Sachio Kinugasa, the Japanese slugger who in 1987 broke Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played, only to see his testament to durability exceeded nine years later by Cal Ripken Jr., died on Monday. He was 71.
The cause was colon cancer, according to reports in the Japanese news media, which did not specify where he died.
In Japan, Kinugasa embodied consistency and effort by playing in game after game for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp over 17 years despite broken bones, slumps and age. Even after a pitch fractured his left shoulder blade in 1979 — about halfway through his streak — he continued to play. He reasoned that it would have been more painful for him to sit out.
“If we have a game, I want to play, that’s all,” he told The New York Times in May 1987, several weeks before he was to tie Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive games. “The record is not the goal. It’s only the natural outcome of my determination to play.”
Kinugasa was no ordinary player. A third baseman who stood 5-foot-9 and weighed about 165 pounds, he was nonetheless a hard-swinging force who amassed 504 home runs, tied for seventh-best in Japanese baseball history, and 2,543 hits, tied for fifth.
“I loved to watch him swing,” Rick Lancelotti, an American teammate of Kinugasa’s in Hiroshima, said in a telephone interview. “He could really take a hack.”
Lancelotti recalled that Kinugasa acted humbly while fans around him “went nuts” as he approached Gehrig’s record.
“I thought, God forbid he got hurt,” he said. “You kind of wanted to send him up with a bodyguard. He’s one of those guys you would’ve done anything to protect. You wanted to make sure nothing happened to him.”
He did not need protection. After tying Gehrig’s record on June 11, Kinugasa broke it two days later at Hiroshima Municipal Stadium against the Chunichi Dragons. When the game was official in the fifth inning, it was stopped and a taped message of congratulations from Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone was played. Kinugasa hit a home run in the sixth inning, but the Carp lost.
The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper declared that Kinugasa’s record was the result of “extraordinary moral strength and superhuman endurance.”
Kinugasa was less effusive after the game. “I’m relieved it’s over,” he said.
It had been only 10 years since another Japanese baseball star had broken the hallowed record of an American major leaguer.
During the 1977 season, Sadaharu Oh surpassed Hank Aaron’s career total of 755 home runs, on his way to setting the current record of 868. In his book on Japanese baseball, “You Gotta Have Wa” (1989), Robert Whiting wrote that while American fans had disparaged Oh’s feat, noting that he played in small parks and hit against inferior pitching, they could not disparage Kinugasa’s.
“It took 17 years to do what Gehrig had done in 15,” he wrote, “because Japanese teams play 130 games a year, compared with the 154 played in the U.S. major leagues in Gehrig’s time. On the other hand, Kinugasa endured tough Japanese-style workouts that few major leaguers ever experienced.”
After overtaking Gehrig, Kinugasa played every remaining game in the 1987 season and then retired. His world record for consecutive games appeared secure at 2,215 games. But Ripken — who by this time had played 8,243 consecutive innings over five years without sitting — was lurking.
Kinugasa was born in Kyoto on Jan. 18, 1947, to a Japanese mother and an African-American soldier who had been stationed in Okinawa and abandoned them. As a youngster, Kinugasa was taunted for his mixed race, a sensitive subject that was not mentioned in two unauthorized biographies and that his teammates did not discuss, Lancelotti said.
Years later, a Carp teammate told a Japanese newspaper that he once asked Kinugasa why he stayed up late studying English. Kinugasa replied that he wanted to go to America to search for his father, whom he had never met.
“If you become the No. 1 player in Japan,” the teammate said, “he’ll come to see you.” Kinugasa nodded, with tears in his eyes.
Kinugasa was a hard-hitting catcher on a Kyoto high school team and mistakenly believed that he would succeed quickly when he joined the Carp in 1965. It took him several seasons to establish himself with the team, initially as a first baseman and then as a third-baseman.
He was inducted into the Japanese baseball hall of fame in 1996 and worked as a baseball analyst and newspaper columnist after his playing career was over.
Kinugasa’s survivors include his wife, Masako; his daughter, Riyo; and his son, Tomoaki.
When Ripken played in his 2,131st consecutive game with the Baltimore Orioles in 1995, before a sellout crowd at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, much was made of his taking Gehrig’s place in Major League Baseball’s record books. The durable Ripken, nicknamed the Iron Man, had surpassed Gehrig, the Iron Horse. But he still had 84 games to replace Kinugasa — who was known as Tetsujin, or Iron Man.
The next June, Kinugasa was at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., to see Ripken top his world record against the Royals.
“The point of having records,” he told The Baltimore Sun, “is for new players to come along and break them.”
Ripken continued his streak for two more years, finishing with 2,632 consecutive games played.
Published at Thu, 26 Apr 2018 16:04:53 +0000