Shunzo Takaki, 2B/OF, University of Pennsylvania, 1907

Shunzo Takaki
Positions: Second base, Outfield
Bats: Unknown, Throws: Right
Height: 5' 7", Weight: 160 lb.

Born: January 1, 1883, Tokyo, Japan
Schools: Hitotsubashi University (formerly known as Tokyo Higher Commercial School); University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA)
Degree: BS in Economics (1908)
Other Sports: Tennis, Gymnastics, Football
Occupation: Executive, Mitsui & Co (1908 to 1919)
Died: January 29, 1919, New York, NY (age 36)


Shunzo Takaki was a multi-talented student athlete who earned a Bachelor of Science in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) in three short years while lettering in multiple sports: tennis, gymnastics, football and baseball.  

As both a second baseman and outfielder for the Penn varsity ball club in 1907, Takaki is believed to be the first person of Japanese ancestry to play baseball for a mainland U.S. college. For years, Goro Mikami was commonly recognized as the first collegiate player when he suited up for Knox College (IL) in 1913. We now know that this was six years after Takaki’s letter-winning season at Penn. 

It's also worth noting that for many years Mikami was recognized as the first person of Japanese ancestry to play professionally in the U.S. with the All-Nations team of 1915. He no longer holds this distinction either, as baseball historians now recognize the barnstorming Guy Green's Japanese ball club of 1906, some nine years before Mikami, as the first professional players of Japanese ancestry in the U.S.

1907 Quaker Baseball Team. Photo from the Collections of the University of Pennsylvania Archives.

The son of Japanese naval physician Baron Kanehiro Takaki, 21-year old Shunzo arrived in the U.S. in 1904 to attend the World’s Fair in St. Louis and to represent his home country in an exhibition tennis tournament.

He impressed the locals with his tennis play and was invited to compete in a state-wide tournament. In 1905 Takaki enrolled in Penn where he achieved immediate success in social circles and as an athlete in tennis, gymnastics and as an infielder with the freshman baseball team.

In September 1905 he was invited to try out for the Penn football squad as a 5’ 7”, 160 lb defensive end. He experienced a season-ending injury by breaking his ankle during a practice, and was eventually forced to give up his gridiron dreams when he was diagnosed with an enlarged heart in 1906.

In the spring of 1907 he made the varsity baseball team and got off to a fast start offensively (scarce box scores suggest he batted over .300), and contributing solidly on defense at second base and the outfield. 

Unfortunately, “the grim face of misfortune” turned its eyes yet again on Takaki. In a game against Niagara University (Lewiston, NY) on April 17, 1907, Takaki successfully stole second base but broke his hand after it was stepped on by the opposing shortstop. After a few months on the disabled list he returned to the lineup and helped the club finish the season with an 18-15 (.545) record. It appears that despite the injuries, Takaki contributed enough to earn a varsity letter for the season.

After graduation in 1908 Takaki joined Mitsui & Co. in New York as an assistant manager overseeing the trade of raw silk between the U.S. and Japan. On October 9, 1909, he married Tatsuo Mitsui, a young woman whose father was the head of the mining division of Mitsui & Co. The press reported that had a net-worth of over one million dollars (a value over $26 million in 2015).

Over the next decade both his professional and personal life flourished. His leadership role with Mitsui & Co. expanded to include importing rubber, chemicals and business development in the emerging aviation industry. 

On January 1, 1919, Shunzo celebrated his 36th birthday, entered his 10th year of marriage, and was enjoying life as the father of four beautiful children. Twenty-seven days later it would all come to an end.

According to reports Takaki was struck by a Fifth Avenue bus on Riverside Drive Tuesday (Jan 28) and died Wednesday (Jan 29) in St. Luke's Hospital. Some local papers questioned the nature of the accident and initially reported his death as a suicide. Officials quickly addressed the misinformation in the press:

Police Blotter Entry Says Death Was Accidental
“An entry in the police blotter as the West 125th Street Police Station records the death (of Shunzo Takaki) as accidental ... Assistant Superintendent J.C. Gardner denied he had reported the death as a suicide to Medical Examiner Holman, as stated in some evening papers."
-- Source: The Evening World, January 31, 1919, pg. 16

As expected, the community expressed their sadness with the passing of their friend and colleague. Industry publications such as The Paint, Oil and Chemical Review; The India Rubber World; and The Annual Report of the Silk Association of America, honored Takaki by posting his obituary and personal reflections in the spring of 1919. One sentiment common in all tributes included his love for sports and passion for building a cultural bridge between the two countries he loved:

“Shunzo Takaki always took an active part in athletics in this country as well as in Japan, especially in tennis and baseball ... (He) was loved by his friends for his hearty support in business, social and international affairs, and especially it was his desire to create equal friendly relations between Japan and the United States."



Research Note:
A special thanks to Nisei baseball pioneer Tets Furukawa and baseball artist and historian Gary Cieradkowski for (indirectly) introducing me to Shunzo Takaki. In a recent post to his blog The Infinite Card Set, Cieradkowski asked a thought-provoking question about Shumza Sugimoto, an outfielder from Japan who, according to articles from the spring of 1905, participated in a tryout for the New York Giants. He asked, “Did Shumza Sugimoto even exist in the first place?” Gary says “no” (read why).

I think Sugimoto did exist. Despite our different perspectives, I think Gary’s question is very important, and helped me gain a better insight into the mysterious ballplayer whose true identity I believe was “lost in translation”.

In my opinion, Shumza Sugimoto was a real person, but I don’t think that his first name was “Shumza.”  Instead, I think that the name “Shumza” is a misinterpretation of Sugimoto’s true first name, either Shunzo or Shinzo. Here's why.

In a conversation with Tets Furukawa (a fine historian in his own right), I asked, “In your opinion, if the first name ‘Shumza’ was a mistranslation of a Japanese first name, what do you think is the correct first name?” Tets responded, “Shumza doesn’t sound like a real name in Japanese … and if it was a real name it would be a woman’s because it’s feminine, ending with the letter ‘a’.”

Tets then shared this insight, “You know, it reminds me of someone I once knew whose first name was Shunzo.” He added that both Shunzo and Shinzo are more common names for males and, that in his opinion, this most likely was the name of the mysterious Sugimoto of 1905.

Inspired by Gary’s question, and armed with Tets’ personal insight, I hit the newspaper archives and searched for “Shunzo AND baseball” … and was immediately introduced to the multi-talented athlete and college baseball pioneer, Shunzo Takaki.

Research can be a funny thing. Sometime in our efforts to learn more about a certain topic, we get introduced to (and sidetracked by) fascinating individuals and interesting anecdotes. At first they appear to be distractions, but I think if you stay open to the creative possibilities, they just might provide some insight into your primary research effort.

Such is the case with Shunzo Takaki. His story not only introduces us to a fascinating human being who might very well be the first person of Japanese ancestry to compete with a U.S. college baseball team, I believe he brings us one step closer to confirming the identity of the ballplayer who impressed John McGraw in the spring of 1905, quite possibly named Shunzo Sugimoto.