Who is Kihachi Enomoto & why he deserves to be in Hall of Fame

Kihachi Enomoto is more than deserving to be in Japan’s baseball Hall of Fame

Prior to Japan’s Hall of Fame election, a listener on the Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast asked who should be elected this year.

In the sense of should as in most likely, the obvious answers are former Yomiuri Giants ace Masaki Saito and former Seibu Lions and Daiei Hawks ace Kimiyasu Kudo, who is on the ballot for the first time this year. And as guessed, they both were elected, although Kudo made it with just five votes to spare

That was the off-the-top-of-my-head answer. I then went through my data base, found players still on the ballot, and came up with a list of the most worthy candidates.

No. 1 on the list and the player with the most valuable career not previously in Japan’s little Hall of Fame at Tokyo Dome is Mainichi and Tokyo Orions first baseman Kihachi Enomoto. He was not the best player of his generation, but he was among the best in NPB in the 1960s and among the best players in the Pacific League year in and year out from the age of 18. Enomoto was named on Jan. 18 to join the Hall, but just barely. A panel of 119 “experts” — living Hall of Famers and the museum’s directors gave 83 votes to Enomoto, the exact number needed.

Here is a list of the 10 most valuable players of the 1960s in total win shares with their win share totals from 1960 to 1969:

  1. Sadaharu Oh 1B 360
  2. Katsuya Nomura C 335
  3. Shigeo Nagashima 3B 320
  4. Isao Harimoto OF 297
  5. Kazuhiro Yamauchi OF 259
  6. Kihachi Enomoto 1B 250
  7. Shinichi Eto OF 241
  8. Yoshinori Hirose OF 211
  9. Minoru Murayama P 206
  10. Kazuhiko Kondo OF 205

Of these 10 players, only Enomoto and Kondo are not in the Hall of Fame. The highest ranked middle infielders of the decade were Hall of Fame shorstop Yasumitsu Toyoda and Hall of Fame second baseman Morimichi Takagi, whose value in the decade ranked them 18th and 27th, respectively.

Thirty-five of the 75 professional players in the Hall of Fame who played after the war were pitchers, including Junzo Sekine, who was successful as both a pitcher and an outfielder. Of those 35, 10 began their careers before the 1950 expansion, and another 13 began their careers between 1950-1959. Japanese ball during that period was a low-power, low-scoring affair with the exception of the period from 1949 – the last year of the single-league era, when the strike zone was downsized, and the first two years of the two-league system.

Another seven began their careers in the 1960s, two in the 1970s. There was one in the 1980s – the sentimental but absurd choice of Hiroshima Carp closer Tsunemi Tsuda, who played for nine years and died of cancer at the age of 32. Two pitchers who started their career in 1990 were first-ballot hall of famers, Kazuhiro Sasaki and Hideo Nomo.

Among position players, 14 began their careers before 1950, another 15 in the subsequent decade, six in the 1960s, three in the 1970s, one in the 1980s (Koji Akiyama), and one in the 1990s, (last year’s inductee, Atsuya Furuta).

It’s hard to know what to think other than how hard it is for recent players to match the gaudy records compiled by the best players in the first three decades of the current pro baseball establishment.

One way to look at this is the huge gap in competitive ability between the teams. The mean of the standared deviations in winning percentages for each season from 1946 to 1959 is 0.117. From 1960 to 1989 it’s 0.074, and since 1990 it’s 0.068. It’s the same for the spread in batting averages and on-base percentages among hitters who qualified for batting titles. There was less quality in terms of batters’ ability to hit safely and reach base. From 1946 to 1959, 22 percent of the players with 3.1 plate appearances per game, had on-base percentages lower than .300: lots of easy outs there.

Although the dead-ball ‘40s and ‘50s made it harder to set records for hitters, the scarcity of quality rivals meant batters could dominate the competition more easily. During the 14 years from 1946 to 1959, there were seven active players with three or more batting titles in their career. In the 22 seasons from 1960 to 1981, that total was five. Since 1982 there have been four.

The Hall of Fame voters appear to have often rewarded players for their level of dominance. In his career, Hiromitsu Ochiai 15 times led his league in a triple-crown category and that was in a career that ran from 1979 to 1998, when the competition was much stiffer than it was for Hall of Famers such as Shigeo Nagashima or Isao Horimoto.

Love him or hate him, Kazuhiro Kiyohara was one of the great players of his generation. But his failure to lead his league in a single triple-crown category was frequently commented on during his career and may be holding him out of the Hall. It’s likely a combination of that and his not getting along well with the press. Although Enomoto wasn’t as big a power hitter as Kiyohara, their careers are extremely similar, and Kiyohara is the second most valuable player who is eligible for Hall of Fame selection who is not in.

Enomoto won two batting titles and won nine Best IX awards to Kiyohara’s three, win shares judges Kiyohara to have been his league’s best player twice, and he did win five Golden Gloves, although win shares wouldn’t give him any. They each led their league in runs once, walks four times, on-base percentage twice and slugging average once. Kiyohara led his league in doubles once and Enomoto twice.

Some other stuff about Enomoto, courtesy of wikipedia :

He was intentionally walked as an 18-year-old rookie on Opening Day after going 0-for-3, and whoever ordered it knew what he was doing, since Enomoto set records for first-year hitters straight out of high school in runs, hits, doubles, walks and on-base percentage. He also tied the record for triples.

On July 21, 1968, in the first game of a doubleheader at Tokyo Stadium, Enomoto doubled off Kintetsu Buffaloes Hall of Famer Keishi Suzuki, becoming the third player in NPB history to reach 2,000 hits — and the youngest at 31 years, 7 months of age. In the second game, Enomoto put a hard tag at first base on Kintetsu’s Toshinori Yasui, who was attempting to bunt his way on. The two exchanged words and then blows. Both benches emptied and Enomoto was taken unconscious from the field after reserve Buffaloes outfielder Shunzo Arakawa hit him in the head with a bat. The local police sent papers to prosecutors for a charge of assault but the matter was settled between the teams front offices and no assault charges were leveled.

Those were the days.

When Enomoto retired after playing briefly for the Nishitetsu Lions in 1972, he walked away from the game completely. One of the first members of the Meikyukai, the charitable organizations for players born in the Showa Era with either 2,000 hits or 200 wins, he never attended a single meeting and eventually quit. Enomoto told Sport Nippon in December 1971  he’d like to be a batting coach, but nobody offered, saying “I’m  not sociable. People who don’t chat or socialize don’t get offered jobs.”

Enomoto died of colon cancer in 2012 at the age of 75.

 

Author: jballa5_wp

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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