Sunday, April 1, 2018

Ohtani

     Shohei Ohtani won his major league debut as a pitcher today, only a few days after his Opening Day debut in MLB as a designated hitter.  It remains to be seen if he can continue in his duel role with the Angels, one he played so well with the Nippon-Ham Fighters.  But after his first few days in a California uniform it seems probable that he may become the first two-way player the majors have seen in quite a while.
     Sadaharu Oh (right) knows all too well how difficult such a role can be to pull off.  A star on the mound and in the batters box in high school, Oh came to the Giants in 1959 with the potential to dazzle with both arm and bat.  However, the Giants, seeing the power in his swing as far superior to his arm, moved him to 1st base and instructed him to focus all of his energy on hitting.  Though not an immediate success, he would go on to set the all time home run record and become an international phenomenon. 
Coming up next: Takesue!

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Arky Vaughan

After Arky Vaughan died in a freak fishing accident in the summer of 1952 he was rightfully remembered as an All-Star infielder and batting champion for the Pirates and Dodgers. As the years passed his career was lauded as worthy of the Hall of Fame, and he was eventually enshrined there.  Missing from that narrative was Vaughan's role in the 1949 San Francisco Seals tour of Japan.

Arky (real name Joseph Floyd) never even made it to Japan, even if his fame preceded him.

After three years off from baseball, he had come back to the Dodgers in 1947, where he would get to play in the only World Series of his career.  Despite a resurgent spring that left him with a .325 average at the end of '47, he spent a less than stellar two year stint with Brooklyn.  At the close of the 1948 season, he was seemingly at the point of ending a stellar career.  Thought a star in his day, modern metrics reveal a career even more valuable than most contemporaries considered.  He never won an MVP, but was a consistent leader in  OPS and, as measured today, WAR, finishing his career with 72.9 according to Baseball Reference.

At the start of 1949 Vaughan decided to play one more season in the sun, but this time closer to home.  He signed on with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League and would eventually play in 97 games, roughly half of the teams games that season.  Though he hit .288 with 6 triples, he was already set to hang up his spikes by July, telling reporters "when this season is over I'm going back to my home in Uklah (120 miles north of San Francisco) and buying another cattle ranch."  He sat out almost the entire month of August before hanging it up officially on September 3, citing a gall bladder issue.  He would be comfortably resting in Northern California when the Seals were welcomed by thousands of fans in a parade through Tokyo on October 12.

The Seals won 10 games and lost 1 during their trip through Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe.  They faced an All-Star team composed of the stars of Japan in 1949, including Makoto Kozuru, Kaoru Betto, Tetsuharu Kawakami and Noboru Aota, as well as the Yomiuri Giants and Army/Navy/Air Force squads. Almost every game sold out, with some games drawing nearly 60,000 fans who waited in overnight lines to obtain tickets.

Several sets of menko cards were produced in the time leading up to and during the Seals tour of Japan, including the set cataloged as JCM 50, which features the card pictured above of Vaughan.  This was not the only set featuring Vaughan, though most known sets included only the players who played in Japan, such as Al Lein, Con Dempsey and Dino Rostelli, as well as Lefty O'Doul.

If he had made the trip, he would have been the most famous player, and, next to O'Doul, the most well known American baseball figure to have visited Japan since the 1934 tour featuring the likes of Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx and company.  So it makes sense that, even with his absence, his likeness would make the trip.

More on the '49 tour to come, as well as part 2 of the history of the Two League system.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Hall of Fame Class 2018

     Though Hideki Matsui will most likely not be elected to the US Hall of Fame in 2018, Matsui, along with Tomoaki Kanemoto, Tatsunori Hara and Masao Taki were elected to the Hall of Fame in Tokyo on Monday, Jan. 15.  The results of the Players Division show Matsui earning 91.3% of the vote and Kanemoto 75.5%, while Hara earned 78.7% of the Expert Division vote and Taki over 75% of the Special Division vote.  Kazuyoshi Tatsunami and Hiroshi Gondo were within 10% of the vote of being elected.  All four will be inducted this summer.
     Hideki Matsui becomes the first position player to be elected the Hall of Fame who spent a large portion of his career in the US.  Hideo Nomo was the first pitcher, and Lefty O'Doul the first contributor.  Before a stellar career in MLB, Matsui won 3 MVPs while hitting 332 home runs, including 4 in the Koshien tournaments (one of which earned him the moniker 'Godzilla'), four Japan Series home runs, and eight All Star homers to go along with his 332 career regular season homers.
     He went on to help the Yankees win two pennants and a Series, winning a Series MVP in the process, and hit enough dingers in MLB to end up with over 500 for his career between the two leagues.
     In You Gotta Have Wa, Robert Whiting wrote that "the traditional Japanese ideal is a humble, uncomplaining, obedient soul like Giants star Tatsunori Hara, who was once chosen in a poll as the 'male symbol of Japan'."
     Whiting continued "Hara went on to have many fine seasons", winning an MVP in 1983 "while helping the Giants win the pennant.  But fans, commentators, and coaches were never satisfied.  They complained that he struck out too often in key situations, that he couldn't hit a decent forkball, that he couldn't hit the 40-homer mark.  He did not have the mark of greatness of an Oh or Nagashima."
     Yet he set a record slamming 20 or more homers in each of his first 12 seasons, and finished  his career sporting a .279/.355/.523 line with 382 homers and 11 All Star Appearances. 
     However, he enters the Hall as a manager, and not as a player (though he came close in his last election as one), bringing 7 pennants and 3 Japan Series titles to the same Giants team for which he hit cleanup for so many years.
     The criticism Hara received while a player, that he was "not tough enough", led to all sorts of remedies taken by coaches, including being sent on a spiritual mountain retreat ["yamagomori"] and "minute of analyses of Hara's batting form", that furthered notions he was "overcoached".  This experience may have influenced his managing philosophy, and led to his success in the dugout.
     The election of Tomoaki Kanemoto is no surprise.  He finished a stellar career with Hiroshima and Hanshin among the all time leaders in hits, homers, and RBIs, as well as setting records for consecutive innings and games played.  Like Matsui, he has four Japan Series homers.  He hit for the cycle in 1999 and added the 2005 MVP to his seven Best Nine selections.
     Masao Taki, elected by the Special Selection Committee, spent his career playing and coaching university and high school level baseball, appearing at many Spring and Summer Koshien's..



 
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