Sadaharu Oh: A Zen Way of Baseball


Sadaharu Oh, one of the all time leading home run hitters, describes his journey towards mastery

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Key Takeaways

  1. Oh’s proudest accomplishment and what he admires most is durability, endurance, spirit-discipline. Like he and Lou Gehrig had 
  2. Because of his profession, he was asked all sorts of questions about war and peace, politics and more. A man who has chased a little white ball his entire life should not be held as an Oracle from the Buddha 
  3. Baseball was a form of spirit discipline. A way to make myself a better person - although I surely never sought discipline for such a reason. It became my Way, as a tea ceremony or flower arranging or the making of poems were the Ways of others. 
  4. In his last game, he hit a home run and his opponents came out to shake his hands and bow to him. His opponents life’s his spirits and, in doing so, reminded him of something that I had spent 22 years learning. That opponents and I were really one. My strength and skills were only one half of the equation. The other half was theirs. 
  5. Practical training in skills, if done in a certain way, is a form of spirit-discipline. And in combat I learned to give up combat. I learned in fact, there were no enemies. An opponent was someone whose strength joined to yours and created a certain result. My baseball career was a long, long initiation into a single secret: that at the heart of all things is love. We are, each of us, one with the universe that surrounds us - in harmony with it, not in conspiracy against if. To live by being in harmony with what surrounds you is to be reminded that every end is followed by a new beginning - and that the humblest of life’s offerings is as treasured as the greatest in the eyes of the Creator. 
  6. I am not a religious man but I have been accompanied every step of the way by powers that are not mine alone. And so it was left to me always do make the most of the life I had. For myself and for what I am merely custodian to. 
  7. Fortune moves in and out of people’s lives like a living spirit. Because all of us are susceptible, sometimes we wind up seeing things; other times we scarcely know that our lives have been touched 
  8. A man’s purpose, my father has insisted to this day, is to be of genuine service to others 
  9. Defeat, like victory, is a passing thing. It is with you only as long as you insist on keeping it 
  10. The professional world enabled me after many years to understand that what I did everyday mattered far more than the glory or grief of a moment. I was not a “natural” hard worker. I have two in me, one is weaker, the other stronger. The weaker one always looks for a way out, wants fun and good times - and usually finds them; the other is therefore forced to work hard to catch up. 
  11. Just prior to the season, the coaching staff, as is traditional in Japanese baseball, reviewed the goals that were expected from each of the players on the team. There is no sense of contract in this, but there is a very strong cultural sense of obligation to which a player must answer. Obligation is a very powerful force in our lives - ours is a culture of shame - and the player who falls short of the goals established for him by his team runs the risk of having to answer to the sternest authority of all - his own sense of self worth. There were lofty goals for me for they seemed good targets to shoot for. However, what awaited me at the summit of my young baseball life was a three year free fall that nearly destroyed me
  12. In order to better deal with the high expectations, I adopted the slogan “take it easy.” Kawakami, a batting legend and hitting coach, and Wally Yonamine gave me their first baseman’s mitts. They were to be mine, letting me know in the strongest symbolic way they could that whatever batting problems I had were independent of my future with the Giants. I was the Giants’ new first baseman. I was very moved and obligated to them for this gesture. 
  13. Hitting is with your hip, not your hand. Imagine that your eyes are in your front hip. You can see the ball with your hip. It is difficult. Be patient and it will come. 
  14. I did not feel “easy” about this [living up to the obligation, loyalty, high standards that his nation expected of him]. I felt so stirred and fired up it took me some doing to convince myself that it was real. Oh, yes, I wanted to live up to that! I wanted to be worthy and responsible...was I confused? Confusion doesn’t begin to speak of it! But my brother taught me there was no need to make a display of feelings. I never imposed on anyone else what I was going through. 
  15. The dormitory exists for a purpose most valued in our culture - namely to nurture young people in the hard discipline of group endeavor. That a baseball team needs a sense of real togetherness is obvious, and that young people away from home for the first time need the helpful guidance of their elders is quite clear. But like everything, there is always a kind of balance between the ideal and the actual, and the tension between the two - in any culture - is how you begin to experience the particulars of a life. 
  16. Every man should have a good rival. Kitsugi saved my career even in the throes is the awful struggle between us. 
  17. The goal of zen is to become void of desire, but can a man attain such a high goal?
  18. It’s more important to do things than to brood over them 
  19. Ma, from Aikido, is space. It exists because there is an opponent. To eliminate ma, make the opponent yours. That is the real task. Absorb and incorporate his thinking into your own. Become one with him so you know him perfectly and can be one step ahead of his every movement. Make use of an opponent’s strength and yours will be doubled 
