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Did Jackie Robinson Break the Baseball Color Barrier for Nikkei?

After watching a rerun of the old Sam Wood film Pride of the Yankees starring Gary Cooper one Saturday afternoon when I was eight years old, I became a fan of the New York Yankees and have been ever since. Although I am an American of Japanese ancestry, it was of little consequence to me that there were no Nikkei on the Yankees during my childhood and teenage years of the 1970s and 1980s. I rooted for the team and its players.

Photograph of Kurt Suzuki, catcher for the Oakland A's. Courtesy of the Oakland Athletics.

As is the case with many other avid baseball fans, I read books and articles not only about the present-day team, but also about the legendary Yankees teams of the past. There had not been any Nikkei players on any Yankees team. Once again, this absence barely entered my consciousness. By the mid-1980s, however, I began to wonder why there were so few Nikkei and other Americans of Asian ancestry in professional sports in the U.S.

It was perplexing to me why there were not more Nikkei in professional baseball. Unlike in basketball and football, a baseball player does not have to possess extraordinary height, body mass, speed, or jumping ability. During the 1970s and 1980s, the only Americans of Japanese ancestry who played in the major leagues were utility outfielder and first baseman Mike Lum, utility infielder Lenn Sakata, and pitcher Atlee Hammaker. Both Lum and Sakata were born and raised in Hawai'i, while Hammaker is from Northern California.

According to a Rory Castello article in Ohana Magazine, Lum’s biological father was Caucasian and his biological mother was Japanese. A Chinese American family adopted him when he was an infant. When given the opportunity to play everyday, Lum demonstrated that he was a quality player. In 1973, his best season, Lum had 513 at bats in 138 games for the Atlanta Braves. He had a batting average of .294 with 26 doubles, 6 triples, 16 home runs, and 82 runs batted in. He had more than 400 at bats only in one other season in his big league career.

Before Lum's major league debut in 1967, Masanori Murakami had been the only player of Japanese descent to play in the majors. A Japanese national, Murakami was a relief pitcher for the San Francisco Giants in 1964 and 1965. There have also been a handful of American players of other Asian or Pacific Islander ethnicities such as pitchers Prince O’ana and Ron Darling.

I had pondered for many years why there had not been many more American players of Asian ancestry. The reasons that I heard for this absence were that players of Asian descent were too slow, were too small in size, lacked the ability to hit for power, did not possess strong throwing arms, and lacked mental toughness. No person of public prominence in or outside of baseball associated this rationale with racism or even suggested that there were anti-Asian racist overtones.

When Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby broke baseball's racial barrier in 1947, they enabled dozens of African Americans and Latin Americans to play Major League Baseball. Americans of Asian ancestry, however, remained absent for the entire decade of the 1950s. Wally Yonamine, a Nisei from Hawai'i and perhaps the greatest Nikkei player in the 1950s, played his entire professional baseball career in Japan between 1951 and 1962. A three-time batting champion and 11-time all-star in the Nippon Professional Baseball Leagues, Yonamine is credited with bringing an aggressive American-style of play into Japanese baseball.

The token representation of players of Asian descent in America's national pastime may have continued indefinitely were it not for a contract dispute that Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo had with his Japanese team, the Kintetsu Buffaloes. Nomo had suffered a shoulder injury during the 1994 season. He attributed the injury to his manager’s overuse of him. Following the 1994 season, the Buffaloes rejected Nomo’s request for a multi-year contract and again offered a one-year deal. While contemplating his options, Nomo learned from Don Nomura, a Nikkei sports agent, that he would become eligible to play in the American major leagues if he retired from the Japanese big leagues. In 1967, the Nippon Professional Baseball Leagues and Major League Baseball had signed an agreement that essentially prevented Japanese ballplayers from playing in the American major leagues. The agreement did not, however, apply to “retired” Japanese big leaguers.

At the age of 26, Nomo announced his retirement from Japanese baseball. Japanese baseball officials attacked him in the Japanese press. His parents publicly declared that they wanted him to remain in Japan and pleaded with him to not disgrace his family. Nomo knew that if he attempted to play professional baseball in America and failed, he would never again play professional baseball in Japan. At the risk of losing contact with his parents and his livelihood, Nomo traveled to America. He had no contract with any baseball team.

