“Issei Baseball: The Story of the
First Japanese American Ballplayers”
Robert K. Fitts
The publishing info:
University of Nebraska Press
Released April 1
At the publisher’s website
At the author’s website
The review in 90 feet or less
Chapter 4, Page 37 begins a story about Los Angeles at the turn of the 20th Century. As this melting pot of a city incorporated in 1850, a year before statehood, continued to take shape, the Japanese population numbered fewer than 100 in 1890. By 1907, it was up to 6,000.
Nearly all these new residents were men. Known as birds of passage — deseki in Japanese — they planned to stay in the United States a short time, earn as much money as possible and return to Japan with enough money to purchase a farm of business and start a family. … Most were located around North San Pedro Street and First Avenue, an area that became known as Little Tokyo.
That’s also when a couple of students at USC — 25-year-old Seijiro Shibuya and 26-year-old Masaharu Yamaguchi — launched the Rafu Shimpo (Los Angeles Currier) in April 1903, written by hand and mimeographed, with offices soon to be at 128 N. Main Street, where City Hall now stands. It became a daily paper on Feb. 1, 1904.
“The writers were a young, rowdy bunch,” writes Rob Fitts, a former archaeologist with a PhD from Brown University who left academics to follow his passion of Japanese baseball. The writers often had to be awakened with hangovers after sleeping in segregated bathrooms, some sticking their heads into the dirty water of the toilet, flushing it, and ready to work again.
This matters why?
“On weekend afternoons, when they were not working, drinking or whoring, the young reporters played baseball,” Fitts tell us.
On May 17, 1905, the Japanese Baseball Club of Los Angeles is big enough to draw an article in the Los Angeles Herald.
The team was among the earliest Japanese immigrant baseball teams, after some emerged in Hawaii.
After leaving their baseball careers in San Francisco, Harry Saisho and Ken Kitsuse joined the team in L.A. in 1905, meeting up with Tozan Masko. They would walk to open lots on East First Street, known as the Old First Street Grounds, a ballpark owned by Marco Hellman, the son of Isaias Hellman, a banker and real estate developer who helped found USC.
“No description of the ballpark survives,” Fitts adds, “although we know it had a grandstand shaded by canvas because two local boys stole the covering in August, 1890,” as reported by the L.A. Herald.
The park closed in 1895, but each Sunday, members of the Japanese Base Ball Club of Los Angeles met on that lot and played against other amateur teams because it “celebrated a healthy form of entertainment in the Japanese community,” according a quote in the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Southern California.
The word “Issei” translates to Japanese immigrant — people born in Japan, but their children are born in the new country they inhabit. For those who went to “The New World” of Hawaii, then San Francisco, the eventual trips to Los Angeles (half the size of San Francisco at 170,000) in the late 1800s came after oil was discovered and city businessmen were anti-organized labor, but an area that appeared to be racially tolerant “at least by the standard of the time.” The African-American population increased to about 5,000 at that time, and the Japanese workers followed.
As the names of Japanese American baseball pioneers like Saisho, Kitsuse, Masko and others worked in around bigotry and discrimination, that L.A. club grew and became a barnstorming unit, earning respect and merging cultures over a sport.
That Kitsuse and others remained in L.A., working in the gardening industry, and found themselves in internment camps during World War II is the sad chapter of what they had to endure. Kitsuse’s son, John, would emerge from that with a PhD from UCLA and become of the preeminent sociologists of his time.
It is with deep appreciation that we’re familiar with Fitts from previous University of Nebraska Press publications — especially “Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major League” in 2015. There is also “Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan” and “Wally Yonamine: The Man who Changed Japanese Baseball” both in 2012.
Having founded the Asian Baseball Committee with the Society of American Baseball Research, Fitts won the society’s 2013 Seymour Medal for Best Baseball Book of 2012. It started when Fitts was living in Tokyo in 1993 and started collecting Japanese Baseball cards, leading him to be one of the leading experts in the field.
He writes in the acknowledgements that an eBay purchase of a baseball card in 2003 that showed a team of Asian players with “J.B.B. Association” on their jerseys piqued his interest. His research for the book “Mashi” 10 years later led him back to this JBBA nugget, and four more years were poured into this book’s creation.
He is also able to assemble an appendix that lists the dates and games of the Waseda University American Tour, including stops at Los Angeles High School, Occidental College and USC; a table documenting games from the Los Angeles Nanka in 1907-08 that played in San Gabriel, Pasadena, Highland Park and Venice Beach. The barnstorming tour of the JBBA in 1911 started in Pomona, Whittier and San Bernardino, then L.A., before going East, spanning April 8 to Sept. 27.
How it goes in the scorebook
As we get the opportunity to learn more about the history of our surroundings — and it speaks to what Eric Nusbaum has done recently with “Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers and Lives Caught Between” — any sort of refresher course related to baseball is not just welcome, but required.
Thank you to Fitts for this fitting tribute to how Japanese immigrant baseball helped to shape the community of downtown L.A. and recognize those who made it happen. Almost 60 players have come from Japan to play in Major League Baseball. As the local teams continue to celebrate the ways they enhanced our culture by bringing in Hideo Nomo, Kenta Maeda, Takashi Saito, Kaz Ishii, Hiroki Kuroda, Shige Hasegawa, Hideki Matsui, Hisanori Takahaski and now Shohei Ohtani — OK, even Yu Darvish — the line directly to these amateur teams some 120 years ago makes it all the more dramatically important for local understanding and context.
More to read
== A review from the New York Journal of Books: “This is a work of great value to the specialists in American history and baseball history. The breadth and depth of the research is most impressive. For the general reader and the non-specialist, Issei Baseball could prove difficult. The amount of detail, including individual game stories and a significant number of tangents, could prove overwhelming. Nonetheless, Robert Fitts has made another important contribution to Japanese American history and to the role of baseball in that story, as well as to the history of the United States.”
== An excerpt on Sports Illustrated Inside The Dodgers by Howard Cole
== From Rob Fitts’ website
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