When people hear 868 home runs they know that the subject at hand is Sadaharu Oh and his all-time professional home run record. It’s always struck me as a bit sad that we limit Oh to only 868 home runs, he did after all hit many more home runs in the Central League playoffs and the Japan Series. Oh’s 868 number is monstrous, but think of how monstrous and out of touch it would seem if we counted all of his professional home runs and not just the ones he hit during the regular season. Perhaps one day I will get my way and there will exist a better version of Baseball Reference where complete stats are provided as opposed to only the regular season. Whether that day comes or not, one thing is certain, Oh is much more than 868.
The home run king of the world wasn’t always the hitter that opponents came to fear. He actually started his baseball life as a pitcher. When he first donned a Yomiuri Giants uniform he was expected to contribute to the team from off the mound. The only problem with that plan was that the more he pitched in practice and in workouts the clearer it became that he wouldn’t have the stuff to excel in Nippon Professional Baseball. He converted to first base and started a three-year span where he worked to become a professional hitter.
Most people regard the 1959-1961 stretch of Oh’s career as his weakest as a ballplayer. There is some truth to that as he was still learning how to play his new position and how to best tweak his new batting stance for maximum efficiency. However, he was by no means a bad player during those years. He struck out more than he would in the years that followed and didn’t hit for quite as much power, but the raw skills were still present. Anecdotal reports from the time relay this, as does his 37 home runs and continually improving eye in that period.
In 1962 it’s not that something magically clicked for Oh. Rather, he finally put all the pieces together. He displayed his massive power all year long with 38 home runs in 586 plate appearances. His slash line improved to .272/.376/.565 and he almost walked, 72, as much as he struck out, 99. From that point forward Oh began a run where he would never strike out more than he walked. Just think about that for a second, for 18 seasons he walked more than he struck out. For his career, the half-Taiwanese Oh struck out 1,319 times while he walked 2,390 times. That’s over 1,000 more walks than strikeouts, which you don’t need me to tell you this I’m sure, is the sign of an elite eye at the plate.
The career stat lines for Oh are daunting and overwhelming. Even without his exemplary playoff numbers added into this mix, mind you. In 22 seasons he appeared in 2,831 games and amassed 11,866 plate appearances. He ended with a slash line of .301/.446/.634. In addition to the aforementioned walks, strikeouts, and home runs Oh also compiled 2,786 hits and 422 doubles while playing a great first base. Don’t let the compile term fool you either, Oh did not stick around past his welcome to try and boost his stats. In his age 40 season, he still slashed .236/.342/.462 with 30 home runs. It was a good season, but not good enough for Oh and he decided to hang it up that offseason.
Oh ended his career with 11 Japan Series titles (also the number of JPCL Most Valuable Player awards he took home), 2 JPCL Triple Crown years, and as the worldwide leader in home runs. Oh would also go on to be a long-time successful NPB manager and suffer through some controversy based on trying to maintain his records, but this isn’t about his post-playing days. He accomplished so much in his on-the-field career and he never played a single season in Major League Baseball. To some, that is a mark against him, but those people are dumb. Oh was one of the best to ever play the game and he never needed to play a single inning in MLB for that to be the case.
Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Japan Forward