Curses! Oklahoma crude and Kentucky Fried!by Frank Jackson
June 27, 2012
As Yogi Berra might have said, “When you come to a fork in your career, take it!”
Yogi himself was never confronted with a bifurcation dilemma in his career (unless you count playing left field versus catching), but many lesser ballplayers cannot say the same. While the supremely talented and healthy will always find a roster spot, the fringe player’s position is much more precarious. There are plenty more where he came from, so when his roster spot succumbs to pressure from peers or younger players, should he call it quits or continue playing ball somewhere besides the major leagues?
For many players, that means staying in the United States and signing on with one of the teams in various independent leagues. For others, playing abroad may be more attractive, and today, as in years past, that usually means playing in Japan.
A number of players have not only continued their careers in Japan but have rejuvenated them. Some take their new skills and attitudes, return to the U.S. and pick up where they left off. Others find their careers ascending in the Land of the Rising Sun, so they remain there and enjoy their star status. Alex Cabrera, who is still playing, and Karl "Tuffy" Rhodes, who retired after the 2009 season, reached levels of success far beyond what they had achieved in organized ball in the U.S. But before them, the poster boy for trans-Pacific rebirth was Randy Bass.
Born in 1954 in Lawton, Okla., Bass was drafted by the Twins in 1972 and made his major league debut with them in 1977. He played for five major league teams in six seasons, suggesting that his opportunities were limited. Indeed, he was most often deployed as a left-handed pinch-hitter, and his totals for six seasons yielded a .212 batting average (69 hits in 325 at-bats).
Standing 6-foot-1 and weighing 210 pounds, Bass was the very image of a slugging first baseman, yet he had a mere nine home runs by age 28—prime time for most major league players —when he concluded his major league career with the Rangers. His minor league career included 238 home runs and four seasons of 100-plus RBIs, so lack of potential was not the problem. Thus, Bass arrived at a fork in his career.
After Bass was cut loose by the Rangers, agent Alan Meersand, who had negotiated deals for other American players in Japan, got him a two-year, $875,000 contract with the Hanshin Tigers of the Japanese Central League. It wasn’t headline news at the time, but the short-term ramifications for the Tigers were highly positive. As for the long-term ramifications ... that is another story.
Starting in 1983, Bass played six seasons for the Tigers, batting .337 (including four batting titles) with 202 home runs and 486 runs batted in. His two best years were 1985 and 1986 when he won back-to-back triple crowns (.350/54/134 and .389/47/109), a feat no one in MLB has ever achieved.
His 1985 home run total of 54 brought him within one of Sadaharu Oh’s single-season record—a record he was not given a chance to break, as the Yomiuri Giants (managed by Oh) refused to throw him a strike in the final games of the season. Nevertheless, his .389 batting average in 1986 remains the highest ever in Japanese baseball history despite a couple of serious challenges by Ichiro in the waning years of the 20th century.
Thanks to the earnings from his Japanese baseball career, Bass was able to buy a ranch back home in Lawton. He later ran for city council in Lawton and in 2004 was elected an Oklahoma State senator, a position he still holds. So, no thanks to major league baseball, things turned out fine for Bass. One might even say that Japanese baseball was a blessing to his career, as he was a blessing to the Hanshin Tigers. But some say that every blessing comes with a curse.
Bass was the main man in the Hanshin Tigers’ 1985 league championship, their first Central League pennant in 21 years. Continuing his regular-season onslaught, he slugged three home runs in the Tigers’ six-game victory over the Seibu Lions, winners of the Pacific League pennant, and led the franchise to their one and only Japan Series championship.
Now, you might think that the fans’ postgame celebration for the Hanshin Tigers victory would be a much more sedate and polite affair than the same for the Detroit Tigers. Well, you would be wrong. True, the Japanese are known for being polite and reserved, but in their culture, there is a time and place for everything—including hell-raising—and this was the moment some local fans had been waiting for all their lives.
For old-timers, the wait had been half a century. The Tigers were one of the original teams in Japanese pro ball dating back to 1936. Keep in mind that Nippon Professional Baseball includes but twelve teams, six in each league.
The Tigers sometimes fielded good teams, but they had always played second fiddle to the Yomiuri Giants. If you think of the pre-2004 Boston Red Sox vis-à-vis the New York Yankees, you will have some idea of the plight of the Hanshin Tigers. They were not doormats, but after almost five decades, they had grown weary of bridesmaid status. The Tigers’ home base, the Kansai area of Japan, also had something of an inferiority complex, as it was a blue-collar, rust belt region, unlike bigger, glitzier Tokyo.
Japanese team names are tied to corporate ownership, not geography, so the Hanshin name comes from the Hanshin Electric Railway Company. After the Japan Series victory, some fans thought it would be appropriate to hijack one of the Hanshin trains and go joyriding. Probably not a good idea, but in a sense it was an apt tribute.