  20. After three years and much desperation, the coaching staff decided to try the one legged stance they joked about earlier. This removed the hitch in my swing and improved my timing. Oh learned absolute focus and balance in this pose - ma, ki. Immovable self discipline comes only when you master the use of ki. Acquiring the "body of a rock" literally meant having the discipline to wait. This implies far more than balance. To train one’s entire being to hold back from the tricks and feints of a pitcher, no less than from an enemy with a sword, is finally the single most important step in harmonizing one’s ki with the opponents. Ma, the interval or distance between you, is eventually that which you rather than the other create by the strength of your waiting. Everything was now suddenly poured into this subtle act of waiting. For waiting, I understood in this moment, far from being something passive, was the most active state of all. In its secret heart lay the beginning and the end of all action. In it lurked the exact moment to strike. With the ability I had acquired to wait, I now could make my contact point somewhat further back. This in turn gave me slightly more time before I had to commit myself. I thus wound up being able to see an incoming pitch till the last possible moment...Later, I got to meet Hank Aaron and learned that he trained himself to wait by measuring the pitcher’s best fastball. 
  21. I learned to focus at all times on the area just below my navel. I achieved great balance with this focus and was always ready 
  22. There was baseball in everything I did. I had this gnawing sense of fear that I would let down or be unable to play up to what I had previously done. 
  23. Baseball was with me wherever I went. There was simply nothing else!
  24. You see, Arakawa-san explained [his hitting coach and, in many ways, mentor], the better you hit, the less reason you have to think. After all, isn’t the goal of Zen to achieve a void?
  25. One day, when I went for training, I assumed my pose with the sword and methodically began my swings. I had taken only three swings that day - normally I took hundreds - when Arakawa-san suddenly stopped me, a look of pleasure glowing on his face. That’s it! That’s it! You’ve done it, he said excitedly. Done what? I asked, puzzled. It had taken all this time but you have just performed three identical, perfect swings. There is no more to do for today than to concentrate as hard as you can on remembering what it is you have done. You have finally understood. That is all I can say. You must accept this now. 
  26. Teams devised the "Oh Shift" (much like the Ted Williams shift) to try to get me to alter my swing. It was a psychological challenge as much as anything. My answer was to swing as I always did, to keep the contest of hitting between myself and the pitcher standing 60 feet away. Arakawa-san and I had reached the point where there were no tricks in what I was doing. And consequently no tricks used against us would get in our way. Nothing could stop me from hitting. I longed to hit as a starving man longs for food
  27. Arakawa-san said we would beat Babe Ruth. I thought he was joking but he was earnest. I’ll never be sure but he got me thinking and aspiring towards greater goals than I ever would have had myself 
    1. A great mentor, coach, partner helps you see possibilities greater than you ever would have on your own
  28. The door of possibility had opened. I walked through, never to go back. This was not unadulterated joy as far as I was concerned. For I discovered in this most amazing season of my life that achievement and recognition were not necessarily the same thing. 
  29. There are 4 stages in martial arts training - technique, skill, art, the Way itself. Early on, Arakawa-San likened me to Musashi but now he said I also had his ability. Musashi said that he looked up to the gods and Buddha but that he would never rely on them 
  30. It took me 25 years to learn but after Arakawa-san there was no more important person in my life that Nagashima-san (the best and most prolific player on the Giants). Learning to play with him was everything. He was an all time legend but I’m not sure I ever truly knew him. This mysterious part accounted for the tremendous hold he had on the imaginations of people in our country. It is this part that makes me think he had genius as well as talent. 
  31. In a slump, you ask yourself “why?” This is silent, never to be overheard. It seals you in the privacy of effort. My why is that I’m hungry for skill! I kept a bat and a notebook at my bedside so that if I came out of sleep with an idea, I could practice it and then write it down. I also got in the habit of simply writing to myself to raise my spirits, as I was the one I had to depend on
  32. 7 steps of my form - fighting spirit, stance, grip, backswing, stride forward, downswing, impact 
  33. My old friends come from every walk of life. They bring with them many interests and many new things to talk about
  34. Making things too comfortable takes away the challenge. And everything I do, including salary talks, has only one goal - to keep my mind focused on the challenge 
  35. All of a sudden I was one shy of the 700 home run mark and it seemed like a real barrier. I found myself trying and, in trying, trying to stop myself from trying 
  36. I never once had the idea that because I had made this or that record I could just lie back and play the star. If anything, I worked harder than ever. 
  37. In 1980 I hit a slump but it was different than before. My spirit was not there. My desire for combat was gone. I have no anger anymore. Mastery in Aikido means loss of desire for combat. 
  38. After I retired, I became assistant manager. I was ready to give what I could to younger players. I had certainly been blessed by having a master teacher, and if I could ever give just one young player a fraction of what was given to me, my role would be fulfilled. I did not ask for nor did I expect to receive special considerations based on the stature I had acquired as a player. During practice, I made it a point to pull and push batting cages around, to pick up balls, and to do other ordinary grounds keeping chores. I ate and lived among the players  
  39. I learned from Arakawa-san, my greatest teacher, that the Way is long and mastery of any sort is not easy to achieve. Above all, what I learned from my Sensei was how to wait. I believe I learned the meaning of waiting on one foot. If I understand anything in this life, it is how to wait. It is not an answer. But for me it is everything. 
  40. Nin - Oh added this frequently to autographs he signed. It means patience, or more precise, constancy. 

What I got out of it

  1. I had never heard of Sada but his story is incredible - his 3 years of struggle lead to desperation which allowed him to try something unusual - hitting on one foot. His thoughtfulness and clarity of thought are beautiful. The steps towards mastery using a Zen-like framework apply broadly (pair with Waitzkin's The Art of Learning)

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