“The Pioneers of Japanese American Baseball”
The review in 90 feet or less
If not for Japan, baseball’s return as part of the Olympic movement might still be stagnant.
After an odd disappearance of 13 years, the sport returns to the Summer Games in Tokyo – already a year delayed because of the COVID-19 outbreak. And as restrictions remain to help prevent another spike in the virus, it has been determined that only those already living in Japan will be allowed to watch the six-nation tournament scheduled to start on July 23 and end on Aug. 5.
From where we sit (and often to so reading), the sport seems to be in good hands this turn as it hits another historical moment in its evolution.
On the official website for the 2021 Tokyo Games, baseball is explained as a game where “two teams of nine players aim to score the most runs by striking a ball and running round a sequence of bases to reach the home plate. The team with the most runs after nine innings of batting and fielding wins. The teams rotate between batting and fielding, with each session called an inning, and switch when the field team gets three opposition players out.”
Hit the “more” button – don’t you thought you owe it to yourself, having invested this much already? – and it continues: “The pitcher throws the ball from a mound toward the catcher which the batter attempts to hit and get around the bases to the home plate.”
Everything else is just gravy.
Baseball as the on-and-off Olympic sport over the years seems to be tied to whomever is the host country and wants to capitalize on its popularity. It launched at the 1904 Summer Games in St. Louis, then fell into demonstration mode for ’12, ’36, ’52, ’64 (in Tokyo), ’84 (in L.A.) and ’88 (South Korea, after Japan wanted to hold out). It was finally made its modern debut a medal event in Barcelona in 1992, with eight teams, and Cuba winning the gold (Japan the silver, the U.S. was fourth.) In ’96 in Atlanta, it was Cuba-Japan-U.S. The 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia is where Tommy Lasorda managed the gold-medal champions. It stuck in 2004 Athens (Cuba-Australia-Japan) and 2008 Bejing (South Korea-Cuba-U.S.) and then was dropped.
It’s back now, isn’t scheduled to be in the 2024 Games in Paris, and returns in 2028 in Los Angeles.
One shouldn’t have to educate the ninos of native Angelinos about how popular Japan baseball has been more than 100 years prior, especially in this city.
On our end, we can admit that almost everything we’ve learned about Japanese baseball comes from Rob Fitts, a former archaeologist with a PhD from Brown University who has followed his passion to pursue the history of this field. The layers go far beyond our review last year of “Issei Baseball” The Story of the First Japanese American Ballplayers” from University of Nebraska Press, the sixth of books published on the subject.
But the importance of that book leads to this one, self-published in a slick glossy paperback of just 70 humble pages but bringing alive photographs, box scores, newspaper clippings, advertising cards and other important touch points to how the game included Japanese League teams in L.A. – four Issei clubs in 1910 that even had the attention of the Los Angeles Times.
“The Japanese colony has much interest in baseball and the merchants have hung up many prizes for the team that makes the best showing during the season,” Fitts extracts from a Times mention.
The team photos, some of them with Japanese autographs, are windows into our history and bringing it to life. A simple shot of Kiichi “Onitei” Suzuki, who founded the Hollywood Sakura in 1908 with a roster of only three players who played the game in Japan and needed to be taught how it worked.
(See that Olympics explanation above, if it is of some help).
We want to know more about where they played, and what those parcels of land may look like today. We don’t want those sacred grounds to be buried in new layers of commerce or freeway.
In his expansion of explaining the chronology of early Japanese American baseball from 1871 through 1914, Fitts says in the introduction that this self-published book is an extension of his “Issei Baseball,” loaded up with things he couldn’t include in the previous volume. And better suited for this presentation.
“Baseball has been a vital part of Japanese American culture for over a hundred years,” Fitts explains, noting that before World War II, it was an important cultural meeting place and community builder. And, if given the chance, an opportunity to size up its abilities against more established white and African American teams of the day. During WWII, when internment camps were set up across the U.S., it was an activity that “provided an outlet for the frustration of a people unjustly removed from their homes and help build moral and a sense of normalcy during this difficult time.”
Note as well the back cover of the book, where players from the Nanka Japanese Base Ball Club are practicing in an open lot behind a bungalow the players lived together at 635 South Maple Street. The colorized version of the photo is from one also on page 27, which also has a map that shows a real estate survey of what that field looked like — with tracks from the nearby 6th Street trolley line running through it. That area now is textile office buildings between the Flower District and the Toy District, about four blocks south of the Little Tokyo area, and also very close to the Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row.
Meawhile, also worth considering
The publishing info:
Carolina Academic Press
Released Nov. 2, 2020
In Williams’ very academic look at how the game evolved through Japanese culture going back to 1872, he notably references three of Fitts previous writings – his 2012 book, “Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan”; the 2005 book, “Remembering Japanese Baseball: An Oral History of the Game,” and a SABR Baseball Research Journal piece from 2012 titled “Babe Ruth and Eiji Sawamura.”
Sharing important research makes sense in how we can learn more from having information presented through new prisms and someone like Williams, who holds a PhD in East Asian history from the University of Minnesota and an Masters in the history of science from Iowa State can put his freelance knowledge and resources to an interesting use.
Williams gives a compelling example about the power of baseball affected the career path of Haruki Murakami, as a spectator seeking some mental relief at a Yakult Swallows Japanese League game in the 1970s and coming out the other side inspired to write his first novel. It happened at Meiji Jingu Stadium, build in 1926, the oldest sporting venue in Tokyo, rebuild after firebombing during WWII.
