Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley.
The first time Robert Whiting saw Japanese baseball, he thought it was something between Early Sandlot and a vintage Marx Brothers comedy.
"You'd see a third baseman charging a hard ground ball" – a bizarre bonehead play that would have a Little League coach in Yreka or Des Moines using language not fit for the young.
Fielders and basemen stretched and dived toward left field as they blindly fumbled for high velocity drives. A star pitcher was a tireless superman who never rested and obediently fired blistering fastballs game after game – a harsh practice that could swiftly tarnish and golden arm.
An apoplectic American coach would be frothing at a valuable player who risked brain and collarbone with a headfirst slide. Japanese coaches encouraged and even demanded it as a fierce display of "fighting spirit."
And it was all so gentlemanly. A pitcher might psych out a batter for long minutes before he fired – but there was never any outrageously bad call with a polite bow, saving his frown for the dugout – if he dared to even let it out there.
Returning to his duties as a young airman at Fuchu Air Station in western Tokyo, Whiting wondered what had happened to Abner Doubleday's game after a naïve American college professor innocently imported it it here in the last century. What was this mangled, formless mutation the Japanese called baseball?
Fourteen years later, Whiting had an answer – his book, "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat," published in the United States by Dodd, Mead and Co. and locally, in an attractive paperback, by the Permanent Press. Priced at $5.10 at Pacific Stars and Stripes bookstores, it's a fascinating overview of Japanese baseball – from training camp to dugout to diamond to pennant or dismal but dignified disappointment. There are carefully fashioned cameos of Sadaharu Oh, Shigeo Magashima and everyone of importance and consequence.
Yet Whiting makes a claim as puzzling as his own first reaction to a most peculiar game,
"This is not a book about baseball at all. It's a book about Japan."
The way Whiting sees it, Japanese baseball is an animated cyclorama of Japanese life – the lockstep existence in which rules of conduct and thought are dictated by an old proverb, "The nail that sticks up will be hammered down," Everyone is a nail, a cog, a mote, a piece of the Maine, beholden to his 'ball club', his family, his company or, in the highest places, to tradition and things as they are.
As Whiting writes it:
The good team is like a beautiful Japanese garden. Every tree, every rock, every blade of grass has its place. The smallest part ever so slightly out of place destroys the beauty of the whole. The rocks and trees viewed individually might be pleasing to look at, but, when organized properly the garden becomes more than just the sum of its parts. It becomes a work out art. It becomes perfection. When each (baseball) player's ego detaches itself and joins 25 others to become one giant ego, something magical happens..."
The team moves as One. The individual is nothing the team is everything. A Reggie Jackson would not have survived a long season to win the Japan Series – not if he started it with excessive salary demands and a cheap shot at his team captain. He would have likely been tagged as a discordant element, a fissure in team unity and morale and dumped – just like that.
A player who belts three homers and powers his team to an effortless walkover will be under a cloud the next morning if he shows up ten minutes late to practice. The others were there. Why wasn't he? Who was this man to detach himself form the mainstream and break the law of conduct.
The roots of this run deep, as Whiting recalls how after taking his discharge here and studying at Sophia University, he often worked long hours of unpaid overtime at Britannica of Japan, finishing up barely in time to catch the last train home. If he was a few minutes late the following day, there was a brittle atmosphere in the office. He had arrived on the wrong side of the invisible time clock.
Struggling to put his experiences on paper some way and tell people about Japan, Whiting struck upon baseball as the perfect microcosmic example – high drama on an outdoor stage called the diamond.
Americans who come to play baseball in Japan often have the same difficulties as Whiting did. They leave their individuality in the locker room – or best, back in San Francisco or Los Angeles. A player doesn't train or warm up on his own way, but moves in goosestep cadence with the team. He doesn't hassle the umpire, throw bats or kick the bench. And he never, ever gets playfully violent with a runner or baseman.
Daryl Spencer, a former San Francisco Giants shortstop who played here for the Hankyu Braves, achieved something notable by popularizing, indeed legalizing, the custom of barreling into the second baseman to break up a double play. A broad-shouldered six-footer, Spencer used his spikes freely and disabled many rivals with a battering ram slide. Fans still talk about the time Spencer rocketed onto home plate and lowered the boom on a hapless catcher who was carried out feet foremost. Calmly taking his lumps and fines, Spencer was tolerated because he delivered.
But he was clearly less than popular with fans who liked fea purei (fair play) and gentlemanly baseball – so much so that, on afternoon animated serials in which the hero was a young Japanese baseball player and the villain a scowling foreigner, the bad guy was often drawn in the image of Daryl Spencer.
An American pitcher might be profoundly irritated at the way a Japanese batter hugs the plate – but he dare not brush him back. Even if the pitcher is superbly efficient, he must be a subtle and colorless mechanic who refrains from flamboyance. Gene Bacque took positive delight in violating this credo. His Hanshin Tiger jacket was emblazoned with four, a jinx numeral identified with death. He heckled batters and on a couple of occasions caricatured their demeanor and stance --- practices that were not exactly banned in Japan, simply because they had never been done before. All too often, Bacque's unnerving theatrics were followed by effortless strikeouts, including a no-hitter against the sacrosanct Yomiuri Giants.
In another memorable game, Bacque saw the Giants edging close to a dangerous lead and declared war on batting ace Sadaharu Oh. Bacque twice fired brushbacks with a velocity that sent Oh sprawling, the last pitch landing in a way that suggested Bacque was trying to deprive him of grandchildren . That sparked a rarity in Japan – a De Mille spectacle-sized rhubarb that had players, fans and bewildered officials trying to sort each other out. Bacque broke a thumb in the brawl. That and his deportment benched him for the rest of the reason and ensured his eventual departure from the team.
Bacque, like many other Americans, had struck the biggest tartar for foreigners in Japan – a head-on collision with different attitudes and reactions, cultural barriers to inspire a Kipling poem, To Bacque, his actions were good baseball and sound psychological strategy. To Japanese, they were an outrageous disturbance of tradition and order. A game is played with Charge of the Light brigade spirit, but also within ethical bounds – and never in a way that creates unpleasantness and ill feeling. You never bruise the other fellow's self esteem or assault his sense of dignity.
A club owner is entitled to almost deified respect. You don't slap him on the back and address him with gross familiarities like "chrome dome".
"Social errors like this have too often been committed by ballplayers who are from another country – and a different world."
Ballplayers have learned. So has Whiting. But few young (age 34) authors have done a better job of transmitting their experiences to others.
So the crack of the bat has faded for another season and another classic series has passed. No matter. "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat" is a book or all seasons – a rare work that is so entertaining that the reader doesn't realize he's learning something, too.