THE NICKNAME “IRON MAN” in American baseball was bestowed on Cal Ripken for the qualities of physical durability and mental toughness that enabled him to appear in a record 2632 consecutive games—the equivalent of every game for more than 16 seasons–and on Lou Gehrig, the man who held the record before him. Their counterpart in Japanese baseball was infielder Sachio Kinugasa, who played in 2215 consecutive games.
But these three men were what is known as “position players”. It was physically possible for them to play every game in a season, barring injury, because they were defenders in the field reacting to batted balls and were not involved in every pitch or every play.
That’s not the case at all for pitchers, however. The demands of throwing a baseball 100 or more times a game at speeds of 85 to 100 mph and twisting the arm to cause the ball to spin in different directions mean that starting pitchers now play only once every five days. Lasting as many as seven innings of a nine-inning game is considered an excellent performance. Winning 20 games in the 162-game American baseball season places them among the elite of their profession. Today’s benchmark for a strong, durable starting pitcher is to work 200 innings in a season.
Relief pitchers, who are brought into the game when the starting pitcher tires or is ineffective, play more frequently. An excellent relief pitcher with stamina will appear in a third or more of his team’s games during the season, but he will only pitch an inning or two at most.
What standards of performance would earn a pitcher the Iron Man moniker? In Japan, every baseball fan knows that the man who epitomized the physical durability and mental toughness deserving of that term is Kazuhisa Inao, the player they called Tetsuwan (Iron Arm). Inao died on 13 November, and his memorial service was held on Thursday.
Here’s the story behind that nickname, but be prepared. Those of you outside Japan who follow baseball will be astounded by what you are about to read.
Unheralded Rookie Steps Up
Inao made his debut as a professional baseball player in 1956 for the Nishitetsu Lions of Fukuoka City and played for that team his entire career. His skills did not attract the attention of manager Osamu Mihara or the coaching staff at first, but he was signed to pitch batting practice in accordance with the universal baseball axiom that a team cannot have too many pitchers. Inao established himself over the course of the exhibition season, however, and won a spot on the roster as a relief pitcher. His initial appearances were in mop-up roles out of the bullpen at the end of games already decided.
The rookie was so effective that he was shifted to the starting rotation in mid-May. The right-hander went on to compile a 21-6 won-lost record for the year, with an eye-popping earned run average of 1.06, still the single-season record for the Pacific League. To no one’s surprise, he was named Rookie of the Year.
Most pitchers would sell their souls to the devil for a season such as that, but Inao was just getting warmed up. The next year, 1957, he won 35 games, a number inconceivable in the sport today, and 20 of those were in a row—another Japanese record. (You’ll be seeing that phrase a lot.) He went on to win at least 30 games in three consecutive years, which no other Japanese pitcher has ever done.
If that victory total is inconceivable, no words exist to describe his 1961 season, when he won 42 games to tie the Japanese single-season record. (He shares the mark with Russian-born Victor Starfin, who racked up that total when the standards for awarding wins to pitchers were more ill-defined than they are now.)
We should note that when Inao played, the staff’s ace pitcher was also expected to pitch in relief. Still, Inao threw 25 complete games in 1961–seven of which were shutouts–started another five that he didn’t finish, and appeared in 78 games in all. He finished a total of 43 games, suggesting he was used in the role of closer for as many as 18. He pitched 404 innings that year, one of five in which he pitched more than 370 innings.
Could anyone top that performance? Inao already had.
Inao’s Lions squared off against the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, the perennial powers of Japanese baseball, in the 1958 Japan Series, a seven-game tournament to determine the championship. The Lions lost the first three games, meaning they were one more loss away from elimination.
Explaining his thought processes some years later, Lions manager Mihara said he was resigned to losing the series at that point. He based his strategy for the remaining games on what he thought the other players and fans would want him to do, so he decided to go again with his ace, Inao.
Inao had already started games one and three, pitching a complete game in the latter, which he lost 1-0. But Mihara brought him back to start game four…and to pitch seven innings of one-hit relief in game five…and to start game six—all of which he won. To be sure, the games were not played on consecutive days. There was a rainout between games three and four, and a two-day layoff between games five and six.
The man with the arm of iron still wasn’t finished. He pitched in relief in game seven, and was the winning pitcher in that game, too, as the Lions stunned Japanese baseball with an unprecedented come-from-behind surge to win the championship four games to three. Inao was credited with the win in all four of the Lions’ victories in that series (and suffered two of their three losses), pitching 47 innings—a record–and striking out 32 batters—another record. His ERA over the six games in which he appeared was 1.57, with a WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched) of 0.72.
