Why you should care
Because the world’s all-time home run king is someone you actually want to cheer for — a humble and eloquent Zen master from Japan.
If you think Barry Bonds is the world’s home run king, you’re wrong. Sadaharu Oh is. In fact, Bonds is 112 long balls short.
That’s right. From 1959 to 1980, Oh hit an unbelievable 868 home runs for the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants. But while Nippon Professional Baseball is Japan’s top league, it’s not pronounced M-L-B, and Oh’s legendary status is naught in the West, relegated to a slick nod in the Beastie Boys’ hit “Hey Ladies.” (“And I’ve got more hits than Sadaharu Oh!” boasted Ad-Rock and Mike D.)
Crunching stats of Japanese MLB players, blogger Jim Albright concluded Oh would’ve smacked 527 homers and 2,778 hits in the majors.
Swagger aside, Japan rejoiced when Oh broke Hank Aaron’s 755-home run record on Sept. 3, 1977. The next morning, Oh was adorned with the Medal of Honor and deemed a national hero — despite being half-Chinese in a prejudiced nation.
When Oh retired at age 40, his stat line was stunning: .301 batting average, 868 home runs, 2,786 hits and nine MVPs in 22 seasons. He anchored the most fearsome lineup in Japanese baseball history, winning nine straight titles from 1965 to 1973, and 11 overall. Yes, your eyes work fine: 11 championships in 22 seasons!
Tutored by hitting coach and martial-arts master Hiroshi Arakawa, Oh developed his trademark batting stance and “flamingo” leg kick, which borrows its technique from Samurai swordsmen. Oh was a brilliant autobiographer, too. “I longed to hit as a starving man longs for food. The ball coming toward me was a rabbit, and I was a wolf waiting to devour it,” he wrote in A Zen Way of Baseball.
Comparisons to Aaron or Bonds unavoidably incite visceral reactions from some Major League Baseball fans, of this sort: “He’d never be able to put up those numbers in America!” They might have a point, but they’re more churlish than correct. Oh himself admits he played in different circumstances than his trans-Pacific counterparts, and he rejects all parallels to the North American legends. Likely he was overly humble. As World Series MVP Frank Robinson confirms, “I’m sure he would have hit in the 30s [of homers per year] and probably in the low 40s” in the MLB.
But without, you know, time travel, rather messy comparisons must suffice. Crunching historic stats of Japanese players in the MLB, prolific baseball blogger Jim Albright concluded that Oh would have smacked 527 homers and 2,778 hits in the majors, more than sufficient for induction into the Hall of Fame. Competition in Japan was not exactly slouch in 1980: The country’s population was 115 million and the sport reigned supreme even then. Various major league pitchers, upon competing against NPB teams during Oh’s playing years, stated that multiple pitchers per team were MLB-quality.
Unfortunately, Oh was de facto banned by Japan from playing in the States. Before free agency, the NPB and MLB alike had strict reserve clauses that bound players to the whims of their team owners. Players were treated as “piece[s] of property to be bought and sold,” St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Curt Flood wrote in 1969. (The next year, Flood sued the MLB for violating antitrust laws and the 13th Amendment, and baseball’s “involuntary servitude” ended in 1976.)
Free agency didn’t reach Japan until 1993, and as a result, players decamped to America’s major leagues. The influx of quality Japanese talent to the MLB catapulted the likes of Ichiro Suzuki — the MLB’s single-season hit record-holder and one-time American League MVP — and rising star Yu Darvish to Western baseball acclaim.
There’s been less kudos for Oh. Though he was the face of Japanese baseball as manager at the 2006 World Baseball Classic, the prevailing attitude in Western baseball circles toward him is obliviousness. Luckily, he doesn’t care.