Saturday, March 6, 2010

"Baseball has some kind of magic"

(Noboru Aota Strikes A Pose)

In Japan as well as in the US, the Hall of Fame is where baseball's magic and myth is most celebrated and propagated. We are now in full swing of Awards Season: the Hall of Famers have been announced, and now up are the Oscars, about which Federico Fellini said:

"...a vaguely funeral fashion parade, a ceremony in many ways like a carnival, but at the same time a moving and pathetic spectacle, organized with the fullest awareness of what it was and is. Notwithstanding the clamor it excites, it is a private ceremony; it's cinema encountering itself in an attempt to resuscitate the dead, to exorcise wrinkles, old age, illness and death. It has the same fascination as caricature; it is a caricature of the Day of Judgement, the Resurrection of the Flesh. Those like me who accept the mythology of the cinema cannot refuse a prize like the Oscar. To dispute the award seems to me ridiculous and childish. The cinema is also circus, carnival, funfair, a game for acrobats."

Did any player accept the mythology of sport, or embrace it, like Fellini? Or is it only us, the fan, the writer, the historian of the sport (any sport), that clings to it?

If there is any place that compares with the Oscars in sports, it is the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. The mythology of the sport thrives in the the halls at Cooperstown, and the history of voting there represents the strange and self-aggrandizing nature of that mythology. As hard as it may be to visualize now, those that we think of now as fully part of the myth required the time to build their story (or have their story constructed), and, in turn, their safe place in the circus.

Sometime in early 1949, 153 members of the Baseball Writers Association looked over the ballot for the Hall of Fame, flooded with legends: the top vote getter's that year were Charlie Gehringer, Mel Ott, Al Simmons, Dizzy Dean, Jimmy Foxx, Bill Terry, Paul Waner and Hank Greenberg. Not one of them was chosen. The argument is that, with so much talent, none of the writers could focus their votes enough to give any one player more than 75%- and than makes sense.

Now, sometime in 1953, many of those same writers (264 in all) sat down with another ballot, stocked with a similar overflow of talent- this time, however, they were able to agree (or, at least 75% could) on Dizzy Dean and Al Simmons as worthy of immortality. Near the top of the list are many who ended up in the Hall, one of whom is Ted Lyons, a 260-230 pitcher with 1073 strike outs in his career- an understandable player to be passed over several times before induction.

What is very interesting, though, about that 1953 ballot, is that Lyons' 139 votes (52%) were 22 more than were bestowed upon Joe DiMaggio. Joltin' Joe would be passed over one more year before finally earning enough votes (233, or 88%) to be enshrined. Yes, the rules were somewhat different then, and yes, DiMaggio was not the sportswriters' best friend, and yes, many great players were passed over in those early days (and even Cy Young was not voted in the first class). But what is most interesting is that, more so than any of the other players listed above (including Young), DiMaggio has a legendary aura about his name, and is revered today in a light closer to Deity than human. He seems above even the steady path to the Hall of Fame that is so accepted for the other heroes of the game- was he then just as 'average' as those other heroes? Has time created a DiMaggio in our imagination that did not exist then, given how much of a star he was (think of his trip to Japan with Marilyn)? And how much did Joe contribute to the building of his own myth- how much did he care about his place in the Hall?

This is where the mythology has grown and still grows: His seems to follow the same path as the beautification of a martyr, on the way to sainthood. Is he only the legend we revere because of Paul Simon, or because we need to constantly create Gods and Heroes to worship? Is the Hall of Fame, as Fellini said of the Oscars, an attempt to resuscitate the dead? Is it baseball encountering itself?

The Hall of Fame in Japan is cut from the same mold, though the cultural differences only enhance the "caricature". So, why did it take Noboru Aota so long to get in to the Hall- how was his myth built, or how was it broken down? His playing career was Hall of Fame worthy- he was at the top of the heap for almost two decades, and the all-time home run leader at the time of his retirement. We know from his wife that he wanted to be there- it doesn't seem abnormal that he or anyone else would want to be enshrined, deified, in any Hall. It was the time after his retirement, and the myth that built around him in spite of himself, that kept him out of the Hall. There are no sure fire Hall of Famers in Japan- just look at three time triple crown winner Hiromitsu Ochiai, whose 'bad' behavior seems to still resonate with the voters.

Even Hiroshi Oshita (left) was not a shoo-in: arguably the best player of the late 40's and early 50's who nonetheless did not get the 'Call from the Hall' until after his death many years into retirement. But it was Oshita, Takehiko Bessho, and Aota that were the terror of the Ginza, a couple of 'bad boy's' and drinkers when they were together in the 40's: that perception persisted for all three, and though they all retired before 1960, neither Oshita or Bessho would be Hall of Famer's until 1980. For Noboru Aota, an incident that occurred at that same time prolonged his wait even further.

It was in 1959 that Aota played his last game with the Hankyu Braves, the team that had taken him in after WWII. But it was the Whales who had given him a home, and it was the Whales to whom he would eventually return and manage. But first, Aota worked for Hochi Sports as columnist and commentator in 1960 after retiring from the game. It was the beginning of a broadcasting career that would eventually bring him more lasting fame to many Japanese than his playing career.

