IMPORTING AMERICA’S PASTIME: The 75th anniversary of U.S. ball players in Japan

PLAY BALL! — George Matsuura in Nagoya, 1936. photo courtesy of Wally Matsuura

Japan’s love affair with baseball began in the early 1880s and this shared passion created an enduring bond with the United States, surviving even through war. In fact, in Nicholas Dawidoff’s book “The Catcher Was a Spy,” the author notes that after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, Major League ballplayer Moe Berg pleaded with the Japanese people over short-wave radio saying at one point, “I ask you, what sound basis is there for enmity between two peoples who enjoy the same national sport?”

Following the war, it was Lefty O’Doul’s baseball tour of Japan with his San Francisco Seals that greatly aided the healing process between the two countries.

Even with its long baseball history, it wasn’t until 1936 that Japan finally accepted the idea of a professional league. Until then, baseball was enjoyed as a purer, amateur sport. Beginning in 1905, the United States and Japan began a tradition of baseball tour exchanges. By 1934, the stage was finally set with the momentous visit of Babe Ruth and an American All-Star team to Japan.

In an attempt to challenge Ruth’s team, Yomiuri Shimbun owner Matsutaro Shoriki put together a team of the best Japanese players he could find. Following the games with the American All-Stars, Shoriki drew from this team to form the Dai Nippon Tokyo Yakyu Club. Lefty O’Doul would soon rename them the Tokyo Giants.

With the assistance of Lefty O’Doul, the newly formed Tokyo Giants arranged a tour of North America. In early 1935, the team toured the U.S., with brief appearances in Canada and Mexico. Shoriki’s goal was to promote the team and encourage interest in a Japanese professional league. During the tour, the Giants were beaten only twice by Japanese American teams, once by the San Jose Asahi and once by the Los Angeles Nippons, according to Brian Niiya’s book “More Than a Game; Sport in the Japanese American Community.” The Giants reportedly offered Asahi pitching sensation Russell Hinaga a contract to play for them. They already had former L.A. Nippon player Jimmy Horio on the team and were on the prowl for new talent.

REMEMBER THE PAST — Bucky Harris McGalliard, a Japanese official, Buster North and Sam Takahashi at a hibachi grill. photo courtesy of the North Family

Two more players from the Nippons were acquired early in 1936. One player was Bucky Harris McGalliard, the team’s talented Caucasian catcher and the other was Sam Takahashi, the team’s phenomenal shortstop. It wasn’t the Giants, however, but a new team forming in Nagoya, now known as the Chunichi Dragons, who acquired these players.

The team also obtained Herb “Buster” North, a pitching sensation from the Paramount Cubs, who often played against the Nippons. The three left for Japan in February of 1936 and began playing exhibition games in March. On April 29, the first official game was played with Bucky and Sam as starters. Buster came in as a relief pitcher and won the game against Dai Tokyo. The three were soon being referred to as “The Three Musketeers.”

L.A. Nippons pitching ace George Matsuura, whose strong pitching bolstered Buster, the team’s starter, joined them in late June.

During the season, both Bucky and George arranged for their fiancés to come to Japan to marry. For a time, the couples shared living quarters.

Buster returned to his native Hawai‘i in September, with a record of two wins and five losses in the 12 games that he pitched. He soon returned in form as a strong pitcher for the Hawaiian Wanderers.

George had more pitching success in Japan with 8 wins and 9 losses in 23 games, but his father, concerned that he might be drafted by the Japanese Army, urged him to return to the U.S. George returned to the U.S. after the season.

Bucky and Sam both had strong seasons and returned in 1937 with the newly formed Tokyo Eagles team. During the fall season of 1937, Bucky won the MVP award and Sam led the league in runs and home runs (six).

Unfortunately, George’s father’s fears proved correct and in 1938, Sam was drafted in to the Japanese Imperial Army for two years.

MORE THAN A GAME — The descendants of the first American baseball players in Japan (left to right:) Wally Matsuura, Collece McGalliard Kull, Herb North Jr. with Ralph Pearce. photo courtesy of Ralph Pearce

Bucky continued with the Eagles for 1938, winning the home run title himself with six home runs in the spring season. This would be Bucky’s last season though, as his wife had returned to the U.S. to deliver their daughter, Collece, in September. Bucky gave an emotional goodbye speech in Japanese at a game held in his honor near the end of the season.

All four players survived the war, though Sam decided to remain in Japan. George — the longest surviving member of the group — passed away in 1991.

Coincidentally, in 1991 I read a book called “The Chrysanthemum and the Bat” by Robert Whiting. The book made two brief references to Bucky Harris and I became interested in learning more about his story. At first I thought that this was the Hall of Fame’s Bucky Harris from the Washington Senators, until I learned that his last name was McGalliard. Not finding any further information in English, I began digging up articles in Japanese baseball magazines from the Kinokuniya Book Store in San