Remembering Glenn Mickens
Brooklyn Dodger and Kintetsu Buffaloes pitcher Glenn Mickens passed away on July 9 2019.
In 2003 I had the pleasure of interviewing Glenn about his five seasons in Japan. An edited version of our conversation appeared in my first book Remembering Japanese Baseball: An Oral History of the Game. I have reprinted his chapter below.
Brooklyn Dodgers 1953
Kintetsu Buffaloes 1959-63
After attending UCLA, Glenn Mickens spent 8 years in the Dodgers organization and pitched in 4 games for the 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers before coming to Japan in 1959. Mickens immediately became the ace of Kintetsu’s staff. He was selected for the Pacific League All-Star team in both 1960 and 1961 and received the win in the 1961 Third All-Star Game. After leaving Japan, Mickens spent the next 25 years coaching at UCLA. He is currently retired and lives in Hawaii, but occasionally returns to Japan as a guest coach for Keio University.
I went over to Japan with Ron Bottler in 1959. It was a big jump because we were among the first Americans to go over. I played there for five years and made a couple of All-Star teams. I thought it was a real honor to have pitched and credited with a win in the All-Star games. They treated me really, really well in Japan. The people over there were really good to me and I had some great experiences.
When I signed, they told me that I would get $500 per win for every game I won over 15. I thought that was great because some guys were winning 30. But I had no idea that Kintetsu was the perennial cellar dweller! We had the worst defense and worst offense in the league. I didn't know that before I went over there. But regardless, I would've went anyway. Well, the most I ever won was 13, I was 13 and 10 in 1960, but I always had a really good ERA. I remember I won 10 games my first year. The team only won 39 games, so obviously they were extremely happy with me winning 10.
When Ron Bottler and I got invited over there, Japanese baseball was an outlaw league. After I had been there about a month, they called me into the office and wanted to know what the Reserve Clause was and the whole bunch of other things. I said, “Well, I don't know all those things but why are you asking?” Then, they showed me a letter from the vice president of the Dodgers that said the Dodgers were highly regretful that the Buffaloes had taken one of their players and signed him to a Japanese contract. And that it might cause international dissension. Of course, that shook the Japanese up. From then on, the Japanese had to get permission from the United States before they signed any American players.
Our manager was Shigeru Chiba. Ohhh, he was funny. They told me that he used to be a heck of a hitter and a really good second baseman for the Giants. But, it always looked like he was sleeping. He would keep his head cocked off to one side like it would never straighten out. They told me that he used to do the same thing with his head when he hit.
One night in 1959, my first year, we were playing in Osaka. Osaka in the summertime is about as hot and humid a place as there ever was. It was the eighth inning, we were winning, and I was out of gas. So I was sitting there on the bench between innings and Chiba looked over and saw that I was really tired. Now, we didn't win too many games so he was thinking of something to say to make me mad enough to finish the ballgame. So he looked at me and said with a thick Japanese accent, “Remember Pearl Harbor!” And I almost fell off the bench! Here's a Japanese guy telling me to remember Pearl Harbor so that I get mad enough to go out there and beat the other team. It didn't matter that I was on a Japanese team!
Before I went to Japan, people told me that the Japanese were little ping hitters and they could all fly. Well, that wasn't true. The average club in the States, I don't care what level A, AA, or AAA, could generally out run most of the clubs over there. They didn't have that many guys who could run. The one guy who could was the Hawks’ shortstop Yoshinori Hirose. He could fly! They called him Choro, choro, choro something about the wiggling of a mouse. Boy, he could run.
When I was over there, people used to ask me to compare Japanese ball to the Big Leagues. I would say, “Well, they have a few guys over there who would do well in the Major Leagues, but over all its probably class AA.” The way they played the game was different. They didn't play to win. So that lowered the caliber of baseball. Probably one of my biggest disappointments with Japanese ball was that they were just not very aggressive. There was no hustle.
They had their own way of playing the game and their game was strictly offense. If you could hit, that was fine, you didn't have to hustle, you didn't have to do anything else. You know how every day on ESPN you see the Catch of the Day and these guys making the greatest plays? That didn't happen in Japan. They didn't worry about defense. They very seldom had anybody in the outfield who could throw. Nobody had any arm strength.
For example, Isao Harimoto had Big League material. He was a pretty good-sized kid. He was unbelievably talented. He could fly. And he could hit with anybody. Could hit in the Big Leagues over here but he was a real hot dog. He'd walk up and it would take him five minutes to get into the batters box! And he'd have his bat on his shoulder. So every time he came up, I'd knock him down. As the hitter, I had tremendous respect for him but he was brutal in the outfield--just terrible. Balls would go out there that he should've caught in his jockstrap and they were going up against the fence and bouncing in front of him. Again that wasn't part of their game, you didn't have to be a great defensive ballplayer to be a superstar.