Will that facility be part of the 2021 Tokyo Games? Heck, at this point, aren’t even sure a U.S. team will be there. Four of the six countries (with Japan there automatically) are already in, and there are a couple more qualifying tournaments that need to take place. Cuba and the Netherlands, for example, are also not in yet.
Through the lens of baseball, Williams explains how the book evolved itself, through a doctoral dissertation, and expands to show how the country of Japan was shaped, influenced, embraced and nationalize. He writes:
“At times, the Japanese baseball community embraced an ethic of cosmopolitanism, while at other times, it was the vanguard of producing isolationist Japanese nationalism. In other words, at times the Japanese baseball community created new pathways for intercultural communication and cooperation, and at other times, the baseball community created homogeneous communities that delineated who was Japanese and who was not … the Japanese baseball community continuously reinvented itself, and produced a dynamic identity that often contrasted with American baseball communities.”
It is also enlightening to see more about how the most iconic player ever in Japanese baseball, Sadaharu Oh, was neither Japanese nor a Japanese citizen while he was setting the global home run record between the late ‘50s and early ‘80s – he was from Taiwan, for those of us who just assumed such things and never examined it close enough. Yet he was the country’s baseball ambassador, pushing through his time as a manager leading the country to the first World Baseball Classic title in 2006.
As Los Angeles baseball fans know, the Dodgers’ focus on bringing in Japanese talent, a period of time that Williams calls kokusaika, or internationalization. Hideo Nomo’s arrival as a 26-year-old in 1995 wasn’t giving him historical status as the first Japanese player in American MLB roster – that happened three decades earlier with Masanori Murakami in San Francisco and created a whole other issue of discontent (again, documented in a 2015 book by Fitts, recently out in paperback). But Nomo’s star status (which included the starting pitcher role in the ’95 All Star Game) is credited for reopening the door for players that we continue to see in Southern California with two-way Angels star Shohei Ohtani. The Dodgers’ and Angels’ roster over the years has also included Kenta Maeda, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Masao Kida, Kazuhisa Ishii, Hideki Matsui, Norihiro Nakamura, Takashi Saito, Hiroki Kuroda, Junichi Tazawa and Hisanori Takahashi.
Oh, right, and Yu Darvish.
How it goes in the scorebook
Arigato gozaimasu, for this yakyu lesson. And if we butchered that sentence, our apologies.
Our author Q&A
An email exchange with Fitts produced more context to what’s been done on Japanese baseball history and what’s ahead:
In your list of other reference books about early Japanese baseball, the ones you reference are all in the last 20 years, and most of them in the last 10 years. How do you explain why most of this research and information is coming out now versus maybe back in the ‘60s or ‘70s or ‘80s? Is it renewed interest based on more Japanese League players coming to the U.S. starting with Hideo Nomo in ’95? And then Ichiro Suzkui in 2001?
I think there are several intertwined reasons for the increase of research on Japanese baseball in the past 25 years. The first is Hideo Nomo coming to the MLB in 1995. Nomo’s success showed many American fans the strength of Japanese baseball. Fans became interested in where Nomo, and subsequent Japanese ballplayers in MLB, came from and the history behind their success. Nomo coming to MLB was part of a greater globalization of not only baseball but international travel.
When my wife was an exchange student in southern Japan in the early 1980s, foreigners were rare in that part of the country. That is no longer the case. Also at that time, few American universities offered Japanese language courses. Now most do. Interest in Japan is now strong in the U.S. and many Americans can speak at least some Japanese. So there are more people interested in both researching and reading about Japanese baseball. Finally, the focus of history changed during the 1970s and early 1980s. Social history and the history of ethnic groups became more common. In baseball history, we saw an increase of books on the Negro Leagues in the late 1980s and 1990s. I don’t find it surprising that as part of this trend, and as the first and second generations of Japanese immigrants began to pass, we began to see more books on Japanese American baseball.
Q: With all you’ve done on documenting so much history about Japanese baseball, what new directions are there to go with this timeline for any future projects?
I am working on two large scale projects at the moment. One is a history of the MLB tours of Japan and another is an overview history of Japanese baseball. As the projects progress, I will decide which to publish first.
Q: What did you find as the pros and cons of doing a self-publishing book, all things considered how you did the ones preceding this with publishers?
I’ve had the pleasure of publishing my previous four books with the University of Nebraska Press. They do a first rate job and produce a polished product. Since the start of the pandemic, I have also self-published two illustrated baseball books: “An Illustrated History of Japanese Baseball Cards” and the “Pioneers of Japanese American Baseball.” I chose to self-publish because the University of Nebraska does not produce picture books and I wanted to put the books on the market quickly. What I found was that I really enjoy the creative aspects of layout design. Creating these two books felt more like a hobby than work! I used a private printer rather than a self-publishing company. The pros of self-publishing are: The quick turn around from the start of the project to holding the finished product in my hand; having complete control over the book; and not having to settle for a 10% royalty on each sale. The cons: The biggest one is marketing. You have to do it all yourself. It’s difficult of get the word out beyond one’s friend group. I’ll be lucky to sell 500 of each of my self-published books.
Q: What are your thoughts about the importance of baseball returning to the Olympics this summer in Tokyo, and that only fans living in Japan now will be able to attend as per new rules?
I’m happy that baseball will return to the Olympics, but honestly it doesn’t interest me much. What I do enjoy is the World Baseball Classic. There we get to watch some of the top professionals from each country play each other. My only regret about the tournament is that many American players don’t seem to take it seriously and opt out of playing. I hope the the Classic will eventually become like the World Cup and we can watch the very best play each other.
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