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Old 11-07-2018, 10:39 PM
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Default Kazuto Tsuruoka / Yamamoto

Kazuto Tsuruoka (neé Yamamoto) was a power hitting star infielder for Osaka. He only played in parts of eight seasons, a few of which were very part time. In 1939 he was a 22 year old third baseman who hit 285/403/407 against a league average of 224/315/288. That would be like hitting 313/407/568 in today’s National League. Pretty good. Imagine if Nolan Arenado had a somewhat higher batting average, and that his power wasn’t partially a product of playing in Colorado. That’s the idea. Yamamoto didn’t appear in another professional game for seven years. One assumes that the war got on the way. When he returned, as a 29 year old in 1946, his power wasn’t quite as good, but he was still a top player. Most of the time he was a third baseman, but he also played a significant amount of second base, and a little bit at first and in the outfield. Despite having a short playing career, Yamamoto was a 3x MVP winner.

All of this, however, is really beside the point. Yamamoto is a special figure in the history of Japanese baseball not because he was a short-lived version of Nolan Arenado, but because he was one of Japan’s great managers. He was player-manager for the Great Ring/Hawks from 1946 through the end of his playing career, and continued to manage them until 1968, when he was 51 years old. His teams went 1773-1140 during his tenure. A 609 winning percentage would be perfectly respectable for one season: that was Yamamoto’s winning percentage over 23 years. Between 1950 and 1966 none of his teams finished below second place. He is the winningest manager in Japanese history. Despite his unparalleled regular season success, however, things did not go so well for Yamamoto during the post season. His teams made it to the post season on many occasions, and tended to lose the Japan Series to the Giants. Unlike Kawakami – whose Giants he would face late in his career – Yamamoto was not an advocate of the traditional (and grueling) Japanese training routine. Word is that he was widely respected by his players, not least by his American players, for whom Kawakami’s approach was not only grueling but also unusual and perhaps unexpected.

1946 was quite a year for him. He returned from the Army, led the league in RBI, became a manager (despite having only one season experience in professional baseball), won the MVP award, and his team won the championship. Albright gives him credit for the time that he missed in the military, and accordingly ranks him as the 63th greatest Japanese player. Without any war credit presumably he wouldn’t make the list at all (his playing career was quite short). Whether to give players credit for time that they missed in the military is a bit of a philosophical question. It’s a question of whether, when ranking greatest players you are recording what they did, how many games they helped their teams win, or whether you’re doing something else. I’m happy to admit that they deserve the credit, but if a ranking of great players is just a record of what happened, then, to quote Clint Eastwood, deserve ain’t got nothing to do with it. But anyways, it’s a common enough practice, and if you follow it then Yamamoto does pretty well. He was a really good infielder.

As a manager Yamamoto was hands-on and innovative. He personally scounted Kastuya Nomura. Let’s call that a success. Jim Allen also credits him with developing specialized roles for starter/relief pitchers. For something like the first twenty years of pro ball Japanese pitchers were being worked like Old Hoss Radbourne. The introduction of relief specialists no doubt saved some careers. (Incidentally, it’s also really effective. Relief pitchers, on average, perform at much higher levels than starting pitchers, even though they have traditionally simply been failed starters. American teams have really picked up on it, which is why few starters go more than ~5 innings anymore.)

The card is a blank-backed uncatalogued menko. Other than the shape (round menkos started to fall out of favor as the 50s progressed) I don’t have any indication of the year in which it was issued.
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Old 11-10-2018, 12:15 AM
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Default Lefty O'Doul

Lefty O’Doul needs no introduction on a website dedicated to pre-war baseball cards. You folks know who this guy is, so I’ll keep this entry short and sweet.

In many ways O’Doul was a baseball renaissance man. He pitched for the Yankees, won batting titles for the (New York) Giants, managed the San Francisco Seals for twenty years, taught or mentored Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and others, was good friends with Joe DiMaggio, served as a baseball instructor at the Big Six universities in Japan, led numerous baseball tours of Japan and the far East, scouted Wally Yonamine for the (Yomiuri) Giants, supervised the construction of the (Yomiuri) Giants’ stadium, and founded an iconic bar/restaurant in San Francisco. Many times I’ve heard people complain that Lefty doesn’t have a plaque in Cooperstown. But the part with the bronze on the wall is actually a pretty small part of the hall of fame; and while he didn’t have the kind of career that the (American) hall of fame tends to honor (he is, of course, in the Japanese hall), he absolutely had the kind of career (and life) that the museum it’s attached to likes to feature. It’s been 20 years since I visited the hall of fame, but I can only hope and assume that they have an exhibit on Lefty.

The tours of Japan started in the early 1930s, and continued regularly until they suffered a geopolitical interruption. O’Doul is said to have taken the attack on Pearl Harbor as a “personal affront”. Nevertheless, he returned to Japan after the war and continued his involvement with Japanese baseball into the 1950s.