The most frustrating thing was when I'd watch those guys go into second base without sliding. If you had runners on first and third with one out and a ground ball was hit in the hole, you would obviously expect the runner on first to slide and take the second baseman out since that would score run for you. But no! The Japanese would run out of the base paths and let him complete the double play. That was the Japanese-style. That used to just frost me. If the runner took somebody out on the double play or did some things that they were supposed to do by hustling, we would have a better chance to win. But no matter how much I would scream and yell, it was ingrained into the ballclub. That's the way they played the game.
Jackie Robinson was my idol. I got to play with him for a very short time when I was on the ’53 Dodgers. Whether it was an exhibition game, a spring training game, or what, he played one way and that was to win. He was a fierce competitor. I loved to be on the mound anytime I had guys who played like that behind me. So it just got very frustrating in Japan to see these guys with this lackadaisical attitude.
They would also do strange things. Here is a typical Japanese baseball strategy that I could never get over. When a team was down by 10 runs, and the batter from the losing team was up with a 3-0 count, he would swing away! Once I asked my interpreter, “What the heck is he doing?” The answer was, “He's a homerun hitter. We have to get one run.” But when you're down that far, you want to get a rally going. You want to get guys on base. A homerun is going to do you no good whatsoever.
I never saw them use the hit-and-run, or any of the other things that Americans use to try to win ballgames. I don't remember them squeezing or stuff like that. They paid their guys to swing the bat and that was all. They didn't pay them to hustle, or slide, or stuff like that. That was back then, I think that Japanese baseball has changed considerably today. I see Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki come over to the States and bust their rear ends.
The Japanese also used to over train guys. It just went on and on and on, 11 months out of the year. Even in the winter months, when it was very cold, they had to training indoors under the stadiums. It was like they were boxers, they’d train and train. I think by the time they reach the main event, they were half burnt out. But they psychologically talked their guys into being good. If you can psyche a guy up, you can get more out of him than the ability he has.
For example, once they got an ace pitcher, that guy would just throw, and throw, and throw. The other guys on the staff were just fillers. You've heard about Tadashi Sugiura who played for the Nankai Hawks? In ’59, the guy won 38 and lost 4 with a 1.40 ERA, struck out 336 guys in 371 innings, and won all four games in the Japan Series! It was just unbelievable! Every time he went out there, Ron Bottler and I would say, “He has got to be tired! He has got to be tired!” He would pitch nine innings and the next day if they had a small lead, he was back there again. He would come out of the bullpen. You would just be sitting there in awe. If it was my arm, it would be hanging on the ground! Yet, he would go out there, and keep on doing it. I saw him at an All-Star game one time, and I said to him, “You've got to be tired. Your arm has to be hurting.” He said, “No. Daijobo, Daijobo (I'm OK, I'm OK).” As the ace of the pitching staff, he was never going to say that he wouldn't pitch. It was an honor to be the ace. Most of the Japanese aces got sore arms prematurely because they over used them.
For me, Sugiura was the best pitcher in the league. I didn't see anyone better. He threw three quarters underhand, so he wasn't a complete submarine pitcher. He could turn the ball over and make it sink from the letters down to your knees. The ball would just explode! Then he could turn his wrist and make the ball explode up because he was coming from down underneath. He wore glasses, must have weighed 155 pounds at most and stood only 5’ 8” but he was the most dominating pitcher I've seen.
Kazuhisa Inao was right there with Sugiura. Inao threw over the top. He was different from the others because at that time the majority of Japanese pitchers threw from three quarters to the side. They called him the Ironman. He was a Mainichipitcher--everyday, everyday, everyday.
In 1962, Kaoru Betto became our manager. He had sat on the Dodgers bench for a year, so when he took over I thought, “Oh, this is going to be a breath of fresh air. Now they're going to see how baseball is played in the United States.” I thought that we would go to three starters and one or two relievers. But no, it was the same situation. He would leave the same guy out there all the time. I usually pitched every four days. After I had pitched the day before or two days before, Betto would ask, “Today, can you go maybe one or two innings?” So I would say, “Oh, just one or two innings.” So I would go out there and after three or four innings, I would say, “Betto-san, domo arigato, but I can't do this--my arm will fall off!” So the headlines in the paper became, “Mickens very selfish - won't play for ball club.” One time, I saw my picture in the paper and I said, “Boy, these guys must really like me -- Page 1 of the Japanese paper!” So I got the interpreter, and said, “Read this for me. What good things are they saying about me?”
