Tag Archives: Tetsuharu Kawakami

A lot has changed, Part 3

This is the story of three men, and how they helped revolutionize Japanese baseball. In so doing, they created a space for the kind of individual pursuit of excellence that Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto have engaged in and been rewarded for.

Their huge contracts this winter, as surprising as they are now, would have seemed impossible to those watching Japanese pro baseball in the 1980s.

This is the third part of a series discussing the transformation of Japanese pro baseball.

Part 1 outlined how NPB has continued to grow and thrive:

  • Through unintended consequences of owners trying to restructure the existing domestic balance of power
  • Through effort of individuals working on their own and eventually with others to create new paradigms within obsolete structures.
  • Through a collective effort by players to combat owners’ abuse of power

Part 2 is about how owners’ efforts to petrify a system and ensure their control, set in motion a set of circumstances that ensured players would strike out on their own for MLB.

Don’t get me wrong, the baseball of the era was fun and the players entertaining, but it was being portrayed as a morality lesson on the purity of playing for one run, and the absolute necessity of executing boringly predictable tactics.

Today’s story starts in the 1960s, a free-wheeling era for Japanese baseball and discusses Tatsuro Hirooka’s attempt to rein in the chaos of his time and perfect the game. It’s about a quiet counterrevolution, where his contemporary, Akira Ogi, presented an alternative view of baseball that unleashed the unique Ichiro Suzuki, whose impact resounds to this day.

Shadow of the past

The Yomiuri Giants “V9” dynasty of nine straight Japan Series championships under manager Tetsuharu Kawakami not only generated generations of fans, but also created a massive cadre of coaches who fanned out to spread the lessons of the Giants’ success across the breadth of NPB.

Kawakami’s Giants were powered by the ability of Yomiuri to outspend every other team for amateur talent and were built around two of Japan’s greatest stars, third baseman Shigeo Nagashima and first baseman Sadaharu Oh. As players did then, both Nagashima and Oh developed their own styles, and mastered them.

When Yomiuri’s dynasty crashed in the mid-1970s due to the competitive balance ushered in by the draft, and the replacement of Kawakami with newly retired superstar Nagashima, former Giants rushed in to explain how baseball could progress if it learned the lessons of the past and refined successful tactics, approaches, and techniques to their ultimate form.

Continue reading A lot has changed, Part 3

Leon and Bob’s wonderful wayback machine

As promised, here are the videos of last week’s live zoom chat featuring author Robert Whiting and former Japanese pro baseball star Leon Lee.

Bob was gracious enough to share more than an hour of his time, so I’ll add that you can now pre-order his memoir “Tokyo Junkie.” I haven’t read it but I’m sure it will be a page turner. Bob is a master story teller who saw all of Tokyo from its seedy early 60s glory to its slicker, more polished facade of today.

Bob’s 1st game

So where did the Robert Whiting phenomenon as a baseball icon begin? I’ve pegged that date down to July 17, 1962, when Oh and Nagashima each homered in both games of a doubleheader at Tokyo’s Korakuen Stadium, with a crowd

Leon Lee on the WBC

On Ichiro Suzuki

More about Ichiro as a class act

Sibling rival Lees

Leon was asked about playing as a teammate with his older brother Leron during their time with the Lotte Orions, and we learn about their one fight.

The “gaijin strike zone”

You’ve all head about it, but Leon said a veteran Central League umpire, the late Kiyoshi Hirako, explained the strike zone to him. I mention Hirako, who retired in 1992. Because he’s famous for misjudging a ball off the center-field wall at Koshien Stadium as a game-tying home run on Sept. 11 of that year, that resulted in a 6-hour, 26-minute, 15-inning game between the Swallows and Tigers.

How Ichiro got into the WBC

OK, so this is my story, but we were on the topic of Sadaharu Oh, Ichiro and the WBC, my apologies to those who’ve heard it before.


I wrote a while back about how Japan’s quality-control-is-in-our-blood nonsense that was pedaled around the world in the 1980s to explain Japan’s economic “miracle” seemed to infect baseball, and so I asked Bob if he knew more about it. The article was really about why pitchers batting eighth, once a fairly common practice in Japan was eradicated in the 1970s.

Since the chat, I had a back-and-forth with Bob about how often the old Giants bunted and I’ve written about that, too.

Practice makes more practice

Bob talks about Japan’s passion for practice

Bob Horner in Japan

Lee had the pleasure of being Bob Horner’s teammate with the Yakult Swallows for one year, and he spills on some of the memorable highlights of that season.

Discipline in Japanese baseball