He was instrumental in founding professional baseball in Japan. It was with in consultation with O’Doul that the original professional teams (and, in particular, the Giants, who are named in honor of O’Doul’s old MLB team) were founded. I think it would be fair to say that O’Doul is the patron saint of Japanese baseball. His American counterpart (if you will) would be someone like Harry Wright, although I get the impression that O’Doul is (or was) adored or revered in a way that Wright was not.

I’m going to leave it with that. There are many more resources, all over the internet, giving details of the various tours. They’re comprehensive enough, and easy enough to find, that I don’t think I can do anything to add to them.

Here’s a promotional video that the PCL shot in 1946. They’ve got Lefty taking some swings at around 2:40.

I've (mostly) restricted this project to people who were great Japanese players, but I couldn't resist including O'Doul. My card is from the JRM 7 set, issued in 1949 in conjunction with a tour of Japan by the San Francisco Seals. And here are a bunch of other cards, curtesy of our own members.
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Old 11-12-2018, 08:54 AM
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Default Yoshiyuki Iwamoto

Yoshiyuki Iwamoto was an outfielder who played from 1940 to 1957, although he missed time both for the war and from 1954-5. He was both older and peripatetic. In 1940, when he got his start with Nankai, he was already 28. Over the next seventeen years he would also play for the Robins/Whales, and the Flyers. Iwamoto made his last appearance on the field (he continued to manage for several more years) as a 45 year old.

When he first broke in, Iwamoto was offensively a little bit better than average, but nothing special. Since he was an outfielder – where more offensive is expected – one imagines that he relative to his position he was quite ordinary. Now, usually baseball players reach their peak performance around age 27 (this is especially true of position players, aging curves for pitchers are less predictable), so ordinarily you would not have expected Iwamoto to get much better. But he did. This could be random variation: not everyone follows the same aging curve. But it could also be due to his unusual development pattern. The standard aging curves were drawn up on the basis of MLB performance, and most MLB players spend a considerable amount of time in the minors before making it to The Show. Japan has the Industrial Leagues, but top players often go straight to the highest level. Now, Iwamoto did play in the Industrial League for three years, so he had an apprenticeship that many don’t get, but after he made it to the highest level he spent his entire first season sitting on the bench, and then (in 1939) he was drafted.
His first really good season was his third, at age 30. Then he went to war. In 1949 he was working on getting his sea legs back, but in 1950 he really hit his stride. In addition to hitting his stride, he also hit baseballs. Lots of them. A really long way. His slash line in 1950 was 317/372/583. To go with those rate stats he scored 121 runs and hit 38 homers. In 1951 he was even better, hitting 351/448/628. The Central League in these years was not quite the pitcher-friendly league that Japanese players had grown used to, but it still featured less offense than today’s MLB, so Iwamoto was a huge slugger.

The thing is, that was it for him as a star. His 1952 was respectable. He played in 1953. And then he made a brief comeback in 56-7. But his career as a great player lasted only two seasons. Finding comparable MLB players is really hard. Typically, if you’re good enough to be genuinely great, you’ve got more than four good seasons in your career, and your career is considerably longer than Iwamoto’s (considering the years that he spent as a part-time player). Although he’s certainly a special case, and not really comparable otherwise, Josh Hamilton comes to mind as a similar player. Power hitting outfielders whose skill quickly disappeared on them. Al Rosen is probably an even better comp. Players like this really don’t get into the American hall of fame. The Kirby Pucketts and Ross Youngs of the world aren’t quite in the same boat. Those guys were elected because the voters were dreaming about their potential, and they decided not to hold tragic circumstances against them. That’s really not what was going on with Iwamoto. He played until he was 45. There are some HOFers who are in the hall for the work that they did over a very short period of time – Ducky Medwick comes to mind – but outside of Koufax they still added considerable bulk to their careers. If you absolutely had to have an American hall of famer to compare Iwamoto to, I guess you go with Chuck Klein, but you’d do better with Rosen and forget about the hall.

Outside of anecdotes, little is known about fielding in early Japanese ball. But Iwamoto was probably pretty good, or, at any rate, he had a strong arm. He set a record with eight double plays from the outfield; I do not have figures for outfield assists of other kinds.

He was a player/manager, with heavy emphasis of ‘manager’ and not much on ‘player’ during his last two seasons, and after retiring from active duty continued to manage, first the Flyers and later the Kintetsu Buffaloes. His teams were terrible. Only one of them finished above 500, and his lifetime winning percentage is barely above 400.

I’ll admit that I really don’t have any idea why Iwamoto is in the hall of fame. He was very good. For a minute. You can call the war an extenuating circumstance, but even so it’s hard to argue that he had the kind of peak performance – to say nothing of career performance – that we ask of hall of famers. Some players benefit from having managerial careers in addition to appearing as players, but presumably that only helps if you’re the skipper of a good team. All in all, a very perplexing decision to induct him.

The card that I have for you today comes from the JBR 9 set. It was issued between 1950 and 1951. This would put him on the Robins/Whales, right at the height of his career. (Although in this picture it sure looks like he’s popping out to the catcher.)
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