Hometown: Toyoshima Ward, Tokyo
Date of Birth: September 24, 1946
Position: Catcher, First Base
Height: 186 cm (6’1”)
Weight: 90 kg (198 lb)
Wore #: 22 (1969-84 as player), 81 (1990-92 as Hawks Manager), 88 (2002-03 as Tigers Coach, 2011-12 as Eagles Coach)
Drafted by: Hanshin Tigers, 1968 (Round 1)
Made Tigers Debut on: April 12, 1969
Played Final Game on: September 29, 1984
Manager/Coaching Career: Daiei Hawks (Manager, 1990-92), Hanshin Tigers (Chief Hitting Coach, 2002-03), Rakuten Golden Eagles (Head Coach, 2011-12)
Career Achievements/Awards: Home Run King (1975); Rookie of the Year (1969); All-CL Team (1972-76); Diamond Glove Award (1973-74); Nippon Series MVP (1983); Outstanding Pacific League Playoff Player Award (1982); Player of the Month (April 1975, May 1983); Shoriki Matsutaro Award (1983); All-Star Game Appearances (1969-76, 1978-79, 1984)
Koichi Tabuchi was born on September 24, 1946 in Toyoshima Ward, Tokyo. He was the second of two children of a Mainichi Newspaper employee, and grew up in an affluent home. After playing baseball for a few years in junior high, he went on to Hosei University’s affiliate First High School, where he twice led his team to the prefectural semifinals, only to lose to a Nihon University High School team.
In his four years at Hosei University, Tabuchi was a “Best Nine” selection three times and was once given a “special Best Nine” Award. He also set a record for most career home runs at the university level with 22 – a mark that stood for 29 years, until in 1997 it was broken by one – thanks to a home run allowed by Hosei University pitcher Yuya Andoh. Tabuchi also went to the Philippines in 1965 as a representative of Japan in the Asian Baseball Championship. Two years later, when the tournament was held in Japan, Tabuchi was the lead catcher and cleanup hitter on a team that romped through the opponents with a perfect 6-0 record.
Tabuchi was one of several exciting prospects in the 1968 draft. As a Tokyo native, he had hoped to be chosen by the Yomiuri Giants, and if not, at least a team in the Tokyo (Kanto) region. However, Hanshin chose him with the third overall pick (Yomiuri had the 8th pick) despite knowing Tabuchi did not desire to play in the Osaka area. Nevertheless, he signed with the Tigers after the Giants tried unsuccessfully to force a three-team trade to nab the slugging catcher. (Incidentally, the Giants had also promised ace pitcher Sen’ichi Hoshino they would draft him, but then chose someone else on draft day. This was plenty of fuel for Hoshino to become a “Giant Killer” his entire career. He would go on to manage the Hanshin Tigers to a Central League pennant in 2003, with Tabuchi as head hitting coach.)
Tabuchi became an instant success in his 1969 rookie season. His 22 home runs and 56 RBIs were enough to earn him Rookie of the Year honors – the first time the award was bestowed on a catcher. He looked to build on his numbers in 1970, but on August 26, he took a pitch off the left temple (in those days, helmets did not have adequate protection) and he had to be taken off the field on a stretcher. Tabuchi says that had the ball hit him just 10 centimeters further away from his ear, he could have died instantly. As it was, he remained unconscious for nearly a week, and there was a risk that he would suffer permanent brain damage. Fortunately, he was able to recover in time to play baseball in 1971, however, it was another injury-riddled campaign as well. In fact, the list of injuries Tabuchi suffered through his career covers nearly all parts of the body!
The next couple of seasons were much kinder to Tabuchi. He posted a (then) career high 34 home runs in 1972 and set an incredible record against the rival Yomiuri Giants near the start of the 1973 season. He would hit home runs in 7 consecutive at bats during games spanning from April 26 to May 10. In the final game of a series at Korakuen Stadium, Tabuchi launched balls into the stands in the sixth, eighth and ninth innings. The next time the two teams faced off at Koshien Stadium (May 9), he started with a bomb in the second inning, took one to the body his next time up, and finished the game with round trippers in the seventh and ninth innings. The next game 24 hours later, he hit another dinger in his first at bat. He would end the year with another career high in homers (37) but the best was yet to come.