Other fans thought it would be fun to fling themselves off the Ebisubashi Bridge and into the Dotonbori River that flows through Osaka. The aqua fest started with a roll call of the Tigers’ roster. At the mention of each player’s name, a lookalike fan (I have no idea how this was decided) would jump into the river. When the name "Randy Bass" came up, there was a problem. Nobody in the group of diehards looked remotely like the bearded, heavyset Caucasian first baseman.
Then someone noticed a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant with a statue of Colonel Sanders at the main entrance. If you look at pictures of Bass at the time and compare them to the Colonel, you might think it’s quite a stretch to find a resemblance there, but any effigy in a storm. So the crowd swiped the statute of Colonel Sanders and hurled it into the river.
This action clearly belongs in the “seemed like a good idea at the time” category, but in retrospect, it proved disastrous, as it invoked the Curse of Colonel Sanders—no, not salmonella—a hex on the Hanshin Tigers! Now you may or may not believe in curses, but 26 years later, the Tigers have yet to win another championship.
One can only wonder how Bass felt about being compared to Colonel Sanders. I wouldn’t say it’s a compliment, but I don’t know that it’s an insult—which would surely be the case with that Jack-in-the-Box clown. Curiously, if you look at the portrait of Bass (now age 58) on the Oklahoma State Senate web site, the resemblance is not so far-fetched. Color his hair white and put a pair of glasses on him, and ... well, see for yourself. One hesitates to describe mob behavior as prescient, but that just might be the case here.
In one sense, the likening of Bass to Colonel Sanders was appropriate. In 1985, Colonel Sanders enjoyed worldwide iconic status, even though he had been dead for five years. Bass, thanks to his heroics in 1985, was something of an idol himself. At various times, he has been known “Kami-sama” (God) or Hotoke-sama (Buddha) in Japan. Such titles might have been bestowed in jest, but they were bestowed nonetheless.
At the time, the whole statue-in-the-river episode might have looked like a reaction to fast food imperialism, but it was nothing of the sort. Indeed, the Colonel’s immaculate white suit should have put him in good standing, as Japanese culture associates the color white with purity and cleanliness (an ideal image for a purveyor of foodstuffs).
But there was a dark side to the Colonel that was not revealed until the 1986 season when the Tigers reverted to mediocrity. And then it got worse. From 1987 through 2002, the Tigers finished last ten times and next-to-last three times. Theories circulated that the Tigers would not win another title until the statue of Colonel Sanders was recovered, but all attempts to do so were fruitless.
Nevertheless, in 2003 an opportunity to break the curse arose, as the Tigers won the Central League pennant by 14 games. Unfortunately, their fandom again tempted fate, as an estimated 5,300 fans plunged into the river, albeit without any statues.
Not all the participants were volunteers, however. Twenty-four-year-old Masaya Shitababa and two of his friends were shoved into the river. His two friends climbed out, but he never did. Perhaps this tragic incident re-affirmed the curse, as the Fukouoka Daiei Hawks defeated the Tigers in the Japan Series. Naturally, the Curse of Colonel Sanders was adduced as the reason for the disappointing outcome.
On the other hand, if you have unpleasant memories of Hideki Irabu, you might want to attribute his presence on the Tigers roster as the real curse. At any rate, local KFC franchise managers left nothing to chance, as they had moved their Colonel Sanders statues inside. The missing Colonel Sanders statute had long since been replaced and it remained outside—securely bolted down.
The Tigers muddled through the next few seasons. Then on March 10, 2009, a diver on a work crew discovered the top half of the statue, albeit sans glasses and hands (some reports say that one hand was actually found). The lower half was recovered the next day. “It’s only a statute, but I felt as if I was rescuing someone,” said one of the workers on the project.
No doubt the Colonel would have been touched by the sentiments of his savior, but there was no salvation for Tiger fans. The curse remained in effect during 2009, 2010 and 2011. If the Colonel cannot be made whole, then perhaps the curse can never be reversed. Recovering that hand (or hands) and those glasses might be difficult at this late date, but perhaps that is what it will take to reverse the curse. Of course, dumping the statute into what was arguably the most polluted river in Japan added insult to desecration and may render the curse perpetual.
Now, if you doubt the power of the Kentucky Fried Curse, another incident in Japan might give you pause. During the 2002 World Cup, Japan (one of the host countries) defeated Tunisia to advance to the next round of the tournament. During the postgame celebration, 500 fans took a dip in the same river; meanwhile, a Colonel Sanders statute in Kobe was stolen and its hands were cut off.
Tunisia is overwhelmingly Muslim, and Sharia law dictates amputation of hands for those convicted of theft. Apparently, the Japanese soccer fans were making fun of Tunisia—and perhaps indicating that Japan had “stolen” a victory from Tunisia. Or were they trying to assure that the Colonel would never be penalized for a handball? Whatever, it was yet another “seemed Like a food idea at the time” act that backfired. In Japan’s next game, they were defeated by Turkey—another predominantly Muslim country.
Naturally, the defeat was blamed on another manifestation of the Kentucky Fried Chicken curse. Chicken had joined forces with Turkey to humble the Japanese national team! When will those Japanese sports fans learn?
