The Legacy of Japanese American Baseball and the Ongoing Struggle for Recognition and Respect
By Bill Staples, Jr.
Du Bois not only saw a shared struggle between Japanese and African Americans, in his mind, they were “colored” brothers. After his trip to Asia in 1937 Du Bois said that he viewed Japan as “a country of colored people run by colored people for colored people.” He added that none of the Japanese people whom he spoke with classified themselves “white,” but instead felt a brotherhood with “Chinese, Indians and Negroes."
Jim Crow South and Japanese Americans
Some Japanese Americans self-identified as “colored” too, especially when society forced them to self-identify in the segregated south. Kenso “Howard” Zenimura, Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) baseball pioneer, tells an interesting story about an experience he had when he first encountered Jim Crow laws when he reported to Fort Monroe, Virginia, for military training in 1947.
Zenimura boarded a bus where signs indicated that the front seats were reserved for white patrons only. He took a seat in the back. The bus rolled a few feet, the driver glanced in the rearview mirror then slammed on the breaks. He put the bus in park, walked halfway down the aisle, pointed at Zenimura, and barked, “You! Move to the front of the bus, now!”
In the early 1950s, Japanese American shortstop Carlton Hanta experienced a similar situation. Hanta moved from Hawaii to the mainland to attend college and play baseball for the University of Houston. When he arrived in Texas and attempted to use a public restroom for the first time, he was perplexed by the signs “white” and “colored” and had to think which one applied to him. He chose “colored”.
Incidentally, a few years later when he played for the Beaumont Exporters, a Chicago Cubs affiliate in the Texas League, Hanta developed a special bond with teammate James Buster “Buzz” Clarkson. Buzz was a veteran Negro League player who was still struggling to find a permanent spot on a big-league roster after a “cup of coffee” in 1952. With sadness in his voice, Hanta recalls the indignities Clarkson faced as the only teammate refused service at restaurants and hotels when on the road. Hanta says that it was not racial discrimination that kept him from making it to the big leagues, but instead his minor league .931 career fielding average. Other players of Japanese ancestry did however feel that racial discrimination was a barrier at the time.
Satoshi “Fibber” Hirayama was a star running back and outfielder from Exeter, CA, who in 1952 signed with the Stockton Ports, an affiliate of the St. Louis Browns (now the Baltimore Orioles). After hitting a respectable .262 for the season (fourth-best on the team), he passed on an opportunity to advance through the farm system and instead chose to play in Japan.
“Everybody on the team was nice,” said Hirayama. “They made me feel welcomed and I never received any ill-treatment from fans either.” Despite no signs of overt racism in Stockton, there was a general feeling of mistrust, potential hardship, and struggle within the organization. Hirayama believed that any attempt to go through the minors to the big leagues would be met with resistance. “I felt that the big leagues were closed off to us (Japanese American players) in those days. That was part of the reason why I went to Japan to play," said Hirayama. “In a way, we faced the same thing that black players went through,” he said. Hirayama’s observation of a color line echoed a similar sentiment expressed roughly a half-century earlier.
Baseball's Other Color Line
In February 1905, a 23-year old Japanese outfielder named Sugimoto participated in a tryout for the New York Giants during spring training in Hot Springs, Arkansas. At first, manager John McGraw did not think the Japanese ballplayer had a chance to make the team, but by the end of the month "Mugsy" was convinced that Sugimoto “had all the goods.”
Towards the end of spring training arguments about a color line being drawn against the Japanese player surfaced in the press. As the debate escalated, Sugimoto took matters into his own hands and declared that he did “not like the drawing of the color line in his case” and said that he would continue to play semi-pro ball if “his engagement by the Giants will be resented by the players of other clubs.” (At this time, historians have yet to find Sugimoto's true identity.) The response to Sugimoto in major league baseball was not an isolated incident. Around that same time, anti-Japanese sentiment was escalating on the West Coast, fueled by a campaign headed by the editors of the San Francisco Chronicle.