But this was a series of the kind dreams and movies are made of, so before you pick your jaw up off the floor, here’s something else—as a batter, he hit a walk-off home run in the 10th inning of game five to win that contest. (In Japan those are called sayonara home runs, by far the better term.) It was the first sayonara home run in Japan Series history. (The second photo shows him approaching home plate after the home run.)
Celebrating the victory, the local paper covering his team ran a headline that was to become famous: “Kami-sama, Hotoke-sama, Inao-sama”. The first is the Shinto deity, the second is the Buddhist deity, and the third, Inao, was now the God of Baseball.
Years later, when Inao visited his manager Mihara in the hospital, the latter apologized for overusing him to suit his own circumstances. Inao shrugged it off: “In those days, I was happy just to be able to pitch.”
Overuse Takes its Toll
Inao notched his 200th victory in 1962, not surprising when you consider that he won at least 20 games in his first eight seasons. But even iron is subject to metal fatigue, and Inao suffered a shoulder injury in 1964 that caused him to sit out most of the season.
His rehabilitation program was just as incredible as his performance on the field. The concept of sports medicine didn’t exist in those days, and someone came up with an idea that would render the modern baseball observer speechless. Inao had an iron baseball made and practiced pitching with that. The idea was that he would became used to the weight of the iron ball, so throwing a regular baseball would no longer seem painful.
At this point, do I need to tell you that it worked? His shoulder pain disappeared after a few months.
He returned as a relief specialist, though he was not as effective as before. He still had enough gas in the tank to win the ERA title once again in 1966, but he finally retired in 1969 at the age of 32. His early exit as an active player spurred Japanese baseball to rethink the role of the starting pitcher and increase the size of the starting rotation.
The following season, the Lions hired him as manager, the youngest man to hold that position in the Japan League. But the franchise was beset with other problems, and he was not as successful in the role of skipper as he was a pitcher. The team finished in last place three years in a row, and he stepped down in 1974.
Inao returned to baseball in 1978 as the pitching coach for the Chunichi Dragons (the team Tom Selleck played for in the movie Mr. Baseball), a role he performed for three seasons. He later came back to manage the Lotte Orions from 1984 to 1986.
After hanging up his spikes, Inao worked as a baseball analyst in both the print and broadcast media. For his career, he compiled a won-lost record of 276-137 (10th most wins in Japan), 2,574 strikeouts (8th all-time), with a lifetime ERA of 1.98 (3rd all-time). His career WHIP was 0.99. He also holds the Japanese record for most wins in a month, with 11. Yet another record he holds is the number of complete games pitched in a career in the Japan Series, with nine. He was named Most Valuable Player in 1957 and 1958. It goes without saying that he was inducted into Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame in 1993 (third photo).
Upbringing a Factor
Inao was born in Beppu, Oita Prefecture, to parents who were fishermen. He was known for being unflappable in the tightest of circumstances, which he attributed to a childhood spent working on a flimsy fishing boat:
“There was just a thin board and underneath that was the sea. Every day I got on that boat without knowing whether I would live or die. That’s the reason I never got flustered on the mound.”
In addition to coolness under fire, he was also known for his courtesy as a player. At the end of each inning, he made sure to leave the resin bag in exactly the same spot and to fill in and smooth over the holes he had dug at the front of the pitching mound by striding with his front foot.
Inao’s pitching technique also set him apart from his peers–he pitched without his back heel on the ground, spinning on his toes. Inao said he developed this technique from rowing the family fishing boat. His two best pitches were a slider and screwball, and he is said to have been able to change the grip on the ball from one to the other in the middle of his pitching motion. He also mastered the forkball, but—in yet another astonishing aspect of an astonishing career—only did so because of the difficulty he had facing Kihachi Enomoto, the batter who had the most success against him. Inao said he never threw a forkball in a game to anyone else.
Extraordinary pitching control was one more reason for his success. Recalled longtime batterymate, catcher Hiromi Wada, “He was like a machine with his control. He could place his pitches within a third of a baseball where he wanted to at any time.” (Wada is on the right in the fourth photo, with Inao on the left.)
Admitted to the hospital in October complaining of a loss of feeling in his shoulder and leg, Kazuhisa Inao died of a malignant tumor less than a month later. He was 70 years old.