“They're talking about how egocentric you are. How you just want to play for yourself and not for the team, and that you don't want to pitch when the manager tells you to.
“Wow! I guess they don’t like me that much!”
My most memorable moment was being chosen for the All-Star team in 1960 and 1961. I didn't think that would ever happen. I didn't think they would pick a gaijin. Tsuruoka was a manager of the Pacific League and I think he picked me personally each time. There were three All-Star games in 1960 and two in ’61.
We played before 20 or 30,000 people, the stadiums were full. The Japanese are extremely quiet. You can have 50,000 people sitting there and there won't be a noise. And then the cheerleaders will get them going and they start beating the drums, yelling and waving those flags. But outside of that, they are unbelievably quiet. In the All-Star games, there were no cheerleaders. So it was extremely quiet, I couldn't believe it.
In 1960, I got to start the third game at Korakuen Stadium. I pitched three innings there and that's when I got the win. After the game, they gave Tsuruoka a whole mess of presents and he gave them all to me. I never forgot that. Actually, somebody gave him some beautiful dogs, and he didn't give me the dogs! In my time playing over there I had some great experiences, but I think that was probably the highlight.
The next year, I got to pitch the three middle innings in the first game. The second game was in a different stadium, the hot and steamy Tigers stadium (Koshien) and I got to pitch three innings there and finish it. I think I pitched a total of nine innings and I didn't give up a run. It was against the Central League and those guys hadn't seen me before.
I got to face Sadaharu Oh. You know how he cocked up that front leg and just sat on the back leg? Well, I thought how the heck is he going to hit a changeup? If you can get him to commit that front foot and get him way out in front, I figured that I'd have luck with him. Well, I threw him a changeup and he still hit the ball well. But I got him out. I think he hit the ball to left centerfield. I know I got him leaning a little bit. He had tremendous balance. When he put down that front foot, his weight didn't shift from the back to the front.
Shigeo Nagashima with the Giants was the best all-around ballplayer I saw over there. Oh was undoubtedly one of the greatest hitters they ever had, but for running, throwing, hustling, Nagashima was the best. He was kind of a novelty because the Japanese just didn't hustle. There's no doubt about it, Nagashima and Oh could have made the Majors. Oh never would have hit more homeruns than Hank Aaron, but he still would have been good. Sugiura and Inao, they could have pitched in the Big Leagues in the United States.
Katsuya Nomura, the catcher for the Nankai Hawks, was one of best hitters in the Pacific League. You had to make a perfect pitch to get him out. If you got the ball a little bit up or a little bit out, he would hit it, and he could hit the ball as well to right-center as he could pull the ball. He would hit 30-40 homeruns year after year. He was amazing. He'd be back there catching a whole round of batting practice and then go out and catch a whole game or even a doubleheader!
So one day he comes up, and he'd been hitting the ball really well off me, so I knocked his rear down and his helmet went flying. He got up and hit the next ball off the centerfield fence! Well, two days later it was the All-Star game. So I'm out the outfield as part of the All-Star squad and he comes up running out like a madman. I thought he was about to kill me! And he yells at me, “You! Pean ball! Pean ball!” And I said, “It's not pean ball! Its bean ball! Babe, (I called him Babe, short for Babe Ruth) I wouldn’t throw at you.” Of course, the Japanese never threw up and in to anybody. When I go over now to advise Keio University, I tell them that my old roommate Don Drysdale used to say that he owned the inside part of that plate. That it was his territory--so, you better hang loose! But, the Japanese just don't believe in that.
I hit Kazuhiro Yamauchi, the leading homerun hitter, in the head once. But, that event gave me a reputation as a headhunter that I thought was unfair and I really didn't want. I learned to jam hitters and keep them honest, but I never wanted the reputation of being a "bean ball" pitcher. Yamauchi was a fine ballplayer. He didn't well run that well, but he could go get the ball in the outfield. He would just get his knocks and hit 30-some homeruns every year. For me, he was the toughest hitter in the Pacific League. That night, Yamauchi was 2 for 2 against me and he was 3 for 3 the previous time he faced me, so I told my catcher that we had to knock him off the plate to keep him "honest.” Our catcher (I called him bull dog because he was a scrapper) was ecstatic as he evidentially liked to do what had never been done before! I think we got a strike on Yamauchi and then I came up and in with a fastball. If he had simply moved his head back, the pitch wouldn't have been close to him. But, he was just used to stepping into everything. So, he just moved right into the ball and got drilled. When I went to visit him in the hospital and he said that he lost the ball and it wasn't my fault. To this day, he is still a good friend. He says, “You did plastic surgery on my face!
