Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Banzai, Ichiro! Banzai, O'Doul!
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Former Japanese baseball star Ichiro Suzuki's internationally acclaimed performance for the Seattle Mariners this year was truly astounding. But if it hadn't been for one of the three players he passed in breaking the 84-year-old Major League record for most hits in a season, Ichiro might never have had the chance even to play professional baseball.

That's Lefty O'Doul, widely credited here and abroad as "the father of professional baseball" in Japan.

O'Doul was tied at No. 2 on the all-time seasonal hit list with Hall of Fame member Bill Terry until this season, when Ichiro got 262 hits -- eight more than O'Doul had in 1929 when he set the National League record that Terry matched in 1930, and five more than George Sisler had in setting the Major League record in 1920.

Although O'Doul has never made it into American baseball's Hall of Fame, despite his record-setting career, he was voted into Japan's Hall for his indispensable efforts in developing Japanese baseball.

O'Doul first visited Japan as a player on teams of Major League stars that began touring the country in the early 1930s, later managing those and other teams that drew capacity crowds of up to 100,000. He also coached hundreds of young Japanese players at teaching clinics he conducted at universities and elsewhere.

More than that, O'Doul was the chief adviser to wealthy newspaper publisher Matsutaro Shoriki and others who in 1934 formed Japan's first professional team at O'Doul's urging - the Dai Nippon Tokyo Yakyu Club (The Great Japan Tokyo Baseball Club), a name mercifully shortened at O'Doul's suggestion to Tokyo Giants, after the U.S. team, the New York Giants, that O'Doul was playing for at the time.

The Tokyo Giants embarked on a 110-game barnstorming tour of the United States with O'Doul's help in 1935, mainly playing minor league teams. The next year Shoriki put together an entire professional league with the help of O'Doul, who had taken over as manager of the Pacific Coast League's San Francisco Seals. O'Doul arranged to have the Tokyo Giants take spring training with the Seals before starting their initial season in the Japanese league.

O'Doul's annual tours of Japan ended abruptly with the outbreak of World War II. But he returned after the war, most notably in 1949 for a series of exhibition games by the Seals.

"I knew if we brought a baseball team over there it would help cement friendship between them and us," O'Doul, told Lawrence S. Ritter, author of "The Glory of Their Times."

He said that "when I arrived it was terrible. The people were so depressed." But just as during his earlier tours, hundreds of thousands of fans crowded the Japanese stadiums and lined the streets to cheer pre-game parades led by O'Doul and the players. And just as before, there were loud and repeated cries of "Banzai, O'Doul! Banzai!"

The players marveled at O'Doul's immense popularity. "You would have thought Lefty was the emperor," noted pitcher Mel Parnell. Another pitcher, Con Dempsey, had "seldom seen so much adoration. He was idolized."

General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded the U.S. occupation forces, called O'Doul's six-week tour "the greatest piece of diplomacy ever." MacArthur and others said the tour, which raised more than $100,000 for Japanese charities, was a major factor in overcoming the great postwar enmity between the United States and Japan and helping restore the morale of the Japanese people.

Emperor Hirohito was so grateful he invited O'Doul and San Francisco Seal officials to the Imperial Palace to personally thank them.

Although baseball in Japan continued to grow rapidly in quality and popularity, no Japanese players made it to a U.S. team until 1964, when the San Francisco Giants signed pitcher Masanori Murakami. He was recommended to the Giants by a Japanese scout, Cappy Harada, who had worked closely with O'Doul.

Other Japanese players, of course, have followed Murakami and more are certain to come. Ichiro has given them and other players alike an extraordinary new record to shoot for, a record that ironically topped Lefty O'Doul. But there's still an O'Doul performance for Ichiro and others to try to match. In setting his seasonal hits record, O'Doul batted a Major League high of .398, one of the highest batting averages in history. Ichiro also hit a Major League high in passing O'Doul's hit total. But he batted a mere .372.

Copyright 2004 Dick Meister