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Robert Whiting

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You Don't Have to be an American to Enjoy a Good Baseball Yarn

by Joe Desker (Jun 25, 1978)

Years ago in New York, as you waited for your subway train, it was next to impossible to miss an advertisement on any platform wall showing a loaf of freshly baked rye bread, beneath which were the words "You don't have to be Jewish to like Levy's." The savants of Madison Avenue who dreamed up the campaign sold a lot of rye bread.

Which brings us to a book, not about advertising but about baseball.

Japanese style, by a young American writer resident in Tokyo.

And the point is you don't have to be American to enjoy The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, by Robert Whiting, who explains in 247 well-illustrated pages the love affair the Japanese have with baseball, a sport which has been played professionally in the country since 1936.

Baseball really no longer is the American national pastime (perhaps soccer some day?) but in the Land of the Rising Sun it is more than just a national pastime. It is almost a religion.

Consider that 400,000 people will run out for a 10-day high school national championship series in Osaka (while just about everyone else in the country tunes in on television) and that the Yomiuri (Tokyo) Giants draw capacity 50,000 crowds for every home game they play.

The Giants are the most successful team in Japan, so much so that when the club finished in last place in 1975 the management saw fit to send out thousands of New Year's "apology" cards to their loyal and long-suffering fans.

There are five national daily sports newspapers in Japan (none in the United States) along with a few weekly sports magazines, which satisfy even the most crazed partisan with everything from complete statistics of all games played in the 12-team major leagues to trivia one would expect only from one of the phony Hollywood fan magazines.

Where Whiting excels is in depicting the Japanese national character vis-a-vis its US-imported national pastime. The contrasts between the style of play and the attitudes of fans, players, owners and managers is fascinating:

What American team would acknowledge a 12-game losing streak by remorsefully bowing (in unison) before the home fans, as did the Yakult Atoms (now the Swallows) not so long ago? Whiting notes that in Japan players apologize for getting hurt for not hitting or pitching well enough or, in some instances, not performing to perfection. Veterans apologize for playing too long and not giving youngsters a chance, and when they finally do retire, apologize for not retiring sooner. Managers are never fired, but take a leave of absence at their own request for the good of the team – at the same time apologizing, of course.

In the US, untested rookies sniff at US $50,000 a year for hitting or throwing a baseball. In Japan, where the rigorous, almost military physical and mental conditioning of a ballplayer consumes nearly the entire year, the average wage of a professional is $18,000 per annum, less than many workers. In short, it's a game and they are honored to be allowed to play it for pay.

(There are exceptions, of course, among the Super Samurai such as Sudaharu Oh, the Taiwanese-born home run king of the Giants who pulls down something in the neighborhood of $250,000 a year, not to mention commercial endorsements etc.)

(The man most revered in the annals of Japanese baseball is Yomiuri manager Shigeo Nagashima, a former third baseman who had no peers either at the plate or in the field. In Japan he is Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Pele, Muhammad Ali and Reggie Jackson wrapped up in one. He dominated the game for 17 years, until his retirement as a player, at which time he was making about $200,000. He bowed out before 50,000 tearful fans at Tokyo's Korakuen Stadium and, before being hired as Giant manager, was given a $65,000 bonus for, well, just being Shigeo Nagashima. The event was voted one of the top 10 news stories in Japan in 1974.)

In Japan baseball games are shown on television for one hour and 26 minutes, no more, no less. The fan stoically accepts this and no matter how tense the situation on the field when the tube commentary ceases and the picture dims at the appointed moment, moves to his radio.

In the US, if the President addresses the nation on a matter or urgency and his comments interfere with an even a single inning of a previously scheduled nationally televised game, network switchboards light up like a New Year fireworks display.

In Japan, the manager is a godlike figure, a surrogate and disciplinarian, but at the same time a father confessor concerned with the welfare of his players and his team, which is supposed to function like one happy family. He never is released, but takes a sabatical, or kyuyo, which roughly translates into rest and recuperation leave.

In America, a manager is summarily fired if the team fails to produce, if he fails to get along with the high-priced talent or even gets bad press notices. In Japan, a manager is granted his kyuyko "with deepest heartfelt regret." In the US, he is sacked "for the good of the team."

In the early 1960s the inevitable happened in Japanese baseball. American players began to arrive on the scene, some in the waning years of their productivity in the US and others simply not good enough to make the grade in the US major leagues. All, nevertheless, were able to command far more money in Japan than at home.

"Gradually, the 'Ugly American' image began to emerge as the Japanese realized there were players who simply did not care about the team," Whiting writes. "They were in Japan for two or three years at most and just wanted the money. That was all."

There were many exceptions: players like former American all-stars Willie Kirkland, George Altman, Daryl Spencer, Don Blasingame, Dave Roberts (who learned to speak Japanese) and Clete Boyer. They tried to blend with the Japanese way of life and learn something of the country's culture, customs and people. (Boyer, who came to Japan in 1972, once suggested to the Taiyo Whales management that his $80,000 salary might be a bit too high and offered to take a pay cut. Now a coach, there are many who believe he will someday be a manager in Japan.)

Whiting compares the attitude of Boyer with that of Joe Pepitone, a former New York Yankee star who caroused himself out of the US major leagues, but at the age of 32 was paid $70,000 to perform for the Yakult team in 1973.

Pepitone had scarcely laced his spiked shoes before complaining of headaches, blurred vision, leg injuries and what you have – during which time he became a familiar figure in Tokyo discotheques. Finally, with a month left in the season, he returned home, leaving behind a record of 14 games played, a laughable .163 batting average and several thousand dollars in unpaid telephone and grocery bills – all of which were settled by the team management.

There are those in Japan who for years have believed there is parity between the Japanese and American versions of baseball. This makes about as much sense to this writer as Americans showing the way in Sumo.

Whiting devotes the final chapter of his engaging approach to the subject with accounts of Japan tours made by American major league championship teams. Most of the US clubs devastated their Oriental foes with ease, despite the fact that the visiting players had their minds more on such pursuits as sightseeing, shopping and night clubs than performing on what to them amounted to a miniature baseball diamond.

Whiting somewhat reluctantly admits this fact of life but optimistically holds that "the day must follow when the flag of the Rising Sun is flowing in the wind over another important flag: that of the world champions of baseball."

In his forward, Whiting states that his work "is a book about the Japanese people. It is a look at their culture through a game they dearly love – the game of baseball."

He has told his story well.

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