Where the Twain Shall Meet, Part 2

TNP 1985Merritt Clifton’s “Where the Twain Shall Meet,” originally published in The National Pastime in 1985, commenced here: http://goo.gl/aRUwmJ.

Ironically, the Japanese victory over the U.S. baseball team in the Olympics makes a ban on foreign players less likely. Japanese pride has been assuaged. Now that Japanese collegians, at least, have proved themselves peers of their American counterparts, fans can more easily shrug off the “inferior” rap whenever an American unknown hits a home run. The pressure on imported players to excel conspicuously might also diminish considerably, after decades of mounting. Having starred for the Hankyu Braves in 1964-68 and again in 1971-72, former infielder Daryl Spencer knows that pressure well, understanding thoroughly how it contributes to the present situation. Not only the fans but “the managers like to use Americans as scapegoats,” Spencer recently explained to baseball historian Mike Mandel. “If the American has a bad year and the team doesn’t do well, then the manager says, “Well, our Americans didn’t do well,” without regard to the performances of the other twenty-three on the roster.

Daryl Spencer, Hankyu Braves

Daryl Spencer, Hankyu Braves

Smith and Cromartie particularly demonstrate this tendency. The Yomiuri Giants more or less expected them to replace Sadaharu Oh, the Korean-born first baseman who hit even more home runs than Hank Aaron (868 to 755 before retiring in 1980) and Shigeo Nagashima, the third baseman whose lifetime batting average is the highest in Japanese baseball history. While the Giants dominated the Japanese game as the New York Yankees once dominated American baseball, Oh and Nagashima were the Japanese Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Through their prime, the Giants alone among Japanese teams steadfastly refused to sign Americans. Their only imported players ever had been Hawaiian-born Wally Yonamine, Andy Miyamoto, Bill Nishida, Jun Hirota, and Fumiharu Kashiwaeda, all of pure Japanese descent, who formed their nucleus during the early 1950s. But tradition changed fast after Nagashima began declining. In 1975 the Giants jumped at a chance to sign infielder Davey Johnson, a perennial Gold Glove winner and All-Star with the Baltimore Orioles who had also hit 43 home runs as an Atlanta Brave only two years before. Past his prime, Johnson disappointed, but he did have a good year in 1976 as the Giants kept on winning despite Nagashima’s retirement. Aware what might happen, however, if the Giants lost, Johnson fled back to the U.S. after his two-year contract expired, where he enjoyed one more standout season in 1977. The Giants next traded for John Sipin, who did effectively replace Nagashima during Oh’s last few seasons. In 1980 they added outfielder Roy White, a regular on three recent pennant-winning New York Yankee ballclubs. White starred, but after both Oh and Sipin retired, he slumped, unable to carry the Giants’ offense alone. For the first time, the Giants suffered three consecutive losing seasons. Nagashima, probably the most popular Japanese player ever, had become the team’s general manager. He couldn’t be blamed. Nor could Oh be blamed, now the Giants’ field manager. The Giants dumped White, bringing in first Smith, then Cromartie a season later with fanfare designed to hide the bitter truth that almost their whole club was over 30, they no longer had a single standout pitcher, and hadn’t developed a native star in at least a decade.

Sadaharu Oh

Sadaharu Oh

Smith had been a legitimate major league superstar in his prime with the Red Sox, Cardinals, and Dodgers, distinguished for home run power, speed on the bases, and one of the best arms in the history of baseball. However, he arrived in Japan at age 38 after a succession of injuries had left him unable to throw hard, run fast, or even swing the bat hard every day. Cromartie, in his early thirties, was a few years past career highs of 14 home runs and .304 in seven seasons with the Montreal Expos. He was a good player, but only a marginal regular. Smith and Cromartie couldn’t possibly have lived up to their billing, even if they had produced as well as Oh and Nagashima did during their last seasons; the Giants couldn’t reasonably have been expected to win. But blaming them for the Giants’ collapse helps Yomiuri management, including Oh and Nagashima, to survive the fans’ disappointment while rebuilding their team from the bottom up.

The expectation that American players should be supermen even extended to Masanori Murakami, the Japanese pitcher who played for the San Francisco Giants in 1964-65. Murakami joined San Francisco almost straight out of college, after only half a season in the U.S. minor leagues. Under normal circumstances, no one would have expected him to create a stir right away. But, recalls Spencer, “Murakami came back [to Japan] and he was the first Japanese to play in the major leagues in America and they had a big bally-hoo every time someone hit a home run off him in spring training. And the kid got really psyched out, and the other Japanese players kind of resented him. He had a miserable time of it for about three or four years. Finally he did have a halfway decent season, but he never became a star,” despite lasting eighteen years in professional baseball. Ironically, reversing the pattern of American players, Murakami returned to the San Francisco Giants for his final comeback attempt. Had he succeeded, he might have proved himself that American and Japanese baseball are simply different, rather than ”better” or “worse.” Instead, he received his unconditional release during 1983 spring training.