In 1974, he topped his personal best mark with 45 home runs – still not enough to break Sadaharu Oh’s consecutive streak of home run titles (which reached an inconceivable 14 that year), but the following season he would put an end to it, leading the league with 43 bombs. It would also be the first season in which he played in every game – an incredible feat for a catcher, especially one who incurred as many injuries as Tabuchi did. In fact, it was said that he bruised his left hand so badly on one beaning that he could not properly use it when hitting. Still, the home runs continued to pile up despite only being able to use one hand.
Unfortunately, Tabuchi started feeling frustrations with the team, even blowing off some of that steam in TV interviews, and the team decided to trade him to the newly-minted Seibu Lions (formerly the Crown Lighter Lions) in the 1978 offseason. The trade sent Tabuchi and Kenji Furusawa to the Lions and brought in four new players, including Akinobu Mayumi, who played a key role in the team’s 1985 pennant and Nippon Series championship.
The trade to the Lions resulted in a position change, as Tabuchi saw time at first base when he played in the field, and also gave him a chance to be designated hitter. His career as a hitter was far from over, and he reached the 40-home run plateau (first player in Lions history to do so) in 1980, and then contributing to the team’s pennants and Nippon Series wins in 1982 and 1983. In the latter year, though, with a huge lead in the home run race, Tabuchi broke his hand on a pitch in July, essentially putting an end to his power game. He played one more season, but saw significant drops in his power and production numbers, and he retired after the 1984 season.
Tabuchi got into the TV commentators’ booth in the years after his retirement. There were coach and management offers sent his way, and he took some of them, but rejected one offer from the Hanshin Tigers. Newly appointed manager Minoru Murayama wanted to make him a coach (though the club was against the move), and Tabuchi publicly rejected the offer, saying, “If the Murayama Tigers want me, I’m in, but if the offer is from Hanshin, I want no part in it.” Apparently the dissatisfaction with the club and the treatment he received surrounding the trade was a wound that had not yet healed.
He would only return to Hanshin in 2002, when his good friend (and former rival on the field) Sen’ichi Hoshino took over as manager. He would be named chief hitting coach, and along with Yutaka Wada and Tom O’Malley, he helped completely convert a weak hitting order into one of the most feared lineups in baseball at the time. However, when Hoshino resigned at the end of the pennant-winning 2003 season (for health reasons), Tabuchi stepped down with him. He always said that he was not management material, and that even head coaching was pushing it, but he still took positions under Hoshino with Team Japan (2008 Beijing Summer Olympics) and the Rakuten Golden Eagles. He currently does occasional guest appearances as a color commentator, but otherwise is not deeply involved in baseball.
Although he also had a great eye at the plate, taking a lot of walks and striking out very little for a power hitter, Tabuchi will always be remembered for his high-arcing home runs. He was dubbed a “home run artist” (the Japanese turned it into a pun, purposely spelling artist – アーティスト – to contain the word arch – アーチスト – because the word is a synonym for home run). His 474 career home runs put him 11th on the all-time list (just behind Tomoaki Kanemoto but well ahead of Masayuki Kakefu, the club record holder with 349), but most amazing is his at-bats per home run ratio. On average, Tabuchi hit a home run every 12.41 at bats, which is second all-time, behind Sadaharu Oh (10.66).
Tabuchi formed what is still known as the “Golden Battery” with then-Tigers ace Yutaka Enatsu. Tabuchi had an excellent arm and held a very high throw-out rate on base stealers, but also had defensive lapses. These were said to be caused by the ball he took to his left temple in his sophomore season, which left him partially deaf in that ear. Behind the plate, though, Tabuchi showed his true character. He was a very pure-hearted man, always believing the best of others. When coaches told him to hide his signs because other teams might be stealing them, he said he didn’t believe any baseball players or teams would ever steal signs. Also, during a game in which the Tigers had a huge lead, he once told a pinch hitter (whose future in baseball was in jeopardy) what pitch was coming, so as to give that player a chance at better stats and a renewed contract.
Koichi Tabuchi was a natural, and received high praise from some of the game’s all-time greats. Katsuya Nomura, one of the greatest catchers in the history of the game, said that Tabuchi was the only guy who could (and did) claim that as long as his stance in the batter’s box was right, he would be able to hit a home run. Battery mate Enatsu said Tabuchi was the only hitter he would ever call a genius, and that he had never met a player that could hit that many home runs without training or thinking.
Truly, he is the greatest catcher ever to don Hanshin’s pinstripes.