Books

'Gentle Black Giants': Diplomacy, sport and Japan's early love for baseball

by Dan Orlowitz

Staff Writer

In a sport with as much history, tradition and documentation as baseball, rare is the opportunity that followers of the game are presented with something truly unknown.

Gentle Black Giants: A History of Negro Leaguers in Japan, by Kazuo Sayama and Bill Staples Jr.
387 pages
NBRP PRESS, Nonfiction.

“Gentle Black Giants” offers such an occasion, pulling back the curtain to reveal a little-known chapter of Japanese baseball’s early years and the impact that a collection of Negro Leagues players had on its development and eventual professionalization.

Co-author Bill Staples Jr.’s passion for Japanese American baseball relations emerged through researching his own book on Kenichi Zenimura, the player and manager regarded as the father of Japanese American baseball. Zenimura was known not only for arranging Japan tours in the 1920s and ’30s, but for organizing a baseball league for interned Japanese Americans at the Gila River War Relocation Center during World War II.

“Three years after September 11, I felt that a lot of the stories and themes I was seeing (were along the lines of), ‘if they look like the enemy, they are the enemy.’ I sensed that my country was moving in the wrong direction and we were about to repeat history,” says Staples. “I wanted to dive in and really understand the Japanese American internment experience and to see what lessons I could learn from it for myself and for my community.”

Staples began organizing the translation of “Gentle Black Giants” as a passion project in 2014, after receiving a copy of co-author Kazuo Sayama’s 1986 Japanese-language original, “Kuroki Yasashiki Jaiantsu.”

Sayama, a baseball historian who has written dozens of books on the sport, was inspired to investigate two early Showa Era (1926-89) tours of Japan by the Philadelphia Royal Giants after a chance conversation with a fellow historian at the Society for American Baseball Research’s (SABR) annual conference in 1983.

Good sport: Baseballer Robert Fagen was one of the cohort of black players that joined the Philadelphia Royal Giants' 1927 tour to Japan. | GENTLE BLACK GIANTS / FORT HUACHUCA MUSEUM
Good sport: Baseballer Robert Fagen was one of the cohort of black players that joined the Philadelphia Royal Giants’ 1927 tour to Japan. | GENTLE BLACK GIANTS / FORT HUACHUCA MUSEUM

Across 20 chapters, which were originally articles serialized in the Japanese magazine Weekly Baseball, Sayama explores how the Royal Giants — who were not actually from Philadelphia — inspired the growth of Japanese baseball, giving local players hope that they could one day compete with America’s best teams.

Staples compares the Giants’ conduct to the uke-nage relationship in aikido between the teacher, who agrees to withhold their maximum ability, and student, who is subsequently not discouraged by embarrassing defeats.

The Giants’ tours are frequently contrasted with those of major leaguers such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, which were widely promoted by Japanese media and drew thousands. But the frequent showboating of stars such as Ruth, who famously played while holding an umbrella during one rainy game, discouraged many in Japan.

“(Japan) yearned for better skill in the game. But if we had seen only the major leaguers, we might have been discouraged and disillusioned by our poor showing,” wrote Sayama in the SABR Research Journal in 1987. “What saved us was the tours of the Philadelphia Royal Giants, whose visits gave Japanese players confidence and hope.”

One recurring character baseball fans will recognize is James Raleigh “Biz” Mackey, whose rocket-like throws and power at the plate led many to consider him the top black catcher of the ’20s and ’30s. Mackey, who in 2006 was posthumously enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, turns out to have hit the first home run at Jingu Stadium — an incredible accomplishment at a time when balls did not fly as far and the Jingu outfield stretched farther than it does today.

It’s anecdotes such as Mackey’s reciprocal bows with a pitcher who hit him, or the Giants’ enjoyment of spring cherry blossoms and traditional geisha performances in Kyoto, that link their experience to those of the professional sports teams that regularly visit Japan today.

Readers without a strong attraction to baseball may find their attention flagging over portions that recap games in detail, but will nevertheless find plenty to grab their interest in the second half of the book. That section features a number of appendices, ranging from news clippings from the era and player biographies to several essays, including an eye-opening contribution by Ritsumeikan University professor Kyoko Yoshida on the Royal Giants’ visit to colonial Korea in 1927.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in Sayama’s writing, viewed through the lens of modern sports and the discrimination that black athletes frequently face, is that by all accounts the Giants were wholeheartedly embraced by both local fans and the handful of Japanese media outlets that covered their tours.

In a scenario fraught with potential social and political peril, the Giants’ tours of Japan were simply players sharing their love of the game with a country that was eager to develop its own affection.

“It’s about diplomacy through sports, but it’s also about human relationships,” says Staples. “I think the lesson is that winning isn’t everything. The relationships you develop with people are really the most important, and helping people learn and grow and making it an enjoyable experience, sharing your passion with others, is rewarding.”

More information about the book can be found on Bill Staples Jr.’s blog, International Pastime.