The Los Angeles Dodgers decided to take a chance on Nomo and signed him to a contract for the 1995 season. He had a spectacular season, winning 16 games, posting a 2.54 earned run average, leading the National League in strikeouts, and capturing the National League Rookie of the Year. He had three 16-win seasons with the Dodgers (1995, 2002, and 2003) and had more than 200 strikeouts in four seasons (236 in 1995, 234 in 1996, 233 in 1997, and 220 in 2001). He also tossed two no-hitters; one for the Dodgers in 1996 and the other for the Boston Red Sox in 2001.

Nomo's signing with the Dodgers and the resulting "Nomomania" stemming from his unusual tornado-like delivery, high number of strikeouts, fabulous forkball, and success with the Dodgers paved the way for dozens of players from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan to play Major League Baseball in the United States during the late 1990s and 2000s. Unfortunately for Nomo, the recurring shoulder injury that he first sustained in Japan resulted in either average or subpar seasons in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2004, and 2005, and cut short his career.

The greatest player of Asian descent to play in the American majors has been the Seattle Mariners' centerfielder and rightfielder Ichiro Suzuki. In his American rookie season in 2001, Ichiro, as he is known, had a batting average of .350 with 242 hits and 34 doubles in 692 at bats and 157 games. His 56 stolen bases led the American League. He used his speed and powerful and accurate throwing arm to play flawless defense. In 1,313.2 innings, he committed only one error and had a fielding percentage of .997. Ichiro captured both the American League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards.

In 2004, Ichiro's 262 base hits set a new Major League Baseball record for most hits in a season. That year, he also had a .372 batting average. In 2007, Ichiro established a new American League record for most consecutive stolen bases without being caught stealing. He stole 45 consecutive bases between April 2006 and May 2007. In July 2007, he became the first player to hit an inside-the-park home run in a Major League All-Star game and was also named the Most Valuable Player of the game. In September, he became the third player in Major League Baseball history to have 200 or more hits in seven consecutive seasons.

Ichiro and other players such as outfielder Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui, infielder Akinori Iwamura, and catcher Kenji Johjima have helped to dispel longstanding misperceptions of players of Asian descent as slow and lacking strong throwing arms. Players such as second baseman Kazuo Matsui have demonstrated that Asian players can perform well under the pressure of stretch runs, playoffs, and the World Series. The influx of Asian players has also proven that they are not short in height. Since the end of the Second World War, changing dietary habits in Japan have produced taller Japanese. The shortest Japanese players in Major League Baseball that I have found are 5' 9" tall and the majority of Japanese players are 6-feet or taller in height. Even Riyo Mori, Miss Universe 2007, is 5'8".

While the growing presence of players from East Asia in Major League Baseball has helped refute some Asian racial stereotypes, Asian players have been unable to bridge the language barrier. Because most players from East Asia, particularly those from Japan, speak very little English, they usually rely on interpreters to speak with the American sports media. As a consequence, American journalists conduct fewer interviews with Asian players and tend to rely more on the sometimes inaccurate statements and perceptions of third parties. The language barrier not only inhibits American journalists from building a close rapport with Asian players, but also creates an added layer of separation between Asian players and American fans.

Asian players, their lack of fluency in the English language, their "foreign" names, and American media characterizations of them as "Japanese imports" have also perpetuated and reinforced the perception of Nikkei and other Americans of Asian ancestry as outsiders. Some baseball fans who have no or minimal interaction with or knowledge of Americans of Asian ancestry assume that people with Asian countenances whom they see on the street or in other locations are foreign tourists, foreign businessmen, exchange students, or immigrants. They do not know that hundreds of thousands of Americans of Japanese ancestry are third, fourth, fifth, and sixth generation Americans. They have no idea that Americans of Japanese ancestry have family members and ancestors who have served in the United States military during the Spanish-American War, the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

The dearth of American-born players of Asian ancestry has contributed to the identification of the Asian countenance with foreignness. The presence of even one superstar American player of Asian ancestry would help to mitigate this perception. What accounts for the absence of an Asian American Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Willie Mays, or Alex Rodriguez? The primary reason for this absence is that racially discriminatory, American immigration laws drastically limited immigration from Asia until 1965. Although many Asians benefited from the 1965 Immigration Act that permitted greatly expanded immigration from Asian nations, Japanese immigration to the U.S. remained relatively low. With a rapidly expanding Japanese economy and plenty of salaried jobs, the vast majority of Japanese nationals had little economic incentive to immigrate overseas between the mid-1960s and the early 1990s.