In 1914 John McGraw said, “Mark my prediction. Some star ball players will come out of Japan within the next ten years.” He was wrong. Anti-Japanese sentiment in the U.S. was on the rise throughout the 1910s.
Twelve years after Sugimoto attempted to cross the Japanese color line, Hawaiian Andy Yamashiro did become the first player of Japanese ancestry to play professional baseball when he signed with the Gettysburg Ponies in the Class D Blue Ridge League. Yamashiro was, however, no pioneer in the movement for Japanese acceptance. Instead, he chose to play under the Chinese name Andy Yim. Just as some African Americans attempted to sneak across the color line claiming to be Native American, Yamashiro denied his true racial identity.
By 1922, anti-Japanese sentiment in the U.S. led to a Supreme Court ruling that supported W.E.B. Du Bois’ claim that Japanese people are “colored.” In the case of Ozawa vs. U.S., the Supreme Court ruled that people of Japanese ancestry were not “white”. Two years later, the Johnson-Reed Act ended all immigration from Japan and banned Issei (first generation from Japan) from becoming U.S. citizens.
When one door closes another door of opportunity opens. This was the case for Japanese American baseball players who were systematically excluded from white baseball in the 1920s. One person in particular, Kenichi Zenimura, the man recognized by historians as the Father of Japanese American Baseball, found a special kinship with his African American baseball peers. Zenimura was the team captain and manager of the Fresno Athletic Club (F.A.C.), one of the top Japanese American baseball teams on the West Coast. He was also a fierce competitor who hated to lose, and believed that the only way to improve was to compete against the best talent possible.
That why between the years 1920 to 1943 Zenimura arranged a dozen games against west coast-based Negro League teams. Zeni’s teams won eight of 11 games (a .727 winning percentage) versus Negro Leagues competition. Perhaps more important than the outcome of the game were the relationships of mutual respect that developed on and off the field between the Japanese American and African American players.
In June 1923, Zenimura’s ballclub scheduled a game against the Oakland Pierce Giants. The two clubs first played in 1920 over the course of three years their relationship evolved to one of both respectful competition and camaraderie. The night before their game in 1923, Zenimura invited manager Chet Bost and his ball club to a social and dance at the Columbus Hall in Fresno. Pitcher John Nakagawa defeated Harold “Yellowhorse” Morris, 11-7. A year later, Morris, joined the Kansas City Monarchs and helped the team capture the Negro National League pennant and win the first black baseball World Series in 1924.
A Tour is Born
In September 1925 the F.A.C. traveled to Los Angeles to play the all-black Los Angeles White Sox.
Three thousand fans witnessed Zenimura’s diminutive ball club shock manager Lon Goodwin’s White Sox by the score of 5 to 4. In 1926 Zenimura and Goodwin scheduled a rematch to take place in Fresno, two games to be played on the Fourth of July weekend. The Fresno All-Stars defeated the Los Angeles White Sox, 9 to 4. The next day the Fresno All-Stars defeated the L.A. team again by a score of 4 to 3.
Based on the social precedent set by the 1923 weekend visit of the Oakland Pierce Giants, historians believe that this Fourth of July holiday visit to Fresno by the L.A. White Sox is when Zenimura and Goodwin discussed a potential tour to Japan. In January 1927, Zenimura publicly announced his plans for a second tour of the Orient. A month later, Goodwin publicly announced his plans for a tour to the Orient as well.
In the spring of 1927 Lon Goodwin and his ball club, now called the Philadelphia Royal Giants, were armed with ringers like Hall of Fame-caliber players Biz Mackey, Andy Cooper, and Rap Dixon. While in Japan, over ten thousand baseball fans watched Lon Goodwin’s team get their revenge by defeating Zenimura’s club 9-1. Like previous matchups, the score of the game was of secondary importance.
