By The Common Man
The Common Man learned several important facts last night, but perhaps the most important was that Commissioner Bud Selig knows how to throw a party. OK, a lecture. About Japanese-Americans. But it was about their relationship to baseball, primarily from 1900-1945. And was followed by a reception. And there were excellent old photos. This was the 2nd annual Selig Distinguished Lecture in Sport and Society at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and it was terrific fun. TCM went with Carson Cistulli, of the hated FanGraphs and NotGraphs, and the impossibly young Jackie Moore, of Disciples of Uecker, FanGraphs, and too many other places to name.
Samuel O. Regalado, a professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, had to start his talk, One Base at a Time, a little late, as the Commissioner was busy engaging with undergraduate history majors in another part of the building. When he arrived, the Commissioner made his way confidently to the front of the room, in the way only a man with iron-clad job security can.
Dr. Regalado, an expert on Latino-American and Asian-American baseball cultures, spent the next 45 minutes discussing the origins of the Japanese-American attachment to the game in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, and how “baseball [was] part fo the chemistry that nourished the heartbeat of their world.” According to Dr. Regaldo, baseball became an important tool for Nikkei (Japanese-Americans born in the United States) to not only assert their own community solidarity, but to express their patriotism and demonstrate a willingness to assimilate into the American melting pot. According to one player in the 1931 Pacific Northwest Baseball Tournament, “putting my uniform on was like putting on the American flag.”
The original league was centered around San Francisco, but when the 1906 earthquake scattered the surviving Japanese across the Pacific-Northwest, the game spread to other Asian-American communities as well. In Seattle, Frank Fokuda began arranging trips to Japan for teams of Nikkei players, who would play against local Japanese teams, forming a “cultural bridge between Asian and American culture.” Fokuda chose players who were well-mannered and scholarly, and arranged for visits to prominent landmarks and significant attractions for his young men, hoping this would make them “better suited for civic leadership.” In a way, as Dr. Regalado pointed out, these trips were a forerunner for the World Baseball Classic, and for the Babe Ruth-led trip to Japan in 1934.
|Photo from last night's program|
These early Nikkei teams were sponsored by local businesses and businessmen, churches, and Japanese-American citizens’ leagues, and competed both against one another in leagues and tournaments, and against whites in exhibitions. This included a series against Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig’s barnstorming teams, the Bustin’ Babes and the Laruping Lous, after the 1927 season. They also attempted to form a solid political base from which Japanese-Americans could influence politics in and around their communities, particularly in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, these efforts mostly failed, as Nikkei baseball was essentially invisible to whites, their patriotism ignored and unwitnessed. This, of course, made the decision to intern Japanese-Americans during World War II much easier.
While imprisoned by their government, Japanese-Americans carved out baseball fields from the limited space they had available, playing regular games with hundreds of spectators, most of whom would have to stand the entire time. After the war, however, Japanese-Americans scattered back across the West Coast, and were unable to renew their previous networks of ball teams, very similar to the way that semi-pro baseball leagues and teams gradually faded out of the American consciousness.
Dr. Regalado, however, was quick to point out the few examples of Japanese-Americans succeeding in American baseball, including Ryan Kurosaki, Lenn Sakada, Kurt Suzuki, and Don Wakamatsu. However, as he pointed out, these players and managers very much represent an exception to the overall truth that Japanese-Americans have not played much of a role in Major League history at all, even though such a thought would have been unfathomable based on their enthusiasm for the game 75 years ago.
After the lecture and the Q&A, there was a reception generously provided by Commissioner Selig, who pays for this entire lecture, by the way. There wasn’t much time to talk with the Commish, who was hobnobbing with History Department big wigs. However, a quick handshake, and an acknowledgement of how much The Common Man enjoys the World Baseball Classic was plenty for this encounter. Frankly, while TCM doesn’t often see eye-to-eye with Commissioner Selig (in fact, almost never), there is no denying the generosity and good will that events like this engender. It was not highly publicized in advance, but it was a tremendous opportunity to learn about the history of baseball outside of the traditional “heroic” narratives we get from the sports pages, as our hosts pointed out, and the photos were tremendous.
Many thanks to the Commissioner for the opportunity (and also for my two Lake Louie Scotch Ales and assorted food at the reception) and for his time. Thanks to Dr. Regalado for sharing his engaging research. And thanks to the UW-Madison History Department for hosting the event. Good times all around. If you’re in the Madison area next year when this presentation rolls around, The Common Man cannot recommend the experience enough.