Hometown: Kyoto City, Kyoto
Date of Birth: July 26, 1933
Height: 167 cm (5’6”)
Weight: 56 kg (123 lb)
Wore #: 23 (retired by club in 1987)
Signed by: Osaka Tigers (1953)
Made Tigers Debut on: March 28, 1953
Retired as Player in: 1969
Manager Career: Hanshin Tigers (1975-77, 1985-87, 1997-98)
Career Achievements/Awards: Most Steals (1954, 1956); Most Hits (1955); All-Central League Team (1955-60, 1962, 1964, 1965); Nippon Series Fighting Spirit Award (1962); Nippon Series Batting Champ (1962); All-Star Team (1954-66); Hall of Fame Induction (1992).
Yoshio Yoshida was born on July 26, 1933, the fourth of five children in a family that ran a fuelwood business in Kyoto. He fell in love with the baseball during his first years of junior high school. Postwar Japan became enraptured with the American game, and Yoshida was obsessed right from the first time he put on a glove. After school he would play baseball until 8pm, coming home dirty and exhausted. His father did not approve, telling him to expend that energy on helping with the family business. His mother, though, told him that if he was enjoying it, to keep playing. The Yoshida home was beset with a double tragedy in his first year of high school, though, when both of his parents passed away within six months of each other. His older brother, who was a senior in high school, quit playing baseball, took over the family business and finished up his high school degree, all the while encouraging his younger brother to keep playing the game and not worry about the family business.
In his second year of high school (1950), his baseball club (a poor school with very little equipment) fought its way through the grueling prefectural tournament to reach the Koshien summer tournament for the first time in school history. Though they lost in the first round to Hokkaido, it would be the first time his shoes entrenched themselves on the dirt between second and third at Koshien Stadium. (Little did he know, it would become his “second home” for nearly two decades.) While he played the game with fervency, he also followed the recently formed professional league from a young age. His favorite Osaka Tigers had a potent lineup in those days, and Yoshida would follow team results in the local newspaper, hiding each column of the scoring summary and checking each inning one at a time, trying to imagine how the game had unfolded.
He had little idea how good his game was compared with others, but after graduating from high school, the Hankyu Braves scouted him and made him an offer to join their farm team. Yoshida did not believe he was pro material, and immediately turned down the offer, though he was interested in playing baseball at the university (or industrial) level. Knowing his family could not afford to send him to a prestigious university in Tokyo, where college ball thrived, Yoshida applied to (and got accepted by) Doshisha University. When Ritsumeikan University (whose baseball club was stronger than Doshisha’s) caught wind of this, they approached the youngster saying, “We heard you were going pro and didn’t bother contacting you. But it’s not too late for you if you want to join us – we’ll even give you a scholarship to cover your tuition fees.” These words were enough to cause Yoshida to change course despite having already committed to Doshisha.
Part way through his college career, in a tournament against Kanto University all-stars, Yoshida got spiked in the shins by a baserunner coming hard into second. He was none other than Tatsuro Hirooka, a shortstop who was sure to be signed by an NPB team. This collision taught Yoshida a valuable lesson – move laterally to one side or the other of second base when turning the double play – and was the start of his getting recognition for stellar play in the field. In fact, Osaka Tigers manager Mori declared that Yoshida was even better than Hirooka, declaring his intentions to sign the Kyoto native. Before he was able to complete his degree at Ritsumeikan, Yoshida received an unexpected visit at home one day. Mori wanted to sign him to a contract to join the Osaka Tigers, and offered him a ¥500,000 signing bonus and a salary of ¥30,000 per month. For the cash-strapped Yoshida home, this was more than enough to convince him to drop out of college early.
In his early years, Yoshida became the self-appointed bat boy for the original Mr. Tigers, Fumio Fujimura. Though he could hardly speak his mind to the 37-year old veteran, Yoshida observed his every mannerism – how he handled his equipment, his footwork in the field, his attitude towards practice and studying the game. All of these things did nothing but benefit the young diminutive shortstop as he looked for ways to improve his game.
Yoshida was able to take over as full-time shortstop right from his rookie year, due to his great ability to cover a lot of ground and make quick throws to first. Although not known for his offense, he led the league in stolen bases twice (1954, his second season, and 1956), and struck out a career “high” 30 times in 1954 as well. (So seldom did he strike out, that he recorded more stolen bases in his career than strikeouts!) Yoshida also set a career high in batting average (.318) and set the record for most at bats without a strikeout (179) – a record that lasted 11 seasons – in 1964, contributing to the club’s second pennant since the two-league system was adopted.
