1st since Ruth? not hardly

On Friday, Shohei Ohtani could win his 10th game, making him the first American League player since Babe Ruth in 1918 to win 10 games and hit 10 home runs in a season.

Although there will be a rush around the world — ironically even in Japan — to label the achievement as “the first in the majors since Ruth,” this is a travesty for two reasons.

Now that MLB has condescended to admit seven Negro Leagues as major leagues along with the AL, the National League, American Association, Union Association (1884), Players’ League (1890), and Federal League (1914–1915), the list of 10-home run, 10-win seasons increased by at least one.

In 1922, Bullet Rogan of the Kansas City Monarchs hit 15 home runs in 74 Negro National League games, finishing second in home runs to fellow Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston, who hit 19 in 101 games for the Indianapolis ABCs, according to Baseball Reference.

That year, the only time he hit 10 homers, Rogan, who split his time between the mound and the outfield, went 14-8 in 26 games as a 28-year-old pitcher, and led his team in home runs and wins, as Ohtani will probably do this year with the Angels.

The number could conceivably increase as more Negro League records are confirmed, but for now, only Bullet Rogan is known to have done it in what was then a quality league, and in very few games.

The second reason why the popular perception is wrong is that what is and what isn’t a major league is completely arbitrary and depends on a particular way of looking at things in which Major League Baseball Inc. can be admitted as the world’s baseball gatekeeper.

What competition MLB decides to anoint as a “major league” is limited geographically to North America, and includes many leagues that were qualitatively far below what anyone today would think of as “major league” — including the 1918 Wonder Bread American League Ruth played in.

That means, that while the Union Association and Federal Leagues are called “major league”, Japan’s Central and Pacific leagues aren’t. This is a joke, considering the quality of the competition is far better than what Ruth or Rogan faced when they achieved their colossal feats.

This brings us to the other player who’s done it before — even if MLB doesn’t want you to care about it: Shohei Ohtani. In 2014 as a 19-year-old hitting against some of the world’s best pitchers hit 10 homers in 170 games, three in 26 games at the Nippon Ham Fighters’ cavernous Sapporo Dome, and seven in 44 games at other parks. As a pitcher, he went 11-4.

In 2016, Ohtani crushed it in a season when he was unable to pitch for over a month, going 10-4, while hitting 18 home runs in 104 games with 12 in 60 games outside Sapporo and eight in 38 games in town.

I thought his Sapporo Dome splits would be far worse, but that was well before three PL parks drastically reduced their home run distances, and when you hit them as far as he does, it doesn’t matter as much.

What does that do if we consider Nippon Professional Baseball, the Korea Baseball Organization, and even the Chinese Professional Baseball Leagues, major leagues? Like the Negro Leagues and the other anointed major leagues, Asia’s leagues play in a different context, so their numbers are going to be different? But do we discount Walter Johnson’s records because he pitched most of his career in a pitcher’s park in a dead ball era?

Of course, we don’t. We learn, we seek to understand why things are different and accept the differences.

Two major league career home run leaders.

Oh hit 868 home runs in a major league, more than any other major league player. There, I said it.

He isn’t the U.S. major league career leader, but what he did is part of the conversation, unless one is locked into the American exceptionalist idea that only the U.S. matters.

People willing to see beyond what MLB decides is the truth — which for years was “African Americans don’t belong in America’s best competition” and then “What African Americans did in their own competition doesn’t count”, will get it.

The people who will never get it are like the morons who say Robert E. Lee would have won America’s forever war in Afghanistan or who believe Lee was a great American — as opposed to being a great engineer and soldier who sided with white supremacists.

Does Sadaharu Oh own the major league career home record? It’s a leap, but it’s also a leap to say he didn’t play in a major league just because MLB hasn’t made that mental adjustment yet.

Yet, it would be the same kind of leap to say Walter Johnson didn’t play in a major league because the context in which he pitched was so radically different from what pitchers face now.

Anyone who argues Asia’s leagues aren’t “major enough” might as well start by ruling that no pitchers’ records before 1921 should count, nor should any hitters’ records during the steroid era.

To those Americans who strive to see the U.S. as intrinsically right and white, it’s time to heed the advice of the character Animal Mother, played by Adam Baldwin in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” and “Flush out your headgear.”

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