When Babe Ruth came to Japan in 1934 for a historic tour of the country by Major League Baseball stars, Japanese fans lined the street when he arrived to get a glimpse and rose to their feet, waving American and Japanese flags, whenever he came to bat. They had not seen anyone like him before.
Nearly 80 years later, Shohei Ohtani is living out a mirror-image version of that legendary Ruth visit to his homeland. This time, the slugger is from Japan and the people standing in awe are in America. And once again, no one has ever seen anything quite like it.
Ohtani, 27, is the starting designated hitter and the starting pitcher for the American League All-Stars, facing off Tuesday night against the National League starter Max Scherzer. For the 36-year-old Scherzer — 7-4 with a 2.66 ERA this season — it’s a fourth All-Star start, matching Jim Palmer and Randy Johnson for second-most behind five each by Robin Roberts, Lefty Gomez and Don Drysdale.
For Ohtani — 4-1 with a 3.49 ERA and 33 home runs this year — it’s an acknowledgment of one of the most remarkable seasons any MLB player has had since 1917, when a young Ruth won 24 games with a 2.01 ERA while hitting .325 for the Boston Red Sox.
After Ruth joined the New York Yankees, his days as a pitcher were essentially done — his bat was simply too valuable to take out of the lineup — but Ohtani, a dual threat like Ruth, is determined to keep pitching and keep hitting.
He came to the Los Angeles Angels with plans to be a two-position player — pitcher and everyday hitter. He reportedly made it a condition of signing with the Angels. And he has delivered like we haven’t seen in baseball since the young Bambino.
But while it is obvious to make the connection between Ruth and Ohtani, the Japanese star’s dual talent is reminiscent of other baseball greats from the past — Negro League stars who shined on the mound, on the field and at the plate.
In a year where Major League Baseball has officially recognized Negro League statistics, those players should not be forgotten in the Ohtani conversation.
Leon Day was considered one of the greatest pitchers in Negro League history, surpassed perhaps only by the great Satchel Paige.
Day would pitch for the Newark Eagles and the Baltimore Elite Giants, among other teams. Historians estimate he won over 300 games in his career and batted over .300. In a 40-game Negro League season in 1937, Day is believed to have posted a 15-0 mark. Records show he batted .469 in 49 at-bats in 1946 and .336 in 122 at-bats in 1941.
Former teammate Monte Irvin said that Day “was always the best pitcher on every team he played for and he was as good as or better than the starting center fielder on the team. That center fielder was me.” Author Jule Tygiel wrote in his book, “Jackie Robinson and his Legacy” that Day excelled at every position.
Then there was the Cuban legend, Martin Dihigo, who is in five baseball Hall of Fames — Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
He led the Eastern Colored League in home runs in 1926 and 1927. In 1936, Dihigo won the Negro National League batting title with a .392 average. In 1928, pitching in Mexico and Cuba, Dihigo posted a 32-4 record on the mound.
In John Holway’s book, “Blackball Stars,” Negro League pitching great Hilton Smith said Dihigo “could do everything – pitcher, good hitter, good fielder,” Smith said. “That man could play the outfield, and ooh, could he throw. You better not try to stretch a hit – he could throw. And pitching, he threw everything, overhand or sidearm….had he come along (later), he would have led the major leagues in winning, and would have hit .300, too.”
Bullet Joe Rogan is part of that legacy. He was a star pitcher who also played the infield, outfield and managed during his Negro League career from 1917 to 1946. He also worked as an umpire in the Negro American League.
Rogan was credited with a career pitching record of 113-34 against Negro League competition and batted .343 over that period, including a .411 average in 1924 when he led the Kansas City Monarchs to the Negro League World Series against Hilldale. In that series, Rogan won two games, lost one and batted .325 as the Monarchs won the series.
Negro League great and teammate Newt Allen told John Holway that Rogan “threw hard and had everything — forkballs, spitballs, any kind of balls — and he had a master curveball. He was an awfully good hitter and hit anything you threw.”
There were others — the Negro Leagues had more opportunities for two-way players. But these three walked on the mound and stepped in the batter’s box like Ohtani and Ruth and excelled at both.
You can hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.