One of Yoshida’s most unforgettable memories, though, came early in his career. In 1955, the New York Yankees were on a goodwill tour of Japan. Yoshida was chosen as a representative of Team Japan and was able to not only play on the same field as some of his idols (Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, Yogi Berra) but also observe them from up close. He also learned even more than ever how to avoid collisions at second base while turning double plays. At the end of the series of games, then Yankees manager Casey Stengel said, “I’d like to take the Yoshida kid back home with me. He could easily make it in the majors.”
In his prime, Yoshida combined with second baseman Kamada and third baseman Miyake to form one of the best defensive infields in the history of Japanese baseball. Legendary hurler Gene Bacque to this day sings the praises of the infield that played behind him, giving him confidence as a pitcher and saving him time and again.
Yoshida played out his career at shortstop, doubling as a fielding coach in his final season in 1969. Both he and legendary pitcher Minoru Murayama, with whom it was said Yoshida did not get along, were player-coaches that year, and when manager Gotoh retired, the question that arose was which of them would take over the reins. Yoshida thought he deserved it – after all, he was three years older than the pitcher-coach and had six more years of experience. However, he experienced great shock when the job was given to Murayama.
But Yoshida would get his own chance to manage the team. In 1975, he took over from Kaneda and kept the team in contention until September, thanks to the emergence of catcher Koichi Tabuchi. That offseason, however, was one of big change. Yoshida traded away fading ace Yutaka Enatsu, and arranged to bring in two foreigners (Hal Breeden and Mike Reinbach) to bolster the team’s offense. Combined with Tabuchi’s presence behind the plate and Masayuki Kakefu’s development as a slugger, the 1976 team set an NPB record for most home runs in a season (193) but fell two games short of the pennant despite a winning record of over .600. Unfortunately the following season was much worse, and the team ended up in 4th place and a sub-.500 record, prompting Yoshida to step down as skipper.
He returned to the helm of the team at the start of the 1985 season, replacing Andoh as manager. He did not place high expectations on this team, instead trying to establish “3F Baseball” – Fresh, Fight, For the Team. He knew the potential of this team to contend, but was reluctant to use the word “pennant” or “championship” when talking to the team or the media. (Perhaps this was due in part to his experience with the 1964 team, which pulled off a miracle by winning its final 9 games to steal the title from the Taiyo Whales.) In any case, the 1985 Tigers set a record for most home runs in a season (219) and also most sacrifice bunts. The team would eventually clinch its first pennant in 21 seasons (on which Yoshida played) and eventually going on to defeat the Seibu Lions (managed by none other than Tatsuro Hirooka) to win the lone Nippon Series in club history.
The next two seasons saw Yoshida go from the top of the world all the way down to the depths of hell, as he says. The 1986 season saw the team sputter in its title defense, due in part to injuries to Kakefu. Despite efforts to stay near the top, the team slumped down to third place in the second half of the season. Things got even worse in 1987, when Yoshida fell under criticism from Randy Bass in a magazine interview, and was even rumored to be the reason that hitting assistant coach Masashi Takenouchi quit part-way through the season. At year’s end, with the team finishing in last place, Yoshida withdrew once again and the team’s Dark Ages were set in motion.
After taking some time away from baseball, Yoshida was asked by a friend to consider checking out baseball in France, and perhaps helping them build up their national team. After all that baseball had given him, he decided it was time to give back to the game by helping it develop in countries where it was not a major sport. He spent six years building the team up from almost nothing – he says it was about the level of Japanese high school baseball when he got there. Players regularly showed up late without any remorse, and never dove for balls, instead letting them bounce in front of them. He also said he himself in his old age showed them how to turn a double play properly.
Eventually, he got called back to the Hanshin Tigers and took over as manager in 1997 for two seasons. The results were less than desirable, and the free agent moves were utter failures (Kazuhiro Kiyohara flat out rejected the club’s offer, and Mike Greenwell went down in infamy as one of the worst foreign signings in club history.) The team finished in fifth place in 1997 (losing in the pennant-clinching game to Yakult by an embarrassing 16-1 score) and then in dead last in 1998. These years were, however, the starting points in the careers of Makoto Imaoka, Tomochika Tsuboi, Kentaro Sekimoto, Osamu Hamanaka, Kei Igawa, and more, and it was during this time that the club traded for Akihiro Yano, who would become one of the key players in the 2003 and 2005 pennants.
Upon retiring from baseball, Yoshida has continued to work in the commentator’s booth. He has also written three books:
Hanshin Tigers (2003 – click for H-TEN’s review)
Ushiwakamaru’s History (2009)