It's sayonara to baseball's latest "Sultan of Swat" -- and indeed to an era -- with the retirement of Japan's home-run king, Sadaharu Oh. The famed slugger , whose 868 homers far exceeded the totals of Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron, announced this week that he is bowing out after a 22-year career with Tokyo's Yomiuri Giants and will become assistant manager of the team.
Oh began his career in 1959, and within a few years was famous throughout Japan, but it really wasn't until 1972 or '73 that his exploits attracted any significant amount of attention in the United States. That was when Aaron's assault on Ruth's long-standing major league record of 714 home runs began to be publicized -- and when the statisticians suddenly awoke to the fact that halfway around the world there was another slugger with similar possibilities.
By the time Aaron broke Ruth's mark early in 1974, in fact, the younger Oh was obviously hot on the trail of both of them. In 1976 he too surpassed the Babe's 714 homers, the next year he exceeded Aaron's final figure of 755, and of course he went on in the ensuing three seasons to add another 100 or so for good measure.
Because both Aaron and Oh reached their record-breaking totals a couple of years apart, casual fans might assume that others will be coming along shortly to join their exclusive "700 club" -- but statistics indicate that such an eventuality isn't really very likely. It was 40 years, after all, between Ruth's time and theirs, and in that period only one other player -- Willie Mays -- even got above the 600 mark, while only nine more could surpass 500. And none of today's better known sluggers looks like a probable challenger.
The top active career home run hitters at the end of the 1980 season were Willie Stargell and Carl Yastrzemski -- both still under 500 and obviously near the end of their careers. Next came Reggie Jackson, who just went over the 400 plateau last summer and who wouldn't appear to have that many big years left.
As for younger sluggers, this year's major league home-run king, Mike Schmidt , and his frequent rival, Dave Kingman, both 31, are still in the 200s, while Jim Rice, a bit younger at 27, hasn't even reached that plateau yet. They all have some years left, of course, but they'd have to step up the pace -- as shown by the fact that by age 31 or so both Oh and Aaron already were in the area of 400 to 500 circuit clouts.
Oh's distinctive batting style, in which he lifted his front foot high off the ground and poised it there until he literally stepped into his swing, never ceased to amaze first-time onlookers. It was unorthodox, to say the least, but it worked for him just as a similar stance once did for US Hall of Famer Mel Ott , who was also a left-handed hitting home-run slugger.
Oh played first base throughout his career and compiled a .301 lifetime batting average. His last few years were not as productive as some of his earlier ones, of course, but he was still a big home run threat to the end, and his total of 30 this past season certainly showed that he had enough left at age 40 to keep going in 1981 if he so desired.
Another reason his retirement at this time came as something of a surprise was that only a couple of months ago he had indicated he did indeed intend to play again next year, and that he hoped to reach the 900 mark before hanging up his spikes. But in the end he decided he had had enough now, and that it was time to move into a new phase of his career.
"I hope my international friends will understand that Oh has tried his best to the limit. . . ," he said in announcing his decision at a packed news conference in a Tokyo hotel. He added that he would devote the rest of his baseball career "to the training of a younger generation."
Oh was easily the most popular baseball player ever in Japan -- a legendary folk hero whose retirement was one of the biggest pieces of news in the nation's sports history. Bulletins announcing it were distributed in the streets, and even Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki issued a statement praising the slugger for resigning while still a top performer and voicing the hope that he would become a full manager within a couple of years.
As for the question of how to compare Oh with US baseball stars, that has always been a thorny one. It is generally acknowledged, even in Japan, that the caliber of play there isn't as high as in the US major leagues. So Oh was undoubtedly facing somewhat easier pitching, and he also was shooting for shorter fences (for example, the measurements at his home field in Tokyo are just 295 feet down both foul lines and 394 feet to center field -- figures considerably shorter than those in most American parks). But 868 home runs are an impressive total any way you look at them, and the only time he and Aaron went head-to-head in a home-run hitting contest, Oh held his own in losing to the American slugger by only a 10-9 score, though of course Aaron was well into the twilight of his career at the time.