Second look at 'A Zen Way of Baseball'
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Page 2's "Critical Mass" is a weekly survey of what's happening at the busy intersection of sports and pop culture.

One of the great perks of this gig is that readers and friends often write to tell me about books they really like. Some of the stuff I've never heard of; some of it I know, but should read again. Most of the titles have been around for a while, and some are out of print. Earlier this summer, a good friend suggested I read Sadaharu Oh's autobiography, "A Zen Way of Baseball," first published in 1984. It had a big impact on him the first time he read it, and he thought the mix of sports and philosophy in it would appeal to me.

Sadaharu Oh
Sadaharu Oh poses in perfect balance in 1977.
I'd never heard of it, so I went online and ordered a used copy, read 50 pages and liked what I was reading, got distracted by other things and put it down, came back to it, got interrupted again, and finally finished it last week. It's great, and I'll talk about it more in a minute, but first I want to use it to introduce an idea for my column. As I was reading it, I wondered how I'd missed it over the years and wished more people knew about it, and I kept thinking that there are dozens of excellent sports books from days gone by that don't get much love or attention any more (I wrote about one of them, Walt Frazier's "Rockin' Steady," in May). Anyway, it seemed to me I could do a little something about that by giving them some play here in Critical Mass. So, beginning with "A Zen Way of Baseball," and continuing (approximately, hopefully) once a month until we've exhausted the canon of great sports literature, I'll write a "second look" column about an old gem. Sometimes I'll do a recognized classic, other times it will be an obscure but brilliant book that somehow slipped off the radar. Already on the list are "Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball," Frederick Exley's "A Fan's Notes," and Pete Axthelm's "The City Game."

Beyond that, I'm open to suggestions. Send me a note, tell me what I should be reading and why. (Do me a favor: Put "second look" in the subject line of the e-mail.) The more unpredictable and passionate the pitch, the better. If you convince me to check out a book, it will make its way into the mix here, and if things go well, I'll convince you to check out a few, too. Thanks for the assist, now on to Book 1 ...

"Sadaharu Oh: A Zen Way of Baseball," by Sadaharu Oh and David Falkner (New York Times Books, 1984)
What it is:

It's not strictly an autobiography. It's more the story of an idea and a process. Oh describes his early days and his relationship with his father, but the meat of the book is his relationship with his hitting instructor, Hiroshi Arakawa, and their pursuit of perfect balance, timing and form in Oh's unorthodox, one-footed stance and swing.

Four good reasons to read it:

1. Oh is humble. Professional baseball's home run king (Oh had 868 in Japan and Hank Aaron finished with 755 in the majors) talks at length about how difficult it was to learn to hit well, and about how little he knew when he began. He's honest about feeling insecure and awkward, and genuinely excited when little technical accomplishments ease those feelings. He is, he says, just a man of the earth, "caught in his longings and uncertainties." Maybe it's too simple to think of the book as a welcome antidote to American bravado. Maybe I'm simple ... but I dig it when he says things like this:

"I don't know what the second half of my life will bring or even if it will in any way match the first part. I learned ... that the way is long and mastery of any sort is not easy to achieve."

Every professional athlete has gone through a journey and trial in pursuit of excellence, every superstar you follow or look up to has spent hours, days, weeks and months practicing and refining his craft, but it's rare when a person articulates for us, in such elegant terms, the kind of commitment and patience involved in the process.

I don't know what the second half of my life will bring or even if it will in any way match the first part. I learned ... that the way is long and mastery of any sort is not easy to achieve.
Sadaharu Oh

2. The book is meticulous. Hand position, weight transfer, waiting, focusing and anticipating. The hitting process gets unpacked with precision and care. The kinds of gestures that appear organic and effortless when you see them on television, or from a seat in the stands, emerge in "A Zen Way" as finely calibrated and coordinated exercises of the mind and body.

What you end up with is a new and intense appreciation for the fact professional hitters have swings that appear organic and effortless, even though they are anything but.

3. His Zen approach provides fresh takes on the game. He describes baseball in terms of the dynamics between hitters and pitchers, something he calls ma, which means interval or distance. This sounds simple and it is, but too often we talk about baseball players as individuals whose accomplishments are somehow independent of the other people around them. Oh focuses on interplay and combination, on the idea that a hitter's thoughts and movements are bound up with, and are working in the same space and time as, a pitcher's.

Watch a game looking for this, watch how it becomes a constant negotiation over the ma and look for the subtle habits by which players look to control it. Watch Ichiro Suzuki time his one-armed bat-raise in synch with a pitcher's lean back to the set position, think about Gary Sheffield's quick warm-up swings or Joe Morgan's elbow pump. In Oh's version of the game, these things are strategies to "master ma, to bring your opponent into your own space [and make] his energy part of yours."

Ichiro Suzuki
Ichiro Suzuki tries to master ma, making the pitcher's energy part of his.
In addition to ma, he also spends a lot of time talking about waiting -- waiting for the pitch, waiting for enlightenment, waiting for his body and mind to work in concert with each other. His fascination with the moment before something happens debunks the idea that baseball has too little action; it makes even the quietest, most casual movements seem electric.

"Waiting," he writes, "far from being something passive, was the most active state of all. In its heart lay the beginning and end of all action. In it lurked the exact moment to strike." Write that down at the top of your scorecard next time you're at a game. See if your "notes" section doesn't get a little more interesting.

4. The book makes the game seem big. Oh's pursuit of the perfect swing is a spiritual, as well as physical and professional, thing. He wants to hit well and put up numbers but only insofar as those results are the byproduct of his getting closer and closer to the ideal of a thoughtless, in-the-zone, repeatable, Zen-state swing as a manifestation of the Zen ideal of the void.

A humble hitter, utterly devoted to his craft ("for me it had become everything, it contained all I knew") and convinced that the game is an epic spiritual quest -- that's straight out of "The Natural," that's the kind of romantic stuff that made me fall in love with baseball in the first place.

Bonus material:

  • Good black and white photos, including some of Oh training with swords in a dojo.

      He wants to hit well and put up numbers but only insofar as those results are the byproduct of his getting closer and closer to the ideal of a thoughtless, in-the-zone, repeatable, Zen-state swing as a manifestation of the Zen ideal of the void. 

  • A flip-book sequence of his up-on-one-leg hitting style right in the middle of the book. (This alone is worth the cost of the book.)

  • A Zen glossary. Ki, for example, means spirit, but the word is actually untranslatable.

  • A quotes section featuring U.S. players' evaluations of Oh. Highlight: Bob Gibson saying, "I only faced him once, didn't get anything off me," and Tim McCarver saying, "S---. Hoot's got the worst memory. He hit one off Gibson. Beat Gibson that first game (of our tour)."

    Where to find it:

    It's out of print. Try any one of a number of online used booksellers. A casual search should turn up 20-odd affordable copies. Or, of course, head down to your local library ...

    Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column, which will appear every Wednesday on Page 2. You can e-mail him at



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