Masanori Murakami

Masanori Murakami

Yet another Spencer anecdote reveals the depth of the Japanese inferiority complex concerning American baseball. As he told Mandel in S.F. Giants: An Oral History (self-published, 1979), “I got in a situation where I was going for the home run crown with this Japanese player. And I was ahead of him 32 to 26 in August. And my interpreter told me to forget the home run title; it had already been decided that I wouldn’t win. I couldn’t understand what he was talking about, but in our next series we went into Tokyo and we were playing in this real small ballpark, and I always hit a couple of home runs there in a three-game series. And they walked me eight straight times. The greatest pitcher in Japan at that time, a kid named Koyama, who could throw strikes blindfolded, he walked me four times on sixteen straight pitches. So they were getting the message to me that I wasn’t going to hit any more home runs. And eventually the guy caught me.”

The Japanese have never been particularly sensitive about Americans winning batting championships. Even before former American major leaguers arrived, Wally Yonamine won the 1951 Central League batting title. Larry Raines won the Pacific League batting title with the Hankyu Braves in 1954. No feelings were hurt because at that time the Japanese leagues did not even pretend to equality. Almost a decade later, playing at the same time as Spencer, former American minor leaguer Jack Bloomfield won back-to-back Pacific League batting titles for the Kintetsu Buffalos in 1962 and 1963.

Home run titles, however, have been a sore point, as has the whole business of home run hitting. In America, the self-sacrificing deadball era ended when pitcher Babe Ruth turned in his toeplate at the peak of his career and became a fence-busting outfielder instead. The deadball era in Japan ended almost the same way, when one-time pitching great Michio Nishizawa returned from World War II with an injured arm, forcing him to become an outfielder-first baseman. Unlike Ruth, Nishizawa had never before been much of a hitter. In fact, in seven previous seasons, he’d hit over .223 just once and that was as a teenaged rookie in 1937, when he got two hits in five at-bats. He’d hit only one home run in his life. Grateful just to be playing ball again, Nishizawa played conventional deadball for a couple of years, then discovered he was big and strong enough to hit home runs in bunches. The individual self-assertion inherent in swinging for the fences made Nishizawa the target of considerable criticism from the old guard, but most fans loved him. When he retired in 1958, his career total of 212 homers and single-season high of 46 in 1950 were both Japanese baseball records.

Michio Nishizawa

Michio Nishizawa

They didn’t last long. Because Nishizawa’s teams won, and because his hitting packed the bleachers, Japanese management immediately began seeking more fence-busters. This, as much as a desire to better the overall caliber of their game, was the real impetus behind the wholesale import of American players from the early 1950s on. Even playing in much smaller ballparks than the American norm, few native Japanese had the size and strength to hit home runs before the 1960s, when the improved nutrition of the postwar era brought a generally bigger, stronger generation to maturity. Meanwhile American players of average power, like Spencer, challenged league and team home run records, while Americans with no power reputation at all frequently became sluggers. The handful of Japanese players who did hit home runs consistently during the 1950s and early 1960s became symbols of national pride: Futoshi Nakanishi of the Nishitsu Lions and Kazuhiro Yamauchi of the Hanshin Tigers, who arrived in 1952; catcher Katsuya Nomura of the Nankai Hawks, who broke in during 1955 and played until age 46 in 1980; Shigeo Nagashima, debut season 1958; Oh, and outfielder Shinichi Eto of the Chunichi Dragons, who came up in 1959. These were the few players whose power complemented their other abilities sufficiently that even the most critical Americans recognized them as authentic major leaguers.

Whether or not Spencer accurately accuses Japanese baseball of a conspiracy to deprive him of a home run title, it is a fact that although many Americans had spectacular home run totals, few of them actually became home run champions until after Oh hit the home run in 1977 that put him ahead of Hank Aaron as the all-time, all-world professional leader. Only since Oh’s triumph have any Americans won multiple home run titles. Japanese players and fans today can better accept former American reserves like Adrian Garrett, Charlie Manuel, and Samoan-born Tony Solaita outslugging today’s native favorites, Koji Yamamoto, Masayuki Kakefu, and Yasunori Oshima, because regardless of the outcome of any single season’s home run race, Oh at least has done something no American shall rival for a long, long time.

