There was a season

In 1950, Makoto Kozuru was in the right place at the right time. A speedy slugger, Kozuru was in the prime of his career at the age of 27 when, a year after Japanese pro ball shrank its strike zone and introduced its first machine-made ball, it split into two leagues and expanded from eight teams to 15.

My colleague Ralph M. Pearce, wrote an essay in my 1995 analytical guide to Japanese baseball called “The Year of the Flying Ball.” That 1950 season was known for its gaudy offensive numbers but the longball explosion had more to do with 1949’s changes than 1950’s expansion.

When Shohei Ohtani on Thursday became the first National or American league player with 45 homers, 25 steals, and eight triples, I was curious if it had happened in Japan, and was stunned to see how close Kozuru once came.

In 1950, Kozuru was king. His 143 runs and 161 RBIs – in 130 games – are still Nippon Professional Baseball records, but in addition to his 51-home run total, which was famous, he also went 28-8 as a base stealer and hit six triples—after hitting eight the year before.

Kozuru is in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame but never came close to approaching his monster 1950 season for the Shochiku Robins when he was the Central League’s first MVP–partly because home runs became an endangered species.

For years, I wrestled with how, without rule changes, Japan’s leagues nearly eradicated power-hitting after the exuberance of the 1949 and 1950 seasons, when 22 percent of plate appearances in the Central League plate appearances and 20 percent in the Pacific League resulted in a home run. By 1955, it was 14 percent and 12 percent.

The more familiar I became with Japanese baseball, the more reasonable it seemed that home runs went out of style because players swinging for home runs were harshly criticized.

It turns out that the Japan League adopted its first machine-made ball in 1949 after a brief 1948 trial. The Ishii Kajiyama balls allowed for greater quality control but were dried using heat from an electric drier that increased the balls’ coefficient of restitution, and NPB responded after the 1950 season by restricting COR in its balls, although teams, in concert with Mizuno Corp., three times conspired to evade those restrictions.

But for the 1950 season, we have electric driers, expansion, a smaller strike zone, and Makoto Kozuru to thank for an amazing season, that will be hard to surpass.

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