THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: How the Dodgers helped to expand the racial and geographical frontiers of baseball

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo. Kyodo News file photo

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo. Kyodo News file photo

Today’s column, rather than recounting an individual history, takes up the question of how Japanese American history is told, and who gets represented. In the years since the awarding of redress in 1988, we have seen a great expansion in the stories that get covered under Japanese American history, and in the diversity and depth of that portrait. However, there inevitably remains work to be done.

My thoughts on the matter were prompted by a recent visit to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. JANM is a marvelous institution that specializes in public history — teaching of the historical narrative of Japanese in America through physical display of artifacts and information. I have benefitted greatly from my research there, and I have had the pleasure of being invited to speak under the museum’s auspices, contribute to their historical blog DiscoverNikkei, and consult with their staffers on exhibitions. 

It was thus with great interest that I went to see the current special exhibition at JANM entitled “Dodgers: Brotherhood of the Game.” Produced in cooperation with the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, the exhibition explores the premier role of the Dodgers in expanding the racial and geographical frontiers of the sport. As the exhibition tag states, “The Dodgers’ history transcends the game of baseball. Come explore the role they’ve played in civil rights, community building, and globalization of the game.” The exhibition recounts how the Brooklyn Dodgers broke the color bar by signing Jackie Robinson, the first African American player in the modern major leagues. It goes on to explore how in later decades, after moving to Los Angeles, the Dodgers starred Fernando Valenzuela, one of the first Mexican-born stars to play in the United States. The Dodgers likewise reached out to Asia, and took on Hideo Nomo, the first of the wave of Japanese players who have starred in the Major Leagues, and Chan Ho Park, the first Korean major leaguer. In addition to featuring the stories of these four players, the exhibition spotlights the role of longtime manager Tommy Lasorda in leading the team and championing such integration, and that of club owners Walter O’Malley and Peter O’Malley.

As a lifelong baseball fan, I was pleased to see such a handsome and informative exhibition. These are certainly stories that should be told. In particular, the contribution of Jackie Robinson, and the grace and fortitude he displayed in the face of racial bigotry, forms a central chapter in the history of civil rights in America. I was also glad that the exhibition was mounted at JANM. Many commentators have rightly explored the primary role of baseball in Japanese American life, and as a force for the integration of American society. From the Dodgers side, given their role in reaching out to Asia, it was surely natural for them to think of collaborating with an Asian American host institution. Furthermore, not only is the museum a stone’s throw (strike’s throw?) from Dodger Stadium, but Little Tokyo stands at the crossroads of a number of different downtown communities, not just Japanese Americans, and I strongly agree that the museum’s mission should reflect this presence. 

Indeed, if anything, the exhibition errs on the side of broadness: it would have been nice to see some specifically Asian American material. For example, the text nowhere mentions the Hawai‘i-born Nisei pitcher Bill Nishita, who was signed by the Dodgers in 1956 after pitching in the Japanese baseball leagues for several years. After spending spring training with the Dodgers, Nishita was sent to their chief farm club, the Montreal Royals (following the same route taken by Jackie Robinson a decade before). Sadly, he failed to compile a sufficient record to be called up the majors. After two years in the Dodger organization, Nishita left. 

Also, the history of intergroup connections would have been worth further exploring, in my view. Jackie Robinson, after all, was a hero and model to many Asian Americans, as we are reminded by Bette Bao Lord’s delicious 1984 children’s novel, “In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson.” Conversely, Robinson forged multiple contacts with Asian Americans, speaking before social and fraternal groups and greeting fans. Even before he started his major league career, he was a champion of equal rights. In fall 1944, Esther Takei returned to Los Angeles from the Granada WRA camp and enrolled at Pasadena Community College — then called Pasadena Junior College. She thereby became the first returning Japanese American student in a West Coast institution. When racist whites organized to refuse her entry, a group of progressive-minded locals organized to defend her rights. Jackie Robinson, a Pasadena native and former star athlete at PJC, publicly expressed his support for Takei.

Still, the show’s most glaring (and ironic) omission of a Dodgers player was that of Glenn Burke, whose contributions as the first openly gay man to play Major League baseball are now being recognized and commemorated. Burke, an African American raised in Oakland, made his major league debut with the Dodgers in 1976 at age 23, and played on their pennant-winning 1977 team as a second-string outfielder and pinch hitter. Despite Burke’s talents on the field, members of the Dodger organization showed signs of unease as his sexuality became an increasingly open secret. Club Vice President Al Campanis offered Burke a reported $50,000 bonus if he would marry a woman, which Burke declined. Burke’s relationship with team manager Tommy Lasorda meanwhile became strained when he became close friends with Lasorda’s son Tommy, Jr. (Although the younger Lasorda reportedly had affairs with men, and died in 1991 of complications relating to AIDS, the manager denied that his son was gay and insisted that he had died of other causes). Ultimately, in May of 1978 Burke was traded to Oakland A’s for outfielder Bill North. Davey Lopes and other Dodger teammates later confirmed their belief that the club management traded Burke away because he was gay. 

Burke played as a regular outfielder with the A’s in 1978. However, after a neck injury, he took off most of the 1979 season. In spring 1980, he tried to return to the A’s, only to be victimized by antigay slurs from manager Billy Martin. In the face of the pressure, added to the effects of his injury, Burke decided to retire. Two years later, Burke came out publicly in an article in the magazine Inside Sports and in press interviews, where he told the story of his struggles. The Dodgers do not seem to have responded publicly.

In the following years, Burke lived in the Bay Area and became a well-known figure in San Francisco’s Castro gay community. Tragically, Burke was hit by a car in 1987, and his leg was broken in three pieces. The catastrophic injury helped trigger his decline into drug addiction and homelessness. He died of complications relating to AIDS in 1995. In 2014, even as Jason Collins and Michael Sam became the first active major sports athletes to come out, Major League Baseball invited Burke’s siblings to attend the All-Star Game as guests of honor in belated tribute to their brother’s groundbreaking role and courage. Billy Bean, another ex-Dodger who felt unable to be open during his Major League career, but who came out publicly after retirement, has meanwhile been appointed as an advisor to the Major Leagues on inclusion efforts.

Glenn Burke’s experience suggests that the values of tolerance and brotherhood espoused by the Dodgers, and vindicated by Jackie Robinson and other players, had certain limits in other areas. It is understandable that an exhibit created with the assistance of the Dodgers would tend not to emphasize the less positive aspects of their record, but I do regret that this aspect of civil rights has been excluded entirely. It is to be hoped that the Japanese American National Museum will find ways to feature such stories as part of their mission in the future.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca.

 

Speak Your Mind

*

Kyplex Cloud Security Seal - Click for Verification