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The Books of Baseball

Robert Whiting's Homepage at

The Books of Baseball

by West Coast Review of Books (Oct 10, 1977)

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley.

As we said at the start, the most novel baseball book of the season, actually the most unique baseball book we have ever read is this season's The Chrysanthemum and the Bat by Robert Whiting. This is the story of the Japanese style of baseball – besuboru – which has been an important sport in Japan since it was first introduced in 1873 when an American named Horace Wilson, a professor at a Tokyo university, taught the game to the Japanese. From the turn of the century, the game has been big with high school and college athletes in Japan. Today, it is Big Business and a big sport. The first pro-league was established in 1936, two years after a tour of American all-stars (Ruth, Gehrig, O'Doul etc.) toured the nation. By 1940, despite doubts that a professional team could survive, there were nine pro teams all fighting for their version of the pennant.

In his thoroughly engaging book, Whiting shows us the difference between American baseball and Japanese besuboru. "At first glance," he says, "baseball in Japan appears to be the same game played in the U.S. – but it isn't... Americans who come to play in Japan quickly realize that Baseball Samurai Style is different."

The difference is in the fact that the players and the managers all continue to pay homage to the Laws of Bushido – the Japanese laws of gamesmanship and courtesy practiced – and expected – in the martial arts of karate and judo, but also in their form of baseball. And the rigorous training, warmups demanded of each player, is far more demanding than that of American ball players. "The ancient swordsman who stood blindfolded on a high pedestal for hours to develop his balance, the Japanese ballplayer spends endless time in the batting cage," Whiting tells us. "A typical day might see him taking 50 swings against a right-handed pitcher, 50 against a left-hander, another 50 against breaking pitches, 50 in the toss batting circle, and a final 50 against the pitching machine. Later at the hotel he will find time for another 100 shadow swings. Some batters start training each morning with an incredible 500 shadow swings, while others flail into a heavy sand bag."

Whiting takes us through the demands placed on the players and interviews, many of them, and also shows the marked differences in coaches and managers. "In the United States, the coach is more like a teammate...A coach in Japan has more power and authority. He is also more aloof from the players. His word is law. His opinions are revered... If a man does not do well, the blame falls on the coach as much as it does on the player."

Occasionally, as Whiting points out, a player rebels against such authority. "The younger a star, the more scandalous it is if he rebels. Such was the the case of Yomiuri Giants' pitching phenomenon Tsuneo Horiuchi... He made the mistake of equating brilliance on the mound with equality to his seniors... To make matters worse, Horiuchi displayed his bad manners on the field as well... Horiuchi's critics also complained about how he spit so often on national television and how his cap would flop to one side when he threw the fastball. In fact, the size of Horiuchi's cap was a hotly debated issue for a time."

This is not only a picture of baseball as it is played and revered in Japan, it is also the story of its superstars. One comes upon, this realizing that Whiting is explaining this to us as we might explain Babe Ruth or Willie Mays to a Zulu. There is some marvelous description here of the superstars during their battles on the playing field. "From the start," he says, "it was a closely fought match. The Giants and Hanshin Tigers were locked in a 1-1 tie when Nagashima came to bat in the 5th inning. His anxiety about his recent slump began to disappear in the 3rd inning when he had slammed a drive down the third baseline for a hit. Whatever remained of it was eliminated entirely as he clouted a 1-1 pitch into the stands to give the Giants a 2-1 lead. Nagashima was living up to his reputation as a pressure player. In the 6th inning, the Tigers struck back for three runs, taking the lead 4-2. But in the 7th, a promising rookie named Sadaharu Oh plunked a two-run shot into the right field stands to tie the game again. In the 8th inning, with the score still four apiece, the Tigers brought in a new pitcher, an intense, flamed-throwing youngster named Minoru Murayama. Giants fans groaned, for Murayama was the hottest thing in baseball..."

For this reader, who was continually fascinated with the subject, the most exciting aspect of the book was the time with the World Series' champions of 1970, the Baltimore Orioles paid a visit to Japan and faced the Yomiuri Giants in an exhibition game. "The Orioles were in the process of creating an American League dynasty," Whiting remarks. "They had who two pennants in a row and were favored to take the flag again in the upcoming A.L. Season. They had devastated the Cincinnati Reds in the American series the year before, winning five games. The Orioles were laced with talent: Brooks Robinson, all-time great Frank Robinson, 1970 MVP Boog Powell, and all-star second baseman Don Buford. They had four 20 game winners: Former Cy Young award winner Mike Cuellar, speedballer Jim Palmer, Pat Dobson, and the mainstay of the pitching staff, Dave McNally.

"An unprecedented 11 of the 18 games would be against the Yomiuri Giants. And since, both the Orioles and the Giants were fully expected to win hands down in their respective countries, it would be the closest Japan had to (Matsutaro) Shoriki's dream ( of a true World Series). A good showing by the Giants, and the United States would have to consider renaming its annual fall classic."

How did it come about? Read the book and find out. The Chrysanthemum and the Bat is on helluva fine baseball book; it deserves a place in the baseball lovers' library of exceptional entries.

As we said upfront, this is a wide-ranged, well-balanced year with nary publicity release included between hard covers. The Books of Baseball are still around, but in 1977 overall it has provided some of the most engaging efforts we've seen in some time.

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