Another reason for the scarcity of Americans of Asian ancestry in professional baseball is that many of them have had other career options that were less precarious than baseball. The odds of making the roster of a major league team are slim. Even the most promising prospects have to play in the minor leagues for a few years at low pay and with few amenities. In addition to fierce competition, players risk serious injuries that could sidetrack their careers for weeks, months, or forever. Derek Tatsuno, for example, suffered an arm injury that permanently ended his American professional baseball career at the minor league level. A Nikkei, Tatsuno was a highly touted prospect out of the University of Hawai'i. In 1979, he became the first NCAA Division 1 pitcher to win 20 games in a season. Tatsuno was inducted into the National Collegiate Hall of Fame in 2007.

The lack of players of Asian descent in Major League Baseball also discouraged high school and college athletes from taking a shot at the big leagues. Until the arrival of Nomo, Ichiro, Godzilla, Chien-Ming Wang, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and a few others from East Asia, Major League Baseball had no star players of Asian descent who could serve as role models for young Asian American athletes.

Nomo's spectacular entry into American baseball in 1995 has demonstrated that Asians are capable of not only playing Major League Baseball, but flourishing in the game. He paved the way for players from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to play Major League Baseball. Nomo and the other Asian players have also inspired young Americans of Asian descent to believe that they too can play Major League Baseball. The professional game in America is no longer limited to Caucasians, African Americans, and Latinos.

Since Hideo Nomo’s debut with the Dodgers in 1995, there have been ever-increasing numbers of Nikkei and other Asian Americans in the minor leagues. A select few have made it to the Major Leagues for more than the proverbial cup of coffee. The most prominent Nikkei player of recent years is outfielder Dave Roberts. Born in Okinawa, Japan to an African American father and an Okinawan mother, Roberts grew up in San Diego, California. He made his Major League debut in 1999 and had his best offensive season with the San Diego Padres in 2006. Playing in 129 games, Roberts had a batting average of .293 in 499 at bats. He also had 49 stolen bases in 55 attempts. Roberts played terrific defense as well. He had a fielding percentage of 1.000, committing zero errors in 1,074 innings and 274 total chances.

Boston Red Sox fans will best remember Roberts for his performance during the 2004 American League Championship Series. Down three games to zero against the New York Yankees, the Red Sox were trailing by a run in the bottom of the ninth inning. Famed Yankees’ reliever Mariano Rivera was on the mound. If Rivera could retire the side without giving up a run, the Yankees would win the ALCS. Roberts came into the game as a pinch runner. When Roberts strayed too far from first base, Rivera almost picked him off. On Rivera’s next pitch, Roberts stole second base. Roberts scored soon thereafter when the next batter singled to tie the game. The Red Sox won the game in 12 innings and then won the next three games to capture the ALCS and qualify to play the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Boston swept St. Louis in four games to win its first World Series since 1918.

While it might take years or possibly decades before there is an American of Asian ancestry who is a perennial all-star in Major League Baseball, that day will arrive. One hopeful is Kurt Suzuki. The Oakland Athletics called up Suzuki from the minors in June 2007. Born and raised in Wailuku, Maui, Hawai'i in 1983, Suzuki made the Cal State Fullerton baseball team as a walk on. He played a crucial role in helping his team win the 2004 College World Series. That year, he was the recipient of the Johnny Bench Award for National Collegiate Catcher of the Year and was a second round draft pick of the Oakland Athletics. In July 2007, Suzuki became the A's starting catcher.

Before Hideo Nomo’s arrival in 1995, the possibility of an Asian American perennial all-star or potential Hall of Famer in the Majors seemed remote. Nomo, and not Jackie Robinson, opened the game to players of Asian ethnicity and thereby greatly increased the chances for an Asian American perennial all-star. An Asian American Hall of Fame player will not alter ingrained stereotypes or destroy latent racism overnight. Such a player will help to increase understanding, create positive images, and broaden perceptions of Nikkei and other Americans of Asian ancestry.

* His article is a contribution of New York University, Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program & Institute, a Discover Nikkei Affiliate.

© 2007 Daniel H. Inouyé

baseball Hideo Nomo Ichiro Jackie Robinson Kurt Suzuki Nomo prejudice sports stereotypes Suzuki Yankees