Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Miracles! pt. 2

Fred Exley knew that getting off the couch was a miracle- that relativity was in play at the most complex functions of physics as well as the most commonplace actions of each and every human. The real miracle is in not just being; and the real heroes are just those that hold on to "that awful dream of fame". Hard work and consistency make for lasting fame, for those strange-but-true gods of the diamond, but it's the fans that hold on to the awful dreams

There is no miracle in baseball that even comes close to immortilization in the Hall of Fame. Two grand slams in a game is slightly beyond reason, but it is only for one game, consistancy for a brief period, but not for the long haul- Babe Ruth never hit two grand slams in a game, and neither did Sadaharu Oh.
The odds of a player making it through the lower levels, staying healthy and focused enough, and then waiting for the luck it takes to actually be noticed. Once noticed, the miracle is in the timing- lucking onto a team that has the right opening at the right time. If Wally Yonemine doesn't give up first base, do the Giants give a chance to the failed pitcher Sadaharu Oh? One would guess with a talent like Oh's, there would be no problem; but what about those that had to fight, like Hoyt Wilhelm or Motoshi Fujita, who did not make it to the majors until their late 20's and still put together HOF careers?

Between 1937, when the MVP was first awarded to Eiji Sawamura, and 1980, only one catcher, Katsuya Nomura, was so honored as Most Valuable Player. His first award came in 1961, suggesting that no catcher dominated the league to that point. In addition to having no MVP catchers, the post-war era failed to produce a hall of fame catcher, and, in fact, only one pre-war professional catcher, Masahaki Yoshihara, has been elected to the Hall.

Of the one hundred and fifty five players (see list below as well as in post no. 3) who caught at least one professional game in Japan between 1946 and 1955, only two of them, Nomura and Masaaki Mori, made the Hall, and their rookie seasons were at the end of that period. Do any of the others deserve the honor? Or even just the recognition of greatness that membership in the Hall of Fame confers? The first place to look is the Best Nine award.

Read Jim Albright 's excellent statistical analysis of the best players of each decade, and Takeshi Doigaki stands out- the best catcher of the post war period. The numbers don't lie. Like the MVP award, the Best Nine awards were not awarded annually until after the war. The winners for Best Nine were first named in 1947, and the first three for catcher (in the one league system, only one player for each position was so honored) were awarded to Takeshi Doigaki.

Doigaki (right, along with Tiger pitcher Tadayoshi Kajioka) played for three years before the war starting in 1940, and led the Tigers in runs scored in '42, splitting catching and infield duties with the few remaining men not yet on the front lines. When everyone returned in 1946, Doigaki took over as primary catcher for the Tigers, catching in 87 games and finishing the season in the top three in batting, hits and at bats, and in the top ten in almost every other offensive category.

It was not until the next year, though, that the first Best Nine's were awarded since 1940, and Doigaki won the first of six straight as a catcher. Despite hitting .259, he was in the top 15 in the league, once again, in most offensive categories, and, along with Masumi Isekawa, was the best hitting catcher in the league. Looking at the starting catcher for each team in '47, here is a list in order of runs created that season:

Tigers- Takeshi Doigaki- 52.25
Robins- Masumi Isekawa- 41.20
Flyers- Keiichiro Suzuki- 28.90
Giants- Tetsunosuke Fujiwara- 28.87
Braves- Takeshi Hibino- 24.83
Hawks- Keizo Tsutsui- 16.70
Giants- Tamatsu Uchibori- 16.34(for more on Uchibori, see here)
Stars- Isao Tsuji- 11.84

His 52 runs created compared to teamates Fumio Fujimura's and Shosei Go's 59 and 55, respectively, and trailing only Tigers leader Masayasu Kaneda's 68, on par with Hiroshi Oshita's 89 runs created, Tetsuharu Kawakami's 79 runs created, and Kazuto Tsuruoka's 69 runs created. In addition, he handled the best pitching staff in the league, with Bozo Wakabayashi, Tadayoshi Kajioka and Takao Misonoo winning 26, 22, and 18 games (respectively), and only one pitcher with a losing record (1-2) to bring Hanshin the pennant for last time in the one-league era.

After a stellar 1948, he dominated in '49- with a .328 average, fourth in the league, 86 rbi and 16 home runs.

In 1950, the new Pacific League included several newly formed teams, including the Orions, tucked away in Chiba City and soon to be stocked with stars. Kaoru Betto jumped from the Tigers to the Orions along with a streak of his teammates, including Shosei Go, Bozo Wakabayashi, Yasuya Hondo, and Takeshi Doigaki (at left, with new hat). Doigaki did not skip a beat, and won the first three Best Nine awards for a catcher offered in the Pacific League, leaving him with 6 straight awards, a feat topped only by Kastsuya Nomora and Masahiko Mori (the only two post-war catchers in the HOF).

The first Japan Series at the end of that season found the two best catchers from the Pacific and Central Leagues squaring off against each other. Shoji Arakawa, the Best Nine winner for the Robins, out-hit Doigaki (and, incedently, out-hit the rest of his team as well), but did not control his pitching staff as well. Doigaki caught all six games and led the Orions to the first Japan series win. He was never quite as productive in his last few seasons, with the Flyers and Braves, but finished out his career leading all catchers in most lifetime batting categories.

