As I watched the Giants’ Travis Ishikawa* belt the winning home run in the National League Championship Series, it got me thinking about the first Japanese hitter to get America’s attention with his bat.
Back in the 90s, I didn’t know who the Beastie Boys meant in “Hey Ladies” when they claimed “I got more hits than Sarahadu Oh!”
But the lyric was certainly deserved. Oh holds (but not without debate) the all-time world record for home runs with 868. Not Hank Aaron or Barry Bonds—Sarahadu Oh.
Oh was born in Japan to a Japanese father and Chinese mother. He played his entire career in Japan with the Yomiuri Giants, debuting in 1959. His first season, he only hit .161 with seven homers, but after a little wax-on, wax-off practice (OK, some actual, real samurai and zen training), he soon was hitting .300 with at least 40 homers for eight consecutive seasons. By his 14th season, he’d hit 500 taters.
Meanwhile in AMUUURRCA, Aaron was advancing on Babe Ruth’s HR record of 714, and eventually passed it in 1974 (despite death threats!) As a goodwill celebration, Aaron and Oh, who was six years younger than Aaron and had already hit 600 homers by age 34, met in a home run hitting contest in Tokyo in November 1974. Aaron won 10-9.
Which is just one of many problems many baseball purists have with Oh’s record. He only played in Japan while America had more seasoned players. His seasons were shorter—130 or 140 games as opposed to MLBs’ 160+, so he couldn’t wear down with injuries as fast. Japanese parks were smaller. And so on it goes…
Aaron retired in 1976, but Oh continued to play, passing Aaron as world leader on September 3, 1977. He retired in 1980 with 868 home runs and 2,786 hits. He led the league in home runs 15 times and was elected MVP nine times.
And well, if you doubt his records, here is one you can believe: dental records. *Ishikawa (whose father is Japanese American and his mother European-American) met his now-wife, a dental assistant, after he was hit by a pitch in the face.