Japan Has Its Hank Aaron Too

My target,” says the man in the crisp white flannels, “is 800 home runs by the time I retire.” That extravagant claim, spoken with cool assurance, comes neither from Hank Aaron nor some cocky, muscle-bound rookie. It is a prediction by a sinewy slugger named Wang Cheng-chih, who is known as Sadaharu O, first baseman for the Tokyo Giants. There is hardly a baseball star East or West better suited to make it. While Aaron’s dramatic pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record of 714 captivated American fans in recent years, more worldly baseball buffs have been keeping up with O’s own astonishing pace. As Japanese baseball’s top slugger, he has slammed 597 homers in his 15-year career, leading his league every season since 1962. O is now just 34 years old, and he intends to play until the age of 40. That leaves him a leisurely pace of 35 homers a year to reach 800.

For maximum power at the plate, O uses an unorthodox Mel Ott-style “flamingo” step, leaning into each pitch on one leg. He also relies before games on a gulp of a secret blend of Korean ginseng herb, which is supposed to possess mysterious body-building qualities. The potion apparently works wonders. Late last season, O was slumping and depressed just as pennant fever spread among his teammates. He upped his ginseng intake and wound up the season as his league’s first Triple Crown winner, leading in batting average (.355), home runs (51) and runs batted in (114).

Affable O-san is not Japanese but the son of Mainland Chinese emigrés. Sadaharu O is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters in his real name. Translated into English, “O” means “king.” O also leads baseball in another department—income. Last year salary and endorsements earned him $193,000. His playing number, reasonably enough, is 1.

When he isn’t socking baseballs over fences, O and his wife live in a comfortable home in suburban Tokyo with their three young daughters, and he unbends with a nine-handicap golf game. For years a national hero who inspires thunderous roars of “O-O-O-O” with each imposing appearance at the plate, Japan’s shogun of swat maintains a rather modest view of himself. He does not, for example, believe he would fare as well in baseball stadiums in America, which are slightly larger, nor does he envision himself as a match for American players.

“They are just too great to make it an even game for us small, slow and weak Japanese,” says the 5’10”, 171-pound O with excessive humility. “But I have no complaint about our game. I always feel I’m really living when I step out there, survey the grandstand and begin to play.”

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