Saturday, September 5, 2009



June 12, 2009 was the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Tokyo- just as all of 2009 is the 50th anniversary of Noboru Aota's 1959 farewell- his final goodbye to his slugging days.

Sorry for the second interruption to this post, but its important to point out that the middle of 2009 is, along with the 50th anniversary of so many things, also the start of Aota's eternal residence in the HOF.

On July 24, Noboru Aota was inducted into the Japan Baseball Hall of Fame in a ceremony on the field of the Sapporo Dome. Accepting the honor was his widow, Michiko, along with his grandson, and they can be seen here on the English version of the Japan HOF website. Keep watch on that site- on September 28, the English translations of the new Hall of Famer's plaques (including Aota's) will go live. I was fortunate enough to participate in the translation process and assist Mr. Ryuichi Suzuki (who is in charge of International Public Relations for the Hall of Fame) with the final edits of the text that will not only appear on the site, but hang in the Hall of Fame gallary under the actual plaques. Please check out Mr. Suzuki's hard work here on Sept. 28. And now, the intermissionagain- 1959, fifty years ago this fall, was the end of Noboru Aota's final season as a player, retiring as the all time leader in home runs and number three all time in rbi; fifty years ago...

George Will recently wrote an article disputing the idea that any date, any year, can truly be seen as "changing everything", in which he highlighted the year 1959 as an arguably pivotal year in American history- that is, he argues, if you can consider any year (or decade, for that matter) more pivotal than any other. In 1959, Will points out, Miles Davis recorded the defining record in the evolution of Jazz, the first Americans were slain in Vietnam, the birth control pill was approved by the government, and Lady Chatterley's lover was published. Monumental steps in the development of our cultural and political history, but steps no larger or smaller than those before or after. It was in this year, 1959, Sadaharu Oh's rookie year, the middle of an era, the beginning and the end.

It was, then, in the Spring of 1959, that Noboru Aota began his final year as a player, and prepared for the transition to the coaches bench. Though he hit .270 in 64 games, only three of his hits were home runs- the third, coming most likely sometime in mid July just before manager and ally Fujimoto was fired- it being number 265, a record that would stand for the next five years. He had already cemented his lead in the all time HR category in 1956- by June 24 of that year he had hit the 222nd dinger of his career, and only a few games after that hit his 225th, putting him ahead of Fumio Fujimura as all time leader. He would hit 40 more in his career, but would remain number one for the rest of his career and long after, finally being overtaken in 1963. After a lackluster 1958 (though, not dissimilar to his first season with the Whales), he landed back with the team that had given him a spot after the war, way back in '46- the Hankyu Braves (see image above). Hankyu (who evolved, eventually, into the Orix Blue Wave, and now the Buffaloes), coming off of a third place season, may have been looking for a power boost- their leading slugger in 1958 had 12 hr and less than 60 rbi. It may have just been a homecoming- manager Satayoshi Fujimoto, who had been at the healm of the Giants way back in '42 and had given Noboru his first chance in pro baseball as well as with Yomiuri, providing a comfortable slot in which Aota could finish out his career. In the end, he did not add much pop to the lineup, but more than likely some veteran leadership- either way, the Braves sank to fifth, 40 games out of first. He did, though, lead the team in batting, despite less than 200 plate appearances, and his experience providing an extra coach for the team struggling to climb to a pennant. However, with the July 26th firing of Fujimoto, playing time and innings were few and far between.

Aota shared the outfield on the next-to-last place Braves with Seizo Furukawa (right), also in the twilight of his career. When he retired, Furukawa was fourth on the all time stolen base leader list, and, along with Tokuji Iida, was the only player to amass more than 50 HR and 300 SB in a career, and his 55 triples put him in the top 15. He is still number 10 on the all time stolen bases list.
Like Aota, Furukawa had begun his career in the lean years before the war, coming up with the Dragons as a catcher. He quickly developed into a powerhouse, leading the league in homers in both '42 and '43. After three seasons behind the plate, Furukawa moved to the outfield upon his post-war return to Nagoya. In 1947, he tied Aota for third in the league in HR, but was still traded the next season to the Braves, where he remained for the rest of his career.

There, he quietly combined power and speed for the hapless Braves- though he regularly scored 60-70 runs per season, the Braves never placed higher than second in the Pacific league. During that lone winning year, 1952, he was teamed with Larry Raines, who led the league in runs scored. Over the years Furukawa was teamed with several speedsters, including Raines and Chico Barbon, who pushed him while at the same time overshadowing, season by season, his accomplishments. However, Furukawa (below) was consistant, and his 796 career runs scored rank with the top five run scorers of the post war period. Added to that are his 617 rbi, 370 sb and 2071 total bases- contributions to the Braves that definitely mark him as their MVP position player of the 50's.
Springtime 1959- Sadaharu Oh played his first game on April 11, launching a remarkable career, but April 11 also marked the end of his pitching career when he strode out to first base, a pitching career that had first brought him to fame. It marked the end of one golden age, the beginning of another golden age of baseball in Japan, yet it was just a continuation, another great season for some and a bittersweet transition for others. The end for so many of Aota's former teammates as it was the end for Aota, just as it was a transition for so many of them, including Aota, to the bench. For Aota, that meant joining forces with his old mentor Fujimoto, who had, by 1962, moved over to the Tigers, bringing along Noboru to begin a coaching career that would last another two decades. By the end of his coaching career in 1980, he was alongside Oh once again as he finished out his career; far from his start, in 1942, a teammate of Victor Starffin, in the thick of the Second World War...

Soon, the final installment of the miracles post and the continuation of the review of catchers in the post-war era.
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