Isao Harimoto: The Greatest Hitter in Japanese Baseball History
On a nice Spring afternoon in 1959, our father took us to see the Toei Flyers (now called the Nippon Ham Fighters… of Yu Darvish fame) play the Nankai Hawks at Namba Yakyujo, home of the Hawks in Osaka, Japan. The Flyers’ left fielder was an emerging rookie named Isao Harimoto, a left-hander who was 5’11” and 190 pounds, a good-sized athlete for that era of Japanese baseball. We were impressed by his hitting–he got a double and single–and we could tell he was going to be a star. He was just 18 years of age, and had a compelling presence at the plate. Nankai, predictably, won the game, as Toei was a perennial second division squad, but we knew that Harimoto was destined for great things.
To this day, he is the only Japanese professional ballplayer to achieve the 3,000 hit club in his career. He was born to Korean parents on June 19th, 1940, in Hiroshima, Japan. His parents had sought better employment in Japan, as Korea was enduring economic hardship at the time. Please remember that Japan had controlled the government in Korea since 1905.
Harimoto was born just weeks after his parents landed in Hiroshima, and was named Jang Hun. His parents, in an attempt to “fit in” Japanese society, renamed him Isao Harimoto.
The family lived on the outskirts of Hiroshima, at the base of a small mountain. When Isao was nearly 5 years old, he was warming his hands by the outside fire when a truck accidentally backed into the fire, scaring him, and causing him to fall into the fire. His right hand was severely burned, rendering his middle, ring and little fingers virtually useless and twisted in to a “curved in” shape. To compensate, the boy forced himself to become left-handed–and played as a left-handed hitting and throwing baseball player.
When Isao was 5 years old, in August of 1945, his oldest sister, Tenko, was killed by the atomic bomb blast on Hiroshima. The hypocenter of the blast was just two kilometers from Harimoto’s home. Fortunately, the small mountain they lived by shielded him from the effects of the explosion. Shortly after, his father died of an apparent heart attack. To this day, Harimoto is the only professional baseball player to survive the atomic bomb devastation.
Isao grew up playing sandlot baseball, practicing his swing from the left side–swinging only with his right hand. He believed this technique would help to strengthen his hand. Though his right hand’s fingers were maimed, the bat would just fit in his hand. He practiced incessantly and became the top pitcher and hitter on his high school teams. Upon his high school graduation, he was offered a contract with the Flyers and quickly earned a starting position in left field.
In 1959, he won the Pacific League’s Rookie of the Year, and in 1962, he became the MVP. 1962 also saw Harimoto lead the Flyers to the Japan Series Championship, rarefied air for the normally lowly franchise. Over the course of 3 Japan Series, he batted a lofty .370, and was Series MVP in 1962.
Harimoto played most of his 23 pro years with the Flyers, finishing his career with brief stints at the Yomiuri (Tokyo) Giants and the Chiba Lotte Orions (now known as the Marines). On May 28th, 1980, he got his 3,000th hit… a home run. His career batting average is .319. He batted over .300 for 16 years, topping .383 in 1970. His career totals show 3,085 hits, of which 504 were home runs. And, he stole 319 bases, which means he joins the incomparable Willie Mays as the only 2 players with over 3,000 hits, 500 homers and 300 steals… exclusive company indeed!
Harimoto also knocked in 1,676 runs, and played on 18 All-Star teams. He was named All-Star MVP on 3 squads, had five 30 HR seasons, and 9 consecutive .300 campaigns. He also walked 1,274 times in his career. His lifetime On-base percentage is .399, and his lifetime Slugging percentage is .534. He won 9 On-base percentage crowns. One of Harimoto’s most amazing stats is 251 3-or-more-hits games. He had a 30 game hitting streak, and recorded hits in a stretch of 9 consecutive at-bats. He also reached base in 15 consecutive plate appearances.
The hitting stroke that won 7 batting titles has been most often compared to that of the remarkable Ted Williams. Harimoto had an elegant swing, combined with quick-strike power. He was really something to watch–totally relaxed in the box. He kept his head still and hands back ’til the last second. Then came the lightning-quick swing and the high velocity line drives. He was a pitcher’s worst nightmare. Amazingly, he batted .355 at age 36! He was voted into Japan’s Hall of Fame in 1990, and onto Japan’s All-Century Team in 2000.
He was indeed the greatest hitter in Japanese baseball history… Isao Harimoto!