Japanese game has come a long way

November 18, 1990|By Jerome Holtzman | Jerome Holtzman,Chicago Tribune

According to Robert Whiting in his wonderfully executed and revealing book "You Gotta Have Wa," Suishu Tobita, who died in 1985, was the "god of Japanese baseball," a revered field manager, the American equivalent of Connie Mack.

Tobita was an undistinguished, slightly-built 5-foot-3-inch second baseman. But like many of his countrymen, he was smart and speedy with an enormous desire to win. He believed in the opinion often expressed by the manager of his Waseda team that sport was akin to war.

In 1910, Waseda lost several games to a visiting University of Chicago team by humiliating scores of 9-2, 15-4 and 20-0. Crushed, Tobita vowed vengeance. "I'll beat Chicago if I have to die to do it," he said.

Nine years later, Tobita became the manager of the Waseda team. His theories, according to Whiting, were as follows:

"He believed the players should love their teams in the way that one loved one's hometown or one's country, that they should show total allegiance and obedience to their manager and that they should never, never complain. He compared baseball to Bushido, a code of martial arts demanded of the samurai warrior: loyalty, self control, discipline, piety, ceremonial propriety, selflessness, and learning, as well as military skill."

"The purpose of training," Tobita wrote, "is not health but the forging of the soul, and a strong soul is only born from strong practice.

"To hit like a shooting star, to catch a ball beyond one's capabilities . . . such beautiful plays are not the result of technique but the result of good deeds, all made possible by a strong spiritual power.

"Student baseball must be the baseball of self discipline, or trying to attain the truth, just as in Zen Buddhism. It must be much more than a hobby. In many cases, it must be a baseball of pain and a baseball practice of savage treatment. Only with the constant cultivation of tears, sweat and bleeding can a player secure his position as such."

Tobita made his players field groundballs until they dropped, or "until they were half-dead, motionless and froth was coming from their mouths."

This system became known as "death training," the key to winning baseball. Said Tobita: "If the players do not try so hard as to vomit blood in practice, then they can not hope to win games. One must suffer to be good."

Tobita's teams were so successful that the other coaches adopted his methods. Tobita managed Waseda to several championships and, in 1925, to its best season, ever: 36 victories without defeat, including three wins and a tie against the University of Chicago. Vengeance, but by the minimum score: 1-0, 1-0, 3-3 and 1-0.

In those days, there were no professional teams in Japan. Playing for money, an American invention (Cincinnati, 1869), was repugnant, a crudity bordering on the profane. It wasn't until 1936 that Japan had its first professional league.

But the Japanese had been aware of American professionals as early as 1908 when a squad of big league reserves and minor leaguers from the Pacific Coast League reached their shores. The team was sponsored by the Reach Sporting Goods, which had taken an interest in the growing Japanese market. Playing against Japanese amateurs, the Americans swept a 17-game series.

The White Sox were next and played three games in Japan on the first leg of their 1913 world-wide tour. Charles A. Comiskey, founder and owner of the Sox, had been planning the trip for several years but it wasn't made possible until the New York Giants agreed to come along. The White Sox beat the Giants twice. In the third game, a combined White Sox-Giants team, torched Keio University 16-3.

Gus Axelson, in "Commy," his 1919 biography of Comiskey, offered this account of the Keio game:

"Jim Scott was given the job of pitching for the amalgamated team against [the Japanese]. Scott had been one of the sickest of the sick during the trans-Pacific voyage and it took several innings before he could find his land legs. Consequently, after a strikeout, center fielder Morri smote him for a triple and Nyaka's single made run No. 1 for Keio. Getting the first tally in the game against what was regarded as the champion combination of the universe so worked the nerves of the rooters that a madhouse would have furnished the scenario for a lullaby in comparison. The fact that the one-run lead was wiped out in the Sox half made no difference. Keio had scored on a team which had come 7,000 miles to show them how to play the game.

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