However, he could not stay away from the field, and soon made his way back into the dugout with the Tigers in 1962. That year Hanshin made it to the Japan Series for the first time, winning their first pennant since the late 40's. In his capacity as hitting coach, Aota did not improve much- the Tigers offense remained consistently poor, ranking at the bottom of the league in runs produced and home runs, similar to the previous year. It was their fantastic pitching, with the lowest ERA and WHIP in the league, that brought them the pennant. Though they lost in the series, HOF'er Yoshio Yoshida was awarded 'best hitter', a feat for a light hitting SS that must be, in part, attributed to Aota's teaching. However, something in his performance persuaded him to move back to broadcasting, and for the next two seasons he was calling games on Nihon TV before getting back into uniform for his post-war bosses Hankyu. Within 3 years he was able to aid Braves hitters enough to put them in the league lead for home runs- feat that would bring them the pennant that year, 1967, the first in a string of winning seasons.

He continued on as a broadcaster on-and-off through the end of the 60's and early 70's until his old team came calling and he joined the Whales as a coach in 1972. It wasn't long until Karao Betto, who had been manager of the Whales since he had replaced Osamu Mihara four years before, was replaced himself with Aota. From late August until the end of the season, Noboru Aota earned his chops in his first managerial gig, though he lost 14 of 17 before seasons end.

1973 was his only full season managing at the pro level, and though he did not finish last (and brought the Whales close to .500, an improvement from the previous year), his year was marred with enough problems to earn him a pink-slip once it was over. His inability to relate to players led to an 'anti-Aota' sentiment on the club, and the animosity may have contributed to the poor record: the Whales were one of the top hitting teams in the league, but their poor pitching cost enough games to place them 5th out of six teams. It's possible that his inability to relate to many of his players led to a breakdown in trust between his pitchers and him- always a symptom of a losing team.

Regardless of the reason, by 1974 Aota was back on the broadcasting circuit, working for TV Asahi for close to the rest of the decade. It wasn't until 1979 that he finally made it back into uniform as head coach with the Giants under Nagashima. After 27 years he was finally back with the team of teams, and seemed determined to make it right. His tenure as head coach coincided with the infamous 'Ido' camp, the tough Fall camp that some say brought the Giants' strength back to championship form.

However, his long awaited return to the Giants would end in scandal only a short time later. Halfway through the 1980 season, Aota gave an interview with the Sunday Mainichi Shinbun in which he mentioned prior associations with nefarious individuals (who are referred to, in some sources, as gangsters). Aota had always been a hard living, hard drinking man, and his association with the underworld is not by any means a stretch of the imagination. However, whether or not he was ever associated with those individuals was beside the point- the fact that he had said anything the found it's way to print as a member of the Giants was sin enough. The affair became known as the 舌禍 incident, or "slip of the tongue" incident: a title that infers the real trouble, which was that he said anything at all. The result was simple- Aota resigned his head coach position mid season, and never put on a uniform again.

Years later, and after his death, various individuals vouched for Aota as having never associated with gamblers or gangsters or underworld tricksters- that, if he was guilty of anything, it was his boasting and getting carried away on the record. Regardless- he was resigned to a place behind the mic from that moment on. Some could claim this as a heart-breaking end to a great career, a hero's tale with a sad ending. Yet, it was as the "pro-Giants" broadcaster that Aota found his way into the hearts and minds of many young Japanese, and possibly cemented a place for himself in the social consciousness.

He enjoyed a satisfying end to a long, 50 year career in baseball, and when he died (a converted Roman Catholic) in 1997, he most likely had at least some delusions about his plaque hanging in the Hall in Tokyo one day. It seems that he had a taste for the carnival aspect of the game, and knew that his contribution to the game only added to the myth and magic of it all. His success as on TV and the radio demonstrates the showman Aota really was, and confirms the fact that his place in the Hall of Fame, though deferred because of perceptions of character, was always reserved for him. Was he trying to resuscitate his own myth, and rebuild his image? Remember, this was the man who was known for tossing grenades farther than anyone else, who took pride in his power.
(Aota pictured in Robert Whiting's "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat")

The Japanese Hall of Fame, just like it's counterpart in Cooperstown, just like the Oscars, celebrates itself, to "exorcise wrinkles, old age, illness and death". Aota's myth needed time to mature, just like DiMaggio's, to the point where we all understand, to refuse a prize like the Hall to either man "seems to me ridiculous and childish". The illusion is as important as the man, and maybe more so, in the Hall of Fame.

PS- the title is taken from Kokoyakyu, a film worth seeing about the power of baseball in Japan.


Ron Rollins said...

I spent 20 years in the Army. If he threw a grenade 70 meters, he's Superman.

I'm not saying it can't be done, but I've never met anyone who could do it. And we tried.

If it's true, I'm impressed.

AB said...

I have never tried, but I imagine it is an embellishment on the truth. However, it seems only to enhance the image of the post-war players in Japan as somewhat mythical.

Several players had been in line as kamikaze pilots whose numbers never came up- it seems then surreal to come back and put on a uniform, getting paid to play a game. I wonder how any of them saw themselves, or how they perceived their own existence after that.

Thanks for the comment, Ron-


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