Meanwhile, on this side of the Pacific, don’t think that we’re getting off unscathed. In fact, against all odds, Bass’s hometown of Lawton, Oklahoma, is tied to another longstanding curse involving desecration and baseball. This one involves a controversy about whether or not the skull of Geronimo (buried at nearby Fort Sill in 1909) was unearthed by troops during World War I and spirited away to the home of the Skull & Bones Society at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
In 2009, Harlyn (almost a cognate of Harland, the first name of Colonel Sanders!) Geronimo, a descendant of the legendary warrior, noted, “According to Apache tradition, if you desecrate a grave, you upset the spirits. Sooner or later the spirits will come after you. Ultimately, it will lead to death. That’s our tradition.”
Consequently, five Yale student murders since the alleged theft have been blamed on the Curse of Geronimo. Now, there may be some cold-blooded souls in Cambridge, Massachusetts who couldn't care less, but I think the rest of us should pay some attention to this. Apparently, there is no safe haven in New Haven!
But what about Lawton? Will the ties that bind the town to the Curse of the Colonel and the Curse of Geronimo ever be broken? As I mentioned above, there is also a baseball connection to the Curse of Geronimo—and no, I’m not talking about Cesar Geronimo.
Granted, Lawton is not exactly baseball central. The Sooner State League (Class D) had teams in Lawton from 1947 to 1957, but more relevant is a one-year presence (1911) in the Texas-Louisiana League (also Class D) with a team known as the Lawton Medicine Men—just two years after the death of Geronimo, who was rumored to have magical powers in addition to his prowess as a warrior!
The great chief’s spirit might not have been overly disturbed by the loss of the local baseball team, but seven years later, the alleged act of desecration occurred. Supposedly, some soldiers at Fort Sill dug up Geromino’s skull and removed it to Skull & Bones Hall (fittingly enough, known as the Tomb) on the Yale campus.
One of the soldiers was Prescott Bush, Yale man/Skull and Bones member/U.S. Senator—and father of Yale Man/Bonesman/41st U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush (team captain and slick-fielding first baseman for Yale in the first two College World Series in 1947 and 1948), and grandfather of Yale Man/Bonesman/43rd U.S. President George W. Bush (former owner of the Texas Rangers)!
Note that Bush 41 and his Bulldog teammates also came up short in their bid for a national championship (losing to California in 1947 and Southern California in 1948). You might also remember that Bush 41 was a big fan of his hometown team, the Astros—a franchise with no championships in 50 years.
Bush 43's former team, the Rangers, have no championships in 40 years. To be sure, in 2011 they came as close as a team can get to a World Series championship without actually winning it. Such an outcome incites thoughts of supernatural intervention: Has the curse of Geronimo opened a second front in Texas?
For Lawton, a town of fewer than 100,000 (well, more than that if you include the troops stationed at Fort Sill), to have connections to so much bad juju is a real distinction. Any town of that size can have haunted houses, local ghost stories, or sundry mysterious legends, but to have one curse that reaches halfway across the country (to New Haven) and another that reaches all the way across the Pacific Ocean (to Osaka) is truly remarkable. Geronimo wants to rest in peace while the Colonel rests in pieces, and Lawton is the crossroads of these two curses.
As each year passes without the Hanshin Tigers winning another title, the Curse of Colonel Sanders will continue to be debated. Of course, we can never prove that a curse exists—but, as the Red Sox demonstrated, a championship is sufficient proof that the alleged curse is over.
Meanwhile, should you ever find yourself at historic Koshien Stadium, the Hanshin Tigers’ home ballpark, be sure to visit the nearby KFC and see the recovered statue of the Colonel, still seeking wholeness ... but then, aren’t we all?
And speaking of wholeness (or lack of same), if you ever find yourself in Lawton, you could visit the grave of Geronimo, but I wouldn’t advise you to take it upon yourself to personally determine whether or not his remains are intact. As an alternative mission, you could visit one of two KFC restaurants in town. I wouldn’t go so far as to say you’ll be cursed if you eat there, but if you find an extra crispy prairie dog (or any other rodent) in your bucket of chicken ... rest assured it’ll be finger-lickin’ good!
References and Resources
“Colonel Sanders still smiling after 24-yr Japan dip,” Reuters, March 11, 2009
“The Hottest American Import in Japan,” by Craig Neff, Sports Illustrated, March 23, 1987
The Samurai Way of Baseball: The Impact of Ichiro and the New Wave from Japan, by Robert Whiting, Warner Books (New York, 2004)
Sayonara Home Run!: The Art of the Japanese Baseball Card, by John Gall and Gary Engel, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, 2006)
“Yale Murdered Students and ‘The Curse of Geronimo’” by Ernesto Cienfuegos, La Voz de Aztlan, http://www.aztlan.net/curse_of-geronimo.htm
Frank Jackson has published previous baseball articles in National Pastime and Elysian Fields Quarterly. He was weaned on baseball at Connie Mack Stadium.