After I hit Yamauchi, I was standing on the mound with my back to the plate, when I looked over my shoulder and saw 5 of their players coming towards the mound. Their ace pitcher grabbed for my shirt, so I started swinging at anything that moved--I don't think I actually hit anyone! A riot broke out and fans from both sides came running onto the field and the police had to restore order. During the riot, one of our fans ran up to me, took the little towel that they all keep in their pockets, wiped the sweat from my face and said, "Nice Mickenzu!" Amazing!
After order was restored, I was getting ready to pitch when I felt a rock whiz by my ear. I walked to the dugout and told Chiba, "I no more pitchy tonight!" He said, “Hayaku(hurry), go on home!” I got in a cab and went back to my apartment. The police stood guard all night but there was no more trouble. The next day I met with our general manager and he told me if I hit anyone again to just tip my cap, bow, and say Gomenasaiand everything would be ok. Since I went to Japan to pitch and not be a trouble maker, I said okay, I will do it their way.
The Orions’s outfielder Kenjiro Tamiya, remained really upset that I didn't tip my hat after I hit Yamauchi. Tamiya couldn't do anything but hit. He couldn’t run, he couldn't field and he wouldn't hustle. He was the laziest player I ever saw but he could flat out swing the bat. So when he came up later, I drilled him and tipped my hat! He knew that I was throwing at him. But what was he going to do about it? I did exactly what they told me to do. I said, “Gomenasai” and tipped my cap!
They got back at me. I was batting one night and their ace pitcher Masayuki Dobashi pitched inside. I tried to get out of the way, but my right hand got hit. I went out the next inning and tried to throw but I couldn't. I had hairline fracture in my wrist. Well, they put this little cast on me, but they put it on wrong. Two weeks later when they took it off, I had a dislocated bone. They said that they were going to have to operate but I said, “Oh no, you’re not!” I went back to the mainland and had a plate put in. I had to work my rear off to get back in shape. But I did it and pitched another two or three years.
After they saw me in the All-Star games, where I came in for three inning stints and even got a win, the Buffaloes decided that I would make a good closer. That may have been true, because I did a lot of relieving in the United States. So, Betto tried to keep me as a relief pitcher, as a closer. Well, we never got a lead to so I would sit there for two weeks and never get to pitch! So that strategy didn't work.
When I was over there, there weren't that many other foreigners. You had to be a special breed to get along there. For example, as a gaijin you might hit a home run one day but the next day be on the bench. And you’re left wondering, “What the heck is going on? Why did they bring me over here?” I helped a friend of mine, Bob Jenkins, get a job over there. I played with him in the Pacific Coast League, and he was a good hitter. But they had him on the bench and going back and forth between the big club and the farm team. I just couldn't figure it out. They would pay you $5,000 or $10,000 to go over there, and then they wouldn't use you. It didn't make any sense to me. But they had their own ways.
What kept me going was the hope that somehow I could improve their baseball. Kintetsu had been in the cellar for 10 years, so I figured we had nowhere to go but up. So I just picked out little things and tried to get them to change. For example, one time I went out to coach first base. They almost died because that wasn't my job. But I went out there and started yelling, “Let's get a hit!” and things like that. I was just trying to stimulate them, trying to get a little life into the ball club. Jack Bloomfield and I kept on yelling so much that I think we at least stimulated the guys to hustle a little bit. One time when Lefty O’Doul was visiting Japan, he said to me, “Kid, I haven’t changed these guys in 30 years, you’re not going to do it one year!” I kept on thinking what Lefty said and after I had been there a while I thought, “He’s exactly right.”
After I returned from Japan, I coached at UCLA for 25 years. We had an exchange program with Keio University, so I’ve been back three or four times. In fact, I just went over there a few weeks ago. I got to see Kintetsu play the Chiba Marines. The way they play the game has improved greatly from back when I played. I saw guys sliding and running hard. Back when I played, all you had to do was hit. But this time, I saw a few all-around ballplayers who really impressed me--guys with five tools, who could run, hit, throw, hit with power, and field. It was nice to see that things have changed.
I played professional baseball all over the United States, Cuba, Mexico, South America, Canada and Japan and our National pastime was exceptionally good to me. What I saw and what I loved the most, was that baseball had no partiality towards color or race--it was truly colorblind. Whether you were big, fat, small or skinny, all you had to do was be able to compete. In my early days with the Dodgers that couldn't be said but we have come a long ways. When I see players in the Big Leagues from all parts of the world, it proves that sports can be the equalizer to making this world a better place for all of us.
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