According to Japanese baseball historian Kaz Sayama, the tour of the Philadelphia Royal Giants in 1927 played a key role in the formation of pro ball in Japan. In his book “Gentle, Black Giants” Sayama explains that unlike tours in the 1930s with the big-name Major Leaguers, the Negro League players didn't mock their opponents. Instead, the black ballplayers treated their hosts with respect. Furthermore, players such as Mackey and Frank Duncan were patient and tried to teach their hosts about the American style of baseball. Another example of mutual respect occurred when a young Japanese pitcher hit Mackey with an inside fastball. The pitcher bowed to Mackey as a form of apology and before taking his base, Mackey bowed back.
Manager Lon Goodwin would return to Japan and other parts of Asia for a total of three tours, the last one occurring in the winter of 1933-34. Zenimura and his Nisei peers would return to Japan several more times as well for goodwill baseball tours. In total, between 1905 and 1940, Japanese American and African American teams completed 32 tours to Japan, roughly 33 percent of all tours between the two countries during this time period.
It is widely accepted that African Americans helped integrate the game of baseball that we know today. Yet few appreciate the role that Japanese Americans played in “internationalizing” the game. Japanese Americans are directly responsible for 28 percent of all US-Japan tours before WWII (and influences many more), hopefully, someday officials with Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame will give Japanese Americans their proper recognition for helping to build the baseball bridge between the U.S. and Asia.
John Nakagawa: One of the Greatest Colored Players?
March 1928 marked the final time for Zenimura’s Japanese ball club to battle against the Philadelphia Royal Giants. Competing as the Philadelphia Hilldale Colored Giants, the team was comprised of players from the California Winter League who were heading north to join the Hilldale Daisies for the regular Negro League season. The lineup for the Royal Giants included stars like Frank Warfield, Rap Dixon, Jess “Mountain” Hubbard, Tank Carr, Bill Holland, Willis "Pud" Flournoy, and Tex Burnett. Behind pitching leader Holland and batting leader Hubbard, the Royal Giants defeated Fresno 12-7.
The Fresno Morning Republican, Mar 19, 1928, pg. 7
The bright spot for the Fresno Japanese ball club was right fielder John Nakagawa, who recorded a perfect 5-for-5 at the plate -- two triples and three singles -- against Holland and Flournoy. Combined with his pitching performance over Yellowhorse Morris in 1923, Nakagawa emerges as one of the top Japanese American players of the 1920s.
Partial statistics from his career reveal that Nakagawa was a lifetime .377 hitter who performed exceptionally well against Negro Leagues and Pacific Coast Leagues competition, a solid .350 batting average. Had he been born in a different time and place, the 5’8” and 180 lbs athlete might have been the first player of Japanese ancestry to play in the Major Leagues, or perhaps in the Negro Leagues.
The game of baseball today has never been more international or multicultural, and it only promises to become even more so in the future. If this is the case, then history will prove that the goodwill tours conducted by “Baseball Brothers” of Japanese Americans and African Americans during the 1920s and 30s are significant events in the history of baseball.
More than 80 years before Major League Baseball established business agreements in the east, these pioneering ballplayers blazed trails through Japan, Korea and China, and served as U.S. baseball ambassadors, despite the fact that they were still considered second-class citizens in their own country.
Men like Kenichi Zenimura, Lon Goodwin, John Nakagawa, and Chet Bost were marginalized by American society and baseball during their lifetimes. It would be a shame if historians and officials in Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame continue to do the same with their legacies.
Furthermore, it is widely agreed upon that Negro League players were just as good as, and on many occasions better than, their white counterparts. With a respectable record against some of the top black talent on the West Coast, perhaps the same can now be said of Zenimura and his Japanese American teammates who competed with both great heart and talent in America’s other colored leagues.
Kenichi Zenimura vs. Negro League Competition
Between 1920 and 1943, Zenimura faced Negro Leagues competition 11 times and was on the winning team in eight of those games (a .727 winning percentage).
All games in Fresno, CA, unless otherwise noted
Los Angeles White Sox, game 1
Los Angeles White Sox, game 2
Arizona Compress (Rivers, AZ)
Note: A condensed version of this article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of Out of Bounds Magazine.