Oh home run royalty in own right

Oh home run royalty in own right

Barry Bonds is MLB's home run king, and now that he has passed Hank Aaron, Bonds can set his eyes on the world.

The Beastie Boys may have "more hits than Sadaharu Oh," but nobody has more home runs -- not even Bonds. The first baseman went deep a staggering 868 times.

The much-beloved Oh -- whom the Beastie Boys mentioned in their song "Hey Ladies" -- played for the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants from 1959-80, serving as a cornerstone during Japan's greatest baseball dynasty -- the Giants' V-9 Era, in which the club won nine straight Japan Series from 1965-73.

The slugger joined the Giants as a heralded pitcher, but he was moved to first base shortly after joining the club. Then Oh began to focus on hitting. He hit seven homers in 94 games his rookie year, and by 1963, that number ballooned to 38.

In the next 12 seasons, Oh hit fewer than 40 home runs only once.

"Oh's record is the best, and is hard to believe," said former Mets manager Bobby Valentine, who now manages the Chiba Lotte Marines, a rival of Oh's Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. "I don't know why he isn't recognized more."

For his part, Oh hasn't had much to say about Bonds during the chase of Aaron, declining comment recently, but he did say he would offer a statement of congratulations. Oh believes his record is the best, and he is focused on keeping the Hawks in the playoff picture as the Pacific League gets ready for the stretch run.

That many homers anywhere is impressive, but there is a stigma to Oh's achievement outside of Japan. Some feel the achievement is not as significant because of where it happened.

Some feel otherwise.

"Oh would have hit 700 homers over here," Davey Johnson, who was a teammate of Oh's, told The Sporting News in 1978. "He would be a good hitter anywhere in the world. Quality is quality."

High praise from the only player to have been a teammate of both Oh and Aaron are Johnson's words.

The journey from pitching prospect to long-ball specialist was a strange one for Oh, but a trip to the Japanese Hall of Fame will show just how "cutting edge" Oh was.

Oh's batting stance would be enough to get some players designated for assignment, but Oh taught the world a valuable lesson -- flamingos can hit home runs too.

The left-handed hitter was known for his batting stance -- he stood with his right leg cocked high in the air awaiting the pitch. Giants batting coach Hiroshi Arakawa helped Oh craft the stance as a way to gain balance. Once applied, the flamingo label stuck.

But that's not the strangest part of Oh's tale.

In a glass case in the Hall of Fame at Tokyo Dome is a sword, the blade Oh used to hone his stroke early in his career. Struggling with timing and hitting curveballs, Oh practiced sword slices under Arakawa's guidance.

Mix all that with studying aikido and you have the world's home run king. Even so, Oh was sometimes overshadowed on his own team. Shigeo Nagashima, the other deity of the V-9 Era, played third base for the Giants and hit behind Oh.

Some say Nagashima -- another Hall of Famer and one of the best clutch hitters in Japanese baseball history -- had impressive stats, but fewer home runs. He was more charismatic, and he made more time to play that fact up.

He also had something Oh did not: a Japanese passport.

Oh's father was a Chinese immigrant, and Oh has a Taiwanese passport. Oh does not speak Chinese and has lived in Japan his whole life, but he was considered non-Japanese because of old immigration laws.

In high school, he was prohibited from playing with his team in the National Athletic Games because he was "not Japanese enough."

"Maybe he does not get noticed as much because he is not 100-percent Japanese," Valentine said, indicating that Oh's perception by some Japanese as an outsider hindered him along the way.

These days, Oh manages the Hawks. He has won two Japan Series with the Pacific League club, not to mention managing Team Japan to a World Baseball Classic championship in 2006.

Later that year, Oh had to take a leave of absence from the Hawks. In the early stages of stomach cancer, Oh had his stomach removed.

Now back with SoftBank, Oh still has the job he loves.

Every day at the ballpark, Oh clearly is happy to be there. If he knows you, he comes up to shake hands. When he stands behind the cage during batting practice, he has a bat in his hand, a ball in his hand, something to do. So strong is his enthusiasm while on the field, he almost fidgets.

Oh doesn't have much of an appetite after the stomach surgery, but other than that, he has few complaints.

Valentine says it is tough to compare the two.

"Oh's feat is amazing," Valentine said. "[But] Barry is one of the greatest of all time, and might be the best player ever."

Stephen Ellsesser is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.