Shigeo Nagashima

Shigeo Nagashima

What will happen in Japan, following the Olympic victory, might parallel developments in the Japanese industrial labor force now that Japan has established her reputation for quality and productivity. As Americans gain greater tolerance, they might also be permitted off-the-field influence equal to their influence on the diamond. Japanese players might begin asserting themselves as individuals with confidence that they do have somewhere else to go if their employers foolishly release them. Certainly American teams have been interested in obtaining Japanese players ever since Murakami held his own with San Francisco through the torrid 1965 pennant race. Only custom has bound them to Japan, while only pressure from the U.S. State Department has prevented American teams from raiding Japanese talent in bidding wars. If the State Department believes American teams can sign Japanese players without Japanese fans feeling as if their major leagues are being treated like an amateur talent pool, if the international trade authorities judge that Japanese as well as American talent can move both ways without provoking more serious economic or diplomatic retaliation, the custom of eternal loyalty to one’s team could quickly crumble.

There is an on-the-field precedent, one that Daryl Spencer initiated in early 1964. “In Japan they don’t say ‘Spencer,’ they say ‘Spen-sah,’ “he told Mandel, “and when they talk about ‘Spen-sah,’ they talk about his sliding first…. In this one game, this same pitcher with all the control, the one who walked me four straight times on sixteen pitches, well, he walked me again to get to the next guy. That put runners on first and second in the bottom of the eighth inning with one out. And I yelled down to Gordon Windhorn,” a fellow American who was the runner from second, “that if this guy hits a ground ball to just keep on running because I was going to take the second baseman out.” A conventional play in American baseball, from Little League up, this was unheard of in Japan, where rough tactics had always been shunned. “Two pitches later he hit a ground ball to shortstop, the second baseman covered, I knocked him down, and Windhorn scored the winning run. They argued for about thirty minutes over that. Our players had never slid hard like that before. But from that game on, all our players started sliding hard. And in fact it changed the whole style of play in Japan as far as making double plays. It used to be that the player running to second base, if it looked like he was going to be out, he’d just turn and head out to right field,” away from the relay throw. “No one would ever slide. The second baseman would just stand on the base and make the nice easy throw. And almost from that day on, all the second basemen had to adjust because all our ballplayers started sliding in hard. And of course all the other teams started to do it, too.”

During the middle 1960s, firebrands like Spencer, Don Blasingame, Don Zimmer, and one-time Nankai Hawks coach Pete Reiser also introduced fighting with the hitherto sacrosanct umpires. Murakami reputedly threw the first deliberate brushback pitches in 1966–one reason, perhaps, why he was anathematized by most other Japanese players of his generation. Rough-and-ready American-style baseball still isn’t universal, but by the middle 1970s Japanese management was hiring retired American tough guys like Clete Boyer, Jim Lefebvre, and Vernon Law to teach the very tactics some of them once asserted would kill their game.

George Altman in Japan

George Altman in Japan

From the sanctimonious press response to Spencer and cohorts, one would gather that Japanese fans universally disapproved of rude, individualistic aggression. Gate receipts tell a different story. The more colorful the American, at least on the field, the better the fans like him. If this admiration for the man who stands out and even makes himself obnoxious spreads to off-the-field behavior, and if this in turn inspires average Japanese citizens to become more openly self-assertive as well, the whole of Japanese society could begin changing.

As, indeed, it seems to be. No longer content with collective achievements, many Japanese are now agitating for higher personal standards of living, more freedom of choice in occupational and social matters, and less rigidity in their educational system. The rights of peasant farmers were recently advanced by student militants as equal in importance to Tokyo’s need for a new airport, a development perhaps akin to the Boston Tea Party in challenging the status quo. Minority rights have never before meant much in a society stressing obligations over options. Many of the student leaders professed Communism, certainly not the ideology of capitalistic American ballplayers. Yet both Communism and anything-goes capitalism present radical departures from prevailing custom, and may simultaneously appeal to the silently frustrated Japanese baseball fan for the same reasons.

While increasingly individualistic baseball players may help inspire the forthcoming changes in Japanese society, baseball should help equally to insure that these changes are not violent. Baseball in Japan, as in the U.S. and Latin America, may glorify the individual disrupter, but at the same time provides a safety valve for pent-up emotions, and also asserts a timeless, traditional pattern to events. Though longtime players and fans agree that no two games are ever the same, each team always fields a lineup of nine, sends nine hitters to the plate in an established order, and makes three outs in an inning.

There is an added dimension to this pattern, one that does not meet the average fan’s consciousness–a dimension equally significant to nineteenth century New Englanders, Latin American Catholics, and Japanese Shinto-worshippers. It is a dimension as old and universal as humanity itself. At root, baseball is a fertility rite, a ritual symbolizing human reproduction from conception to birth. The infinite number of variations possible within the structured combat of two teams suggests the infinite variety of romantic and genetic possibilities between male and female.

Statuette of Hercules, by Francesco da Sant'Agata, Italy, 1520.