Doigaki again narrowly edged out Masumi Isekawa (below) in 1950 for Best Nine- Isekawa slugged 13 homers along with his .296 average for the third place Stars. Though a consistent slugger for a catcher, Isekawa would always be overshadowed, making only one All-Star team (along with Matsui and Tsutsui in '53) and never making it to a Japan Series.

Charlie Lewis (or Charlie Luis- see March 21, 2007 post here) took over the catching reins for the Hawks when Doigaki moved on to the Flyers in 1954, and proceded to win back to back Best 9's. However, his 22 errors in 1954 (a Pacific League record according to Japan Baseball Daily) demonstrate the focus of the award on hitting prowess over fielding percentage. Charlie left Japan after the 54 season, most likely going back to Hawaii or the West Coast of the US, and leaving the Best Nine to Katsuya Nomura, who took over the next season as the premier catcher in the Pacific League, overshadowing Doigaki's legacy as the best catcher, and the best hitting catcher, of the post war era.

Overshadowed by Doigaki, Luis and Nomura was Keizo Tsutsui, who, as the steady catcher for the Nankai Hawks during the first decade after the end of the war caught in more games than any other catcher of the era without playing any other position. From '46 to '49, he was the primary catcher for the Hawks, handling pitchers like Takehiko Bessho, Nobuo Nakatani, Susumu Yuki and Shisho Takesue.

He hit only .236 lifetime, but this is a testament to his defensive prowess, as he was not only the starting catcher for the Hawks for the first 5 years after the war, but also split duties with his protoge, Jun Matsui, Best 9 catcher in the gap year between the end of Doigaki's rein and the Luis/Nomura years, for the first five years of the 50's. (In fact, they split the catching duties in several Japan Series, including 1953, when Matsui, who hit only .083 to Tsutsui's .375, slammed a home run in game seven, a solo shot that almost put the Hawks up enough to win the game, and the Series). On top of that, Tsutsui was voted to two All-Star teams ('53 & '55) at the end of his decade-long run with the team, during which he played in 4 Japan Series (including being present for Noboru Aota's only Japan Series home run in game 2 of the '51 series) as the crew chief for the Hawks' million dollar infield.

Below is a list of catchers who played their entire career behind the plate without ever moving to another position; and, as this post focuses solely on the post-war era, it includes only those who played at least one game in the decade following the war (1946-1955)- Mori and Yamashita both played the majority of their careers after this period (though Yamashita did start in 1950, playing 532 of those in the post war period), leaving Tsutsui (below right) at the top:

Mori, Masahiko 1884
Yamashita, Ken 1232
Tsutsui, Keizo 1052
Yamamoto, Tetsuya 854
Tokuami, Shigeru 782
Matsui, Jun 679
Kawahara, Masakazu 497
Kiori, Takeyoshi 452
Hara, Katsuhiko 418
Kanbayashi, Shigejiro 323
Kamiichi, Akio 298
Yoshimura, Iwao 285
Yamada, Seizaburo 274
Inoue, Shinichiro 234
Tsuji, Isao 218
Recca, Sal 190
Nemoto, Rikuo 186
Ai, Toshiharu 147
Kotani, Nobuo 101
Higashiguchi, Kiyomi 97
Kotsuji, Hideo 66
Hasebe, Minoru 64
Onodera, Katsuo 62
Okamoto, Mitsuo 54
Munesue, Susumu 53
Wanaka, Michio 53
Arai, Kuzuhiro 48
Atsui, Kiyoshi 48
Kinoshita, Ikuhiko 44
Matsuhashi, Yoshiki 41
Murokawa, Mitsuo 41
Etoh, Daisuke 36
Goto, Hiroyuki 36
Goto, Jinjiro 30
Matsumoto, Isamu 28
Ikehata, Tadao 18
Itoh, Haruo 18
Matsunaga, Eiichi 18
Kawague, Kameiji 17
Ezaki, Masayoshi 16
Hasebe, Eiichi 16
Ichiyanagi, Tadano 16
Kawakami, Michiro 15
Inagawa, Goichi 14
Takahashi, Kazuo 12
Katsuta, Ko 10
Mimura, Tadashi 10
Ogawa, Hideo 9
Taniguchi, Kineji 6
Harada, Yasuaki 4
Nakashizu, Tadahachi 4
Sugiyama, Tetsuo 4
Nakamura, Kunio 3
Sakurai, Sadao 3
Kawase, Hiroyuki 2
Nagai, Yojiro 2
Sakurai, Taro 2
Tohno, Mayumi 2
Kawai, Shizuo 1
Kitamura, Shuichi 1
Taki, Hideo 1
Takiguchi, Toyohiro 1
Yamamoto, Fumiya 1

The rest of this post, including the Central League catchers and the 'Moonlight Graham"'s, will be covered in part 3, which is almost done and will be up as soon as the couch allows....
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