Sunday, May 6, 2018

Takesue


Summer, post-war Tokyo.  The heat on the streets could be known to drain the energy from young and old alike, healthy and not, moral or immoral.  The heat in dead summer was stifling, and its no surprise that it was expressed most poetically by Akira Kurosawa.

In his film Stray Dogs, the protagonists, two detectives, spend an extended amount of time seeking a gun on the melting streets of Tokyo.  This investigation eventually brought the two cops to Korakuen Stadium, where a local dealer is confronted, the viewer can spot another duel in the sweltering heat, similar to that between criminal and crime fighter - that between pitcher and batter.

The batter is the God of Batting, Tetsuharu Kawakami.  The pitcher, at least for that blistering summer of '49, was the master of the strikeout - Shissho Takesue.

Thirty years later, in the opening days of the 1970 season, crime once again entered the stadium where Takesue worked, infiltrating his pitching staff and forcing him from the game.  Four pitchers were eventually banned for life after organized crime elements, known as bakuto, persuaded them to throw games for bribes, a scandal known as the Black Mist.  Takesue took leave of his position as coach for the Nishitetsu Lions, who had won the Pacific League pennant in his second year as a coach.


In between, Shissho Takesue led a life of relative harmony, devoid of much drama or crime, fulfilling a dream of playing professional baseball.  Yet, like those fictional protagonists melting on the streets of Tokyo, he burned out in a flash.

His success as a coach can be traced 30 years prior, to that summer of 1949, the final year of the old one league system, when Takesue had erupted onto the scene with a wicked sidearm delivery that propelled him from the industrial leagues to one of the best pitchers in Japan.

Takesue's unique delivery, a sidearm so low it was almost underhanded, contributed to his success in 1949.  He had developed his delivery only because of a shoulder injury incurred during WWII.

He had pitched in school in Fukuoka before traveling to Manchuria to play for the Dalian High Commercial School.  After returning to Japan he played for industrial teams prior to the start of the war, but success had eluded him.  That was, until his injury forced him to adopt a sidearm delivery that added velocity and created a rise in the ball that fooled batters.

Takesue then found a spot in the post-war industrial leagues, pitching in 1948 for the Nishinihon Railroad team.  The team was stocked with future professionals and ran deep into the playoffs.  Despite suffering from a gallbladder infection Takesue pitched admirably, winning all of his games and gaining national recognition.


Soon, Japan's professional league came calling.  The league had grown exponentially in popularity during the post-war years, as well as  interest from investors seeking to profit off of the large fan turnout.  The Nankai Hawks, managed at that time by future Hall of Famer Kazuto Tsuruoka (Yamamoto), competed with the Hanshin Tigers for his services.  After some confusion over contracts, Takesue was persuaded to sign on with Tsuruoka and the Hawks.  It proved to be a good match.

The sidearm delivery that had proven so effective in the industrial leagues baffled hitters at Japanese baseball's highest level.  Because this was the final year of the single league system, Takesue faced all of the top professional hitters of the day, including Tetsuharu Kawakami, Makoto Kozuro, Karao Betto, Hiroshi Oshita, and Noboru Aota.  Though the Hawks finished fourth in the league, he dominated hitters and along with Tokuji Iida and Chisuke Kizuka was the star of the team.  He finished the season among the league leaders in ERA, wins, and innings pitched, while leading the league in strikeouts with 183. 

He was also one of the few bespectacled pitchers in pro baseball on either side of the Pacific. He and fellow glasses-wearing pro Kaoru Betto would be the stars of the 1949 season, giving hope to all those prospective ballplayers just short of 20/20 vision. 

Though there was no post-season in '49, Takesue would find a place on what can be described as a combination playoff and All-star pitching staff.  At the close of the season, as the league executives brokered expansion details, US occupation leaders embraced the leagues popularity in turn and orchestrated the first visit of professional ballplayers from the states since 1934. 

The San Francisco Seals arrived after season's end and played a series of games against various teams as well as an All Star team comprised of the best of the '49 Season.  In a game against the Seals on October 29, 1949, Takesue pitched in relief of Victor Starffin before 70,000 rabid fans.  It was still scoreless when he found himself with the bases loaded and two outs in the 7th.  With the fans roaring the loudest they had all day, he was able to get Leroy Jarvis to hit into an inning ending ground out.  Later, catcher Jarvis complimented the submarine pitcher and rated him as good as any PCL pitcher.  Unfortunately, one of only two hits that day given up by Takesue and Starrfin was a home run by Dick Steinhauer in the ninth to give the Seals a slim 1-0 victory.

