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Negro Leaguers in Japan


I wanted to outline a couple of connections between the Negro Leagues and Japanese baseball that aren’t (I think) all that well-known.

First: for decades, the standard story about the rise of professional baseball in Japan has credited a 1934 tour of Japan by major league all stars, including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, for sparking interest in the sport and leading to the first professional league two years later.  But the Japanese baseball historian Kazuo Sayama, in the 1987 Baseball Research Journal, told a somewhat different story. 

He argued that much of the credit should go to Negro League teams that toured Japan in 1920s and 30s, particularly the 1927 Philadelphia Royal Giants, featuring HOFers Biz Mackey and Andy Cooper, along with Rap Dixon and Frank Duncan, among others.

While the 1934 white major league visit has gotten all the attention (and credit), cause-and-effect might actually have been reversed: Sayama noted that the tour was sponsored by the Yomiuri newspaper company, which was already planning to found a professional team (which would become the Giants). So rather than being the catalyst for Japanese pro baseball, maybe it would be more accurately viewed as publicity for a venture that was already in the works.The white players, Sayama said, treated their opponents and the fans with contempt, running up scores against inexperienced opponents and insulting their hosts, both on the field and off.  On one rainy day, Ruth played first base holding a parasol.  Gehrig wore rubber boots.  Al Simmons lay down in the outfield grass while a game was in progress.

The Negro Leaguers, by contrast, were said to have appreciated their hosts’ generosity, and enjoyed a respite from prejudice and discrimination.  In Sayama’s view, the Negro Leaguers’ courtesy, professionalism, and sincerity may have impressed Japanese fans more than the boorish and arrogant behavior of the white big leaguers.  Plus, the Royal Giants refrained from running up the score, a practice they probably picked up while barnstorming against white teams in small towns.

Most intriguing are certain parallels between Japanese and Negro League baseball, including a shared emphasis on teamwork, finesse pitching, and the sacrifice bunt, which suggest an even more substantial influence.  Robert Whiting’s description of the tactics of Japanese managers in his book You Gotta Have Wa makes them sound a little like Rube Foster: Japanese managers have always emphasized avoiding mistakes while pressuring opponents to make them, and seem to put great stock in scoring first to demoralize the other side.  Sayama quoted from an open letter sent by the Royal Giants to Japanese fans in 1927.  In it the Negro Leaguers averred that “Japanese baseball has already got the very essence of the game,” and singled out for praise the Japanese teams’ “inside baseball,” “crafty pitching,” and “team play,” all hallmarks of the Negro League style. (Of course, as Sayama pointed out, he was translating the letter from Japanese back into English, without access to the English original.)

In 1927, the Royal Giants won 47 of 48 games.  The single loss was to the amateur Daimai Club, with Michimaro Ono the winning pitcher for Daimai (giving him the first two Japanese victories over American professionals, having beaten Waite Hoyt and a major-minor league team back in 1922).  Sayama has reportedly written a whole book on the Philadelphia Royal Giants—in Japanese, presumably.  I’ll say it again—it would be really nice to get some Japanese baseball books translated into English.

The second connection between the Negro Leagues and Japan hasn’t been mentioned anywhere, to my knowledge.  It turns out that when the Japanese leagues begin bringing in westerners to play in the early 1950s, ex-Negro Leaguers predominated.

Aside from Harrison McGaillard, an American catcher who for some reason played in Japan under the name of “Bucky Harris” in the late 1930s, and a few Japanese-Americans like former San Francisco 49er Wally Yonamine, the earliest group of U.S. players in Japan I can find is this quartet of Negro Leaguers:

John Britton (Hankyu Braves, 1952-53), 3b, a 33-year-old veteran of the Birmingham Black Barons (1940-50).

Jimmy Newberry (Hankyu Braves, 1952), a 30-year-old righthanded pitcher, also a veteran of the Black Barons.

Larry Raines (Hankyu Braves, 1953-54), who came to Japan as a 23-year-old shortstop, had played for the Chicago American Giants in 1951-52.  He led the Pacific League with 61 steals in 1953, then won the batting title in ’54 with .337.  Raines would later play for the Cleveland Indians, and returned to Japan to close out his career in 1962. 

Rufus Gaines (Hankyu Braves, 1953).  This ID is a little iffy.  Japanese Baseball Daily’s encyclopedia says he was a Negro Leaguer.  Riley’s Encyclopedia has no Rufus Gaines, but does list a Jonas Gaines, who played most prominently with the Baltimore Elite Giants.  Listed in Japanese Baseball Daily’s encyclopedia as born January 9, 1921, whereas Riley lists Jonas Gaines’s birthdate as January 9, 1914.  Both Rufus and Jonas are listed as batting righthanded and throwing lefty.  Riley says Jonas was 5’9”, 158 lbs; while Rufus was supposed to have been 5’8” 156.  A lot of little coincidences there. 

It certainly makes sense that blacks would be among the first Americans in Japan, given the drastically reduced employment opportunities for them (especially older players) in the post-integration baseball world. 

In 1954, two more Americans appeared in Japan:

Charlie Lewis (Mainichi Orions, 1954-55), born in Missouri May 30, 1925, a pitcher/catcher who set the Pacific League record for catcher’s errors in a season (22).  Not a Negro Leaguer, as far as I can tell.  I also haven’t yet been able to place him in the upper minors in the U.S.

Sal Recca (Takahashi Unions, 1954), born November 8, 1923, in New Jersey.  Didn’t play in the majors; played for the “Hawaii Red Sox,” presumably an independent or semi pro team.  He  appeared in five games for the International League’s Newark Bears in 1946.

Then, in 1955, came infielder Roberto “Chico” Barbon, (Hankyu Braves, 1955-65) who played more games in Japan (1353) than any other foreigner.  Barbon  (born March 13, 1933) was the first Cuban to play baseball in Japan, brought there by the promoter Abe Saperstein (of Harlem Globetrotters’ fame).  Barbon was said to have played for Negro League and Cuban teams, though I haven’t found any record of him yet.  Figueredo does list an infielder named Humberto Barbón, born in Cárdenas on August 23, 1928, who played for Marianao in the 1953/54 season.

After this, the first American players in Japan I found, aside from Japanese-Americans, are Jack Ladra of the 1958 Toie Flyers, who was of Mexican and Hawaiian parentage; Glenn Mickens in 1959; Joe Stanka in 1960; and, of course, many more after that (including, briefly, ex-Negro Leaguers Larry Doby and Don Newcombe, the first famous American flops in Japan).

Aside from Japanese Baseball Daily, my source for much of the above is Daniel Johnson’s Japanese Baseball, which only lists batting and e.r.a. title qualifiers—so there may be other early American players in Japan.  Feel free to add any you know about!


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