was more impressive was his eye, as in his batting eye. For every strikeout in his career, he drew 1.52 walks- only Kawakami, the God of Batting, had a higher percentage, with a 1.92 walk to strikeout ratio. Here is a list of the top eleven home run hitters of all time at the end of the 1955 season, along with their walk to strikeout ratio:

Tetsuharu Kawakami 1.92
Shigeya Iijima 1.52
Fujio Fujimura 1.48
Karao Betto 1.25
Yoshiyuki Iwamoto 1.16
Tokuji Iida 1.06
Michio Nishizawa 1.04
Makoto Kozuru 1.02
Hiroshi Oshita 0.87
Noboru Aota 0.74
Satoru Sugiyama 0.47

Just for comparison, here are the ratios for Bonds, Ruth and Aaron, respectively: 1.66, 1.55, 1.01. Some may say that the role of a power hitter is not to walk, but to hit the ball hard- but the name of the game is scoring runs, and if a power hitter can also get on base, they are a double threat.

During Iijima's last season with the Stars, he hit only 10 home runs, but he was still in the top 25 hitters in the league, drove in 60 runs and made the all-star team. Despite being, by far, the best player on the Stars that year, he found himself the following year, 1955, on the best team in the league- the Hawks. He provided depth for the Hawks, who went on to almost beat the Giants that year in a thrilling seven game Japan Series, but hit a disappointing .180 in 73 games and retired at the end of the season.
In the next post, look for more miracles- an analysis of a group under-represented in the Hall of Fame, and how random luck and fate plays a role in their legacies.
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