By the beginning of the 1950 season, professional baseball in Japan had officially split into a Central League and a Pacific League, nearly doubling the number of teams and, in turn, the number of opportunities for ballplayers across the country.

One of those teams, owned by the Nishi-Nippon Railroad Company, or Nishtetsu, had evolved out of their club team and was called the Nishitetsu Clippers As the Clippers player-manager, Kaname Miyazake led a mismatched team that included several former Hawks, including Takesue, and many players taking advantage of the expansion rosters.

Though he was among the league leaders in ERA and finished with a record of 12-6, Takesue pitched in nearly half the innings he had pitched the previous season, a sign that his sidearm approach, born of an already injured shoulder, had already begun to wear out in it's own right. The Clippers did not fare much better, finishing only a few wins out of the cellar of the Pacific League and leading the league as a team in errors and fielding the second worst team ERA.

In 1951 the Clippers merged with the Pirates to become the Nishitetsu Lions, and Takesue was once again paired with a Hall of Fame manager.  Osamu Mihara had managed the Yomiuri Giants from 1947 through the end of the 1949 season.  As the Giants entered the Central League in 1950 Mihara was replaced with his former Giants teammate and rival Shigeru Mizuhara.  Though Mihara would go on to lead the Lions to several Japan Series titles later in the 50's, he could only lead them to a second place finish behind Takesue's old team the Hawks.  Though his stats were fading, the submarine pitcher still had a decent year.  He finished 11-7 and was selected to represent the Pacific League in the first All Star series in NPB history.

The following season was not as rosy.  Despite a modest 3.64 ERA he finished with a 2-8 record having pitched just over 100 innings.  The Lions fared much better under Mihara's leadership but were still a few years away from their first Japan Series appearance.  Unfortunately, Takesue would not be a part of those championship teams.  He only pitched 30 innings in 1953, posting a 7.55 ERA that must have disappointed Mihara, who let him go at seasons' end.

Shissho Takesue began the 1954 season with the Takahashi Unions.  Though he was not the workhorse he had been in '49, he combined with future hall of famer Victor Starffin to fill out the Unions' rotation, posting a respectable 2.95 ERA over 125 innings pitched.  Unfortunately, the expansion Unions had the second worst offense in the Pacific League and committed more errors than any other team.  Takesue finished with an abysmal 3-4 record pitching, once again, for a team just barely out of the cellar.

He would only pitch 6 innings over 14 games in 1955, giving up 14 runs on his way to an ugly 19.50 ERA. His arm no longer able to toss either overhead or submarine, Takesue decided to announce his retirement at the age of 32.  The only bright spot from the '55 season was witnessing his teammate Starffin become the first 300 game winner in the history of the sport in Japan.

It's possible that, without developing his sidearm delivery, Shissho Takesue would never had made it in pro ball to begin with.  Nonetheless, the rapid decline of his skills must have been bittersweet enough to convince Takesue to continue his charmed involvement in pro ball.  After spending time as a broadcaster, he accepted the position as pitching coach during the 1962 season for his former team the Lions. In his first year as a coach the Lions reached the post season.  They finished the season in 3rd place, but the following season, in part thanks to a 2.69 team ERA, the Lions won the pennant. 

Takesue would continue as pitching coach for the rest of the decade, managing some of the best arms in the game, until the fateful decision by Masayaki Nagayasu, along with a handful of other NPB ballplayers, to accept money from organized criminals to fix games.  Though Takesue was, as he had been in the background of Kurosawa's film, simply an extra in the narrative of the scandal, he would retire from his role in uniform and move to the background, taking work as a scout.

Shissho Takesue died at the age of 75 in June of 1998.  He would never have fathomed, as the cameras rolled during that magical 1949 season that he would finally hang up his uniform as a result of a similar act of crime, real, this time, instead of fictional. Never the less, he could be proud of a career that defied expectations and helped usher in the modern era of pro ball in Japan.



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