A few weeks ago around the Hall of Fame voting announcements, I took a Cyberspace visit to the Ted Williams Museum and its Hitters Hall of Fame.
Using what Williams described as his “secret formula” (actually the stat OPS), he identified his twenty greatest hitters of all time. BPP readers can and have debated over Barry Larkin and Bert Blyleven’s credentials. Looking at Williams’ stellar group, there are many fine hitters, and we’ve written of the museum before.
Included in Williams’ original 1995 inductees is Hank Aaron, possibly one of the most underrated of the Cooperstown Hall. The Williams’ Hall has other inductees which it updates annually. In 1999, the museum added Japanese-Taiwanese Yomiuri Giants’ slugger supreme Sadaharu Oh.
In 1974, Aaron and Oh went head-to-head in an unprecedented international home run hitting contest of epic proportions. CBS offered Aaron $50,000 and Oh, 6 million yen ($20,000) plus a silver trophy to the winner.
That year, the New York Mets were in Japan for a post-season good will tour. The Aaron-Oh showdown would be part of a November 2 of pre-game ceremony between the Mets and the Japanese All Stars.
Aaron, then with the Atlanta Braves, didn’t take the event seriously. In an interview, Aaron stated that the Japanese ball parks were so much smaller than the ones he played in stateside that any comparison between his home run prowess and Oh’s was “totally unfounded.” Aaron didn’t bother to bring any of his bats to Japan but instead borrowed Ed Kranepool’s longer, lighter Adirondack.
The contestants chose their own pitchers. Aaron gave the nod to Mets’ coach Joe Pignatano while Oh stuck with right handed Giants’ batting practice pitcher Kiniyasu Mine.
The format had been agreed upon in advance. Each player would be allowed 20 fair balls with their at bats taken in alternating sequences of five. At the end of the first round, Oh led 3-2.
At the beginning of round 2, Oh blasted three more homers to take a 6-2 lead. Later, Aaron laughingly said that he never thought he would hear the day when Mets’ wives would be chanting, “Let’s go, Henry.” By the bottom of the second round, Aaron tied the score 6-6 with four titanic blasts.
Aaron moved ahead in the third round, 9-7. Locals feared that Oh was out of gas. But Aaron, who hadn’t held a bat in six weeks, was running on empty, too. In the final round with the score tied at 9, Aaron had five more swings; he flied out, grounded to short and then lifted the winning shot over the left field fence. Final score: Aaron 10-Oh 9.
Ironically, only a few hours later, the Braves traded Aaron to the Milwaukee Brewers.
The Aaron and Oh challenge began a lifelong friendship. Earlier this month the two, who had a total of 1,632 career homers, were in Los Angeles for the 20th Anniversary Children’s Baseball Fair Luncheon. Aaron, 77, and Oh, 71 co-founded the organization in 1990. When Frank Robinson, ninth on the all time homer list, arrived a few minutes late, the three men represented 2,209 homers. [Aaron, Oh Are at Head of Power Luncheon, by Mike Di Giovanna, Los Angeles Times, January 22, 2012]
As always, Aaron was gracious. He politely but vaguely answered Barry Bonds questions.
Robinson, however, bluntly said:
In my mind, Hank is the home run king, no question.
Aaron and Oh were generous in their praise of each other.
Oh, said Aaron, “could have held his own in the major leagues.”
About Aaron, Oh said:
A lot of people were concerned about winning the derby. I was just grateful for his presence in Japan, for Hank to be in uniform, to show the Japanese fans and kids how great a person and player he is.