Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes flamed out of baseball in America years ago, but became one of Japanese baseball’s most feared hitters. Japanese HOF voters, though, seem to have their own agenda.
It’s Hall of Fame season again, and while debates rage on about the worthiness of players like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Fred McGriff and Scott Rolen—there is one player way off the radar of most fans who has been snubbed more than most the last few years: Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes.
If you’re wondering what in the world I’m talking about, take a look at these numbers.
Of course, Rhodes racked up his numbers playing in the Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league.
As you can see, though, they are good numbers, nonetheless, and they place him squarely among NPB greats. Unfortunately, the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame is just as guilty of player snubbery (not a real word, kids) as the MLB Hall.
Rhodes had a brief shining moment with the Cubs years ago. In 1994 (the season that wasn’t), he hit three opening day home runs at Wrigley Field—all off Dwight Gooden—becoming the first major league batter to homer in the first three at bats of a season. When all was said and done, Rhodes went 4-for-4 with a walk and 3 RBI that day.
Rhodes-mania ensued, ever so briefly, but the baseball season is a long one. Rhodes cooled off quickly, though he did parlay that hot start into his best big-league season, managing to rack up 308 plate appearances with a .705 OPS. But that was pretty much the last time most people payed attention to Rhodes.
Rhodes began his career with the Astros in 1990, where he played sparingly before landing in Chicago in 1993. His last hurrah in the majors was an extremely short stint with Boston in 1995, where he played in just 10 games and had an awful .080 batting average. Then, just like that, Rhodes vanished from our baseball consciousness. Nothing more than a bit of trivia thanks to his 1994 opening day theatrics.
For Rhodes, though, the road to baseball stardom was just beginning. In 1996, he found himself in Japan’s Pacific League, suiting up for the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes. At age 27, Tuffy was finally an everyday player. That year, he slugged 27 homers and drove in 97 runs on his way to an .880 OPS.
Rhodes’ rise to NPB dominance was just beginning.
From 1996 through 2005, Rhodes hit 360 home runs while playing for Kintetsu and, later, the Yomiuri Giants. He made the All-Star game eight times in that stretch, leading the league in home runs four times (surpassing 50 homers in 2001 and 2003) and in RBI twice. His best year was 2001, when he was named the Pacific League MVP.
Most notably, in that MVP season, Rhodes tied the great Sadaharu Oh’s single season NPB home run record of 55. Cue up the controversy.
The New York Times caught wind of Rhodes’ run at glory for all the wrong reasons. They ran a 2001 article spotlighting Rhodes’ attempt to break the revered record, reporting that the Daiei Hawks, managed by the record-holding Oh, refused to pitch to Rhodes. After Rhodes hit number 55, pitchers for Daiei threw nothing but junk, walking him several times rather than allow a foreign player to break the record. Kintetsu’s final series of the season came against the Orix Blue Wave. Orix did pitch to Rhodes, but he never hit a 56th home run.
This wasn’t the first time such a controversy had surrounded Oh’s record. Randy Bass, another American player who made it big in the NPB, came close in 1985, smashing 54 homers in 126 games. According to the Times article, Bass was derailed with the same tactic used to slow down Rhodes. His last series of the season came against the Yomiuri Giants. The Giants’ manager at the time? You guessed it—Sadaharu Oh.
The Times went on to quote the pitching coach for the Hawks, Yoshiharu Wakana, regarding Rhodes’ 2001 run at the record. Wakana claimed that Oh probably wouldn’t have wanted to walk Rhodes. Wakana, though, went on to say, “But I think we should walk him because I doubt Oh wants to see Rhodes break the record in front of him.”
Ultimately, the home run record would be broken, as Wladimir Balentien (another foreign player) hit 60 home runs in 2013. Still, though, it was not without controversy. The NPB admitted to using a juiced ball that season, and the league’s commissioner resigned due to the scandal.
A few years after Rhodes tied the record, he took one last stab at making it in American baseball, and failed, in 2006. He would end his career back in the NPB with Orix, adding 102 home runs and 276 RBI to his career totals. Rhodes made two more All-Star games and led the league in RBI once more during his last three years.
Rhodes retired after his age 40 season, having given 13 great seasons to the NPB, and cementing his place among the greatest hitters in Japanese baseball.
I give that long history lesson to bring us back to present day, where Rhodes’ bid for the Hall of Fame seems to be met with the same animosity as his attempt on Oh’s record. Jason Coskrey of The Japan Times shined a light on the most recent vote, which saw Rhodes named on just 29.6 percent of ballots.
If you’re wondering how Japanese Hall of Fame voting works, it’s pretty much the same as MLB Hall of Fame voting. According to their official site, there are roughly 300 voters consisting of veteran baseball writers. Any candidate who gets 75 percent or more of the vote is elected. Sounds familiar, right?
Given all of this information, it’s laughable that Rhodes would garner such little support—with basically no increase in votes. In 2015, his first year of eligibility, he managed just 25.6 percent.
Coskrey opines the major factor—maybe the only factor, it seems to me—is simply that Rhodes isn’t Japanese, noting just two voter exceptions to the “non-foreigner” rule: Victor Starfin, who grew up in Japan and identified as Japanese; and Wally Yonamine, who was Japanese-American.
Another strike against foreign players in Japan is that many don’t spend a lengthy amount of time playing in the NPB. Remember Randy Bass, mentioned above? He only played six seasons in Japan. Rhodes, however, played in Japan for 13 years. He made a career out of playing in the NPB, and had the longevity most foreign players lack, placing him among the all-time greats.
Clearly the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame isn’t the only HOF with voting issues. Rhodes gave the NPB 13 excellent seasons, becoming a superstar, and the league, frankly, should treat him as such.
It’s understandable the Japanese league is proud of its native players. They absolutely should be. But to what extent? Kazuyoshi Tatsunami was elected to the Hall on the 2019 ballot. The infielder played 22 seasons in the NPB and did put up some great numbers. He had 2,480 hits, for example, but he also played nine more seasons than Rhodes. Average all their stats out per 500 plate appearances, and Rhodes is clearly the better hitter.
Looking at the above numbers, it’s astounding that one player was voted in while the other can’t even get 30 percent of the vote. I’m not saying Tatsunami shouldn’t be in the Hall, but if he’s in, Rhodes most certainly should be.
If the NPB is going to welcome foreign players into the league, and teams are going to reap the benefits of these players’ abilities, they should be treated with same respect and dignity as Japan’s homegrown talent.
While arguments heat up over the impending MLB HOF vote—there may not be a more egregious oversight than the exclusion of Rhodes from the Japanese Hall. He isn’t being ostracized due to performance enhancing drugs (Bonds and Clemens), gambling (Pete Rose), or anything to do with writers just not liking him (Curt Schilling). He’s being denied a hard-earned legacy simply because he’s from another country.
Baseball has a rich history known for breaking barriers. Looks like there’s at least one more wall to knock down. Maybe it’s time for someone as revered (and as entangled in this story) as Sadaharu Oh to step up and vouch for non-Japanese players, much like Ted Williams went to bat for the Hall’s inclusion of great players from the Negro Leagues. Whatever the case, Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes is long overdue for enshrinement.
Bob Ellis is a lifelong Royals fan. He has written in the past for Kings of Kauffman and Statliners. Follow him on Twitter @BobEllisKC