Thomas: The secret history of black baseball players in Japan

From Dexter Thomas at NPR’s CodeSwitch on July 14, 2015, with mention of SABR members Bill Staples Jr., Ryan Whirty, and Gary Ashwill:

In the fall of 1936, a 24-year-old black baseball player from rural Louisiana stepped off a boat in Tokyo. His name was James Bonner. An ace pitcher with a vicious submarine pitch, Bonner, according to Japanese newspapers breathlessly heralding his arrival, once threw 22 strikeouts in a single game back in the States. Bonner had just been signed by a Japanese team called Dai Tokyo, which debuted the year before, lost nearly every game it played, and was desperate for new talent.

Not for another decade would Jackie Robinson be allowed to play an American Major League Baseball game, but in Tokyo, being black wasn’t a strike against Bonner. Just the opposite. Local papers excitedly pointed out his color, running headlines like “Black Pitcher Rushes Onto the Scene, Excellent Fielder, Holder of Amazing Strikeout Record.” News reports gushed about his personality, calling him “athletic” and “charming.” His signing bonus included daily steak dinners, unusual and expensive fare at the time, and his salary at the time was 400 yen per month. That won’t get you a hot lunch in Tokyo nowadays, but then, it was an extremely generous salary. The biggest Japanese pitcher at the time, Eiji Sawamura, made about 120 yen a month

But the tale of how a black American baseball player from the Deep South ended up a big shot in Japan in 1936 is bigger than Jimmy Bonner. It’s a little-known story of friendship and mutual aid between Japanese-American and black baseball players at a time when both groups were shut out of organized baseball. It sprang up in California in the pre-war years, became part of “one of the boldest — and most overlooked — experiments in baseball history,” made its way to Tokyo, and would end up shaping the future of baseball in Japan.

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Originally published: July 14, 2015. Last Updated: July 14, 2015.