Here’s to a man called Oh. The all-time baseball home run record is synonymous with a number of names. For the longest time the crown belonged to the Sultin’ of Swat, Babe Ruth, before Hammerin’ Hank Aaron grabbed the keys to the kingdom. Eventually, although I am more than gritting my teeth while writing this, Barry Bonds grabbed the record from Aaron and currently maintains a strong vice on the ancient and storied record. For you baseball history buffs, you may know the name of a catcher by the name of Josh Gibson, who was fabled to have over 800 home runs in his career. Gibson spent his whole career in the Negro Leagues and, unfortunately, frequent barnstorming and unorganized records we will never know the exact tally.
But thousands of miles away from United States soil, a slugger by the name of Sadaharu Oh immortalized his name as the most prolific home run hitter of all-time. Oh was born in Tokyo, Japan in 1940 to a Chinese father and Japanese mother. Nineteen years later, he signed a professional contract with the powerhouse Yomiuri Giants. After moving off the mound and over to first base, Oh would go on to put up almost unbelievable numbers at the plate. In 22 seasons, he notched 2,786 hits (a .301 batting average) and hit 868 home runs. “Oh-Wow!” am I right? (Please ignore the pun, I’m sorry).
Oh never saw a pitch in the big leagues. In fact, a Japanese position player did not take the field for a Major League team until 2001 when Ichiro Suzuki suited up for the Nintendo-owned Seattle Mariners. I will not, however, sit here and try to figure out exactly what Oh could have accomplished if he had played here in the states. Better men than me have tried and I, who will never be mistaken for a mathematician, will not attempt to calculate what cannot be measured on pen and paper. There should be no debate that Oh possessed titanic power. You don’t hit over 800 home runs in any league without obvious talent. His patented “Flamingo” leg kick, which has often been compared to the swing of New York Giants star Mel Ott, allowed him to launch mammoth home runs for over two decades.
I may very well be in the minority, but I have always been a firm believer that Sadaharu Oh is long overdue for a bronzed plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Yes, it’s a fair to point out that he never saw a pitch in the Major Leagues, but that hasn’t gotten in the way before. Plenty of Negro League stars like Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Rube Foster and, of course, Josh Gibson have been elected into the Hall without having ever played one inning of big league Baseball. Satchel Paige may have been the greatest pitcher of all-time, but his numbers in the big leagues were below mediocre after an outstanding Negro League career. He was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1971.
Believe it or not, the Negro Leagues and Nippon are more comparable than you’d think. The Japanese brand of baseball is finesse-oriented, as evident by the style of Ichiro and the junk ball pitcher like Masahiro Tanaka (Sinkerball) and Daisuke Matsuzaka (Gyroball). The Negro Leagues were famous for bringing a more fast-paced version of the game to the majors once the leagues were integrated. Cool Papa Bell was so fast that Satchel Paige was quoted as saying that he could “Turn out the light and jump in bed before the room got dark”. Satchel Paige was a crafty junkman who dominated the league. Guys like Josh Gibson were rare in the Negro Leagues just as Oh and Hideki Matsui were in Nippon.
So there is a precedent, and anyone who knows anything about politics (It’s no surprise sports and politics mix so often) understands the importance of a precedent. Baseball is growing into a world wide sport. Cuban players are making huge impacts on the prime time stage, Korean players like Jung Ho Kang and Hyun-jin Ryu are starting to have a real presence in the game, while Japanese stars are becoming more and coveted (Just ask Tanaka and that $155 million dollar paycheck!). It is time to make good and treat the Hall of Fame as a global hub. Sadaharu Oh hit more home runs than any other human being in history. That’s something that needs to be honored. It’s a shame it has not happened sooner.
Do whatever needs to be done. Add him to the Veterans’ Committee ballot, open up a special wing for international stars who didn’t get their shot. Throw in guys like Hector Espino ,who hit 500 home runs in the Mexican Leagues but played just 32 Triple-A games. I’m sure there are plenty of guys who could easily find a home in this potential wing of Cooperstown’s beautiful brick walls. But for now, let’s prioritize and send Oh to the Hall of Fame. He retired in 1980 and went on to be a successful manager after a prolific career as his nation’s greatest player. The way I see it, his induction is long overdue. It’s time to free the Flamingo kick and recognize the super slugger from the Land of the Rising Sun.