Latham's 1998 Guide
to Japanese Baseball...
many home runs could have Sadaharu Oh hit in the major
leagues? Japanese fans have proclaimed Oh's 868 career
home runs a world record, and American detractors have
tried to discredit it. With compressed bats, weaker
pitching and smaller ballparks, there are plenty of
reason to doubt that Oh would have hit a total of 868
home runs for a major league team.
There really is no way to measure the influence of different bats and supposedly weaker pitching, but from examining the size of ballparks, it is possible to gain a fresh perspective on Oh's hitting. So let's ask a slightly different question: how many home runs would Oh have likely hit in a major league-sized park?
Well, what is a major league-sized park? Part of the problem here is that there is no standard distance from any outfield to home plate--every stadium is different. Consider Fenway Park. The right field foul pole is listed at a distance of 302 feet from home plate--but a few feet toward center field, and you'd have to hit a ball almost 360 feet to clear the fence. And then there's the Green Monster, a wall that defies comparison.
In fact, most Major League parks have odd dimensions. Still, the average lengths are as follows: 331.2 feet to the left field foul pole, 329.6 to right, and 404.8 to center. Excluding Fenway, the shortest distances are 312 to left and 314 to right (both at Yankee Stadium--where the left field fence is banked much like Fenway's right field) and 400 to straight-away center (several parks). Therefore, to be conservative, let's say that any ballpark with at least 310 feet (95 meters) down the foul lines and 400 feet (122 meters) to center is Major League size.
Measured against those distances, only six of Japan's eleven present ballparks fit the bill. The first of those--the Tokyo Dome--was opened in 1988, six years after Oh retired. Clearly the man with 868 home runs hit all of them in smaller ballparks than his Major League counterparts. But how much smaller?
First, let's take a look at the place Oh hit most of his home runs--the Yomiuri Giants' Korakuen Stadium. Measuring 91.44 meters (298 feet) down the foul lines, and 118.9 meters (388 feet) to center, Oh was at least twelve feet closer to the fence than Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron or anyone else in the majors. Hiroshima Municipal Stadium, probably the smallest park Oh ever hit a home run in, measures a paltry 91.4 meters (298 feet) down the lines and 115.8 meters (378 feet) to center--about twenty two feet shorter than even the smallest Major League stadiums.
Without doubt, quite a few of Oh's homers were deep pop flies that barely cleared the fence--and would have been outs, singles or doubles in a larger park. One might be tempted to credit Oh with playing about one-tenth of his games in huge Koshien stadium. Though the ballpark now has more-or-less Major League dimensions, until the late 1980s (about a decade after Oh retired), the Tigers home ballpark had a special lucky zone (created by a shallow chain link fence) that increased the number of home runs. Round trippers are now far less common at Koshien than they were during Oh's career.
But would Oh still have passed either Ruth's or Aaron's record? It looks doubtful.
Without going back and searching for measurements on every one of his round trippers, probably the easiest way to make an estimate is to look at the rate of home runs at contemporary Japanese parks. In 1996, 490 home runs were hit in 303 games at Japan's four Major League-sized parks--an average of 1.62 homers per match. In contrast, the smaller seven parks (including Koshien) featured 850 homers in 402 games, for an average of 2.11 per game. In 1997, the larger parks allowed 1.60 round trippers a game while the five small fields featured 1.97
What's the significance? Well, Oh was hitting in those same small parks (or ones with nearly identical measurements) in which on average two home runs were hit per game. But what if he had been playing in the larger parks, which on average allowed only three-quarter as many home runs? It seems likely that he would have hit about twenty-five percent fewer home runs. Instead of 868 free trips around the bases, Oh would have had only about 650.
While not a world record, 650 is still a rather impressive number. Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays are the only players who have more, and that's quite impressive company to be in.
However, in this entire discussion about ballpark sizes, one might remember Bobby Thompson's "Shot Heard Round the World"--a 280 foot line drive that cleared the shallow left field fence at the Polo Grounds to win the New York Giants the 1951 pennant. Today, that wouldn't be a home run in any Major League or Japanese stadium. If the Polo Grounds, had smaller dimensions along the foul lines than any Japanese ballpark, shouldn't we also question whether N.Y. Giant Willie Mays would have hit so many home runs if he played at the cavernous Fukuoka Dome or windy Chiba Marine Stadium?
Though the question of whether Oh's 868 home runs are a true world record will forever remain unresolved, it's important to realize that most Japanese players are now hitting home runs in ballparks just as big as those in the Major Leagues. Should a Japanese player break Aaron's record in the future, it will be much harder to denigrate his accomplishment.