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From the Stars and Stripes archives

Hank Aaron swings away again in Japan

By DAVE ORNAUER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 23, 1984

TOKYO — It's been a year of re-enactment of sorts for major league baseball's all-time home run king, Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, from the year 1974 that brought with it rich memories for the millions of fans in the U.S. and Japan who watched "Hammerin' Hank" chase destiny.

A career record 714 home runs, held by Babe Ruth, came tumbling down that year. As well, the long-awaited meeting of Aaron and Japanese baseball's all-time home run leader, Sadaharu Oh, came to pass.

Ten years to the date, the Atlanta Braves, Aaron's team for all but two years of his star-studded career, gave him a special present — on April 8, 1984, a Sunday date for the Braves against the Montreal Expos, Atlanta Braves Inc. staged a reenactment of his 715th home run at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

As it was that balmy evening of Monday, April 8, 1974, Al Downing, the Los Angeles Dodgers lefty hurler who went into the books with Aaron, served up the reenactment home run pitch.

Tom House, the journeyman Braves reliever who caught the historic homer in the Braves' bullpen, chased down another stroke of Aaron power.

Even the starry-eyed youngster who stole onto the field, met and ran with Aaron around the basepaths to a rabid reception at home plate, was there. Ten years later a prominent attorney "somewhere in the South," Aaron recalled, met with Aaron again and trotted the bases once more, following a touch of nostalgia.

A touch of nostalgia ... much like Saturday at Tokyo's Korakuen Stadium, where Aaron met with history once again.

As they had during the goodwill series of late 1974 between the New York Mets and Japan's best pro baseball teams, Aaron engaged Oh, now manager of his long-time team, the Yomiuri Giants, in a "home run derby."

Back then, Oh, who banged 868 round-trippers in a glorious career as one of Japan's baseball heroes, was outslugged 10-9 by Aaron. Last weekend saw much the same result — Aaron poked four shots into the left-field seats at Korakuen Stadium, while Oh managed just two into the banks of right field.

Much more was at stake in the 1974 derby. Aaron's 755 homers vs. Oh's 868, Aaron's record achieved against power pitching and in spacious confines, Oh hitting more home runs but in smaller ballparks and against pitching that, in one U.S. baseball publication's opinion, doesn't match up to that of the U.S.

But "It proved nothing then, and it proved nothing today," Aaron said of the home run contests — then and now.

Hank Aaron of today, 50 years old and current director of Atlanta Braves' minor league player development, is still of that old school that believes. the game belongs to the fan.

Be it chasing a home run record, dogging 3,000 hits or facing Oh in a home run contest, baseball is meant for the joy of fans watching their heroes play baseball.

"Regardless of who wins, it's just a lot of fun." Aaron said of meeting Oh again. "It gives the fans an opportunity to see me swing the bat, which I'm sure they've only seen on television. And it gives me an opportunity for me to bring my wife (Billye) to this beautiful country.'

Visiting Japan in conjunction with the 50th anniversary celebration of Japanese baseball, and as a special guest of the current Japan pro baseball All-Star Games series, Aaron represented outgoing major league baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn at a ceremony prior to an Old-Timers' Game, featuring Japanese and American All-Stars from Japanese pro baseball's years gone by.

Those Americans included former player and manager Don Blasingame, ex-soldier and Zama Ramblers star Mike Solomko, hurler Gene Bacque and erstwhile slugger Daryl Spencer.

Before an estimated crowd of 10,000 at Korakuen, home of Oh's Giants and considered by many the shrine of Japanese baseball, Aaron delivered a message from Kuhn, promoting continued friendship and cooperation between U.S. and Japanese major league ball, to Japanese commissioner Takeso Shimoda, who presided over the ceremony.

"These 50 years have represented one of the most marvelous success stories in baseball," Kuhn's message read. "By building baseball enthusiasm in Japan and throughout Asia, Japanese baseball has also been a major contributor to the game's international growth. This is notably demonstrated by baseball's special status in the 1984 Olympics and the bright prospects for gold medal status in the future."

FOLLOWING THE CEREMONY, Aaron and Oh posed for a mob of eager Japanese news photographers and TV cameras, then took to the field.

The home run derby highlighted one of Aaron's many ventures to the Far East. In addition to visiting Japan on several occasions, he and a group of minor league players from the Atlanta Braves organization made a landmark goodwill visit to South Korea two years ago, playing against professional teams in the Korea Baseball Organization, now in its third year.

Baseball in the Far East continues to improve, Aaron feels, and while Korea, still in a neophyte stage, has a way to go to catch up to Japan's 50 years of sporting big-time baseball, the brand of ball played in this part of the world may someday soon be competitive to that of the U.S.

"Of course, there's no comparison between the baseball here and the baseball they play in Korea — they've got a much longer head start here on the people in Korea," Aaron said.

"I think in 10 or 15 years from now, Japanese baseball will certainly rise to prominence. But this baseball here, they play well, they go about their business in a major-league manner, and the people are respectable — these are major league players."

Once more, photographers surrounded Aaron as he shook hands once more and bid his goodbyes to Sadaharu Oh and the Korakuen crowd. He paused and reflected across the expanse of Korakuen Stadium, the glory of the day and of days gone past.

Asked how similar Saturday's meeting with Oh was with the one in 1974, Aaron simply said reenactments are never the same as the real thing.

"It can never be today what it was 10 years ago."
 

Hank Aaron in Japan in 1984.
KEN GEORGE/STARS AND STRIPES

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