Statuette of Hercules, by Francesco da Sant’Agata, Italy, 1520.

But baseball’s sexual dimension goes far beyond the genetic abstract. Pitchers stand on the mound, the sacred pedestal, as ovulating females, whose egg becomes vulnerable to the phallus-swinging batsmen. Their objective is to avoid unwilling impregnation; they are protected from rape by their clans, behind them, whose own phalluses menace other women in their turn. Yet each pitcher is also carrying the child of her clan, the hope of victory, which must be nourished through nine increasingly difficult innings corresponding to the period of gestation. Today, though not in baseball’s first half-century, midwife relief pitchers may help her. Relief pitchers, interestingly enough, were at one time former starters past their prime: postmenopausal females. Pitchers are even treated as women off the mound, surrounded by eunuch or old-maid coaches in the bullpen-harem. Pitchers’ arms are treated with the same sort of superstition as women’s genitals.

Most telling, perhaps, is that young men generally become interested in baseball as they approach puberty, and are most intensely devoted to it in puberty, just before establishing their first liaisons with real rather than symbolic women. On the sandlot, whether in the U.S., Japan, or Latin America, young men usually experiment with the differing pitching and hitting roles, arguably a sublimated substitute for sexual experimentation.

Rounders

Rounders

As a fertility rite, baseball maintains a connection between past and present wherever it establishes itself, the green outfield recalling an agrarian society, the stooping motions of infielders resembling those of berry-pickers and fishermen, the running and throwing of outfielders continuing skills originally developed by hunters and herdsmen, while the squatting catcher could be weaving a basket or milking a cow. Baseball may have initially failed in Europe because many centuries of Christianity had finally erased any instinctive feel for fertility rituals connected to the land and role-playing, rather than to statues of the Virgin. But baseball caught on like wildfire in Latin America, where Christianity has both absorbed and been absorbed by native fertility-worship. American Christianity through the age of Manifest Destiny took as its first commandment, “Go forth and multiply!”, while the Transcendentalists, Mormons, and others variously explored how that might be achieved. Adopting the baseball fertility rite may have relieved the nation of having to choose definitively among the rival religious possibilities.

And in Japan, where forms of fertility worship have always been practiced, undisguised, baseball simply fit in, as a modern variant filling the same psychological needs when some of the older forms began to seem quaint, not quite what a growing industrial power should be doing.

Ultimately, baseball heroes are gods and goddesses of the harvest, of the future, a self-regenerating pantheon whose ever-shifting structure parallels our own lives. We watch stars emerge, shine, then fade and die within the space of a decade or two–but they don’t really die, since as coaches and managers they perpetuate their lineage, while new players take their places. Baseball helps America remain American by demonstrating daily where we come from, why we’re here, where we’re each going, in a manner understood subliminally if not overtly. Likewise, baseball helps Japan remain Japanese. As a sport and subject of international commerce, baseball may help the world become a smaller place, providing new channels of communication. At some point, baseball rivalry might help replace war. When better understood, baseball’s universal patterns may help replace nationalism with new recognition of ourselves as individual members of a common species.

Wada_Sanzo, Japanese Vocations in Pictures, Series 3, Baseball, 1956

Wada Sanzo, Japanese Vocations in Pictures, Series 3, Baseball, 1956

All of this may come about not because baseball is an international melting pot, but rather because baseball provides a model of balance between individuality and teamwork. The history of baseball in Japan and America alike demonstrates that the individual must not and cannot be forever repressed, yet the formula for victory requires that the individual must also cooperate with others. No matter how the Japanese have tried to diverge from the American pattern–tried to make their game enforce their own traditional values more than ours–similar patterns have emerged, not because baseball is a quintessentially American sport but because it is a quintessentially human sport. Had baseball begun in Japan, the American game would likely still follow the prevailing pattern-breaking from quasi-feudal beginnings where the players were samurais or knights eternally loyal to overlords, to cooperation of peers for mutual benefit. This is the stage just now arriving in both lands. Whether the Japanese know it or not, they too are baseball teachers: Americans have learned from them how to run effective college baseball programs, how to use martial arts exercises to improve performance, even how to make better equipment.

Mutual acceptance of one another as peers may still be a few years off, despite the Japanese Olympic victory. But it’s coming. Once it happens, acceptance of Asiatic people as equals may gradually follow, as gradual acceptance of blacks has slowly followed the admission of black players into the U.S. major leagues. From there, perhaps, we may progress to accepting Latin American baseball as something more than a source of raw material for the U.S. majors–to considering Latin American people as equals.  Who knows, we might even wind up with world peace, to which the ongoing performance of the Hiroshima Carp could contribute as much as the lingering memory of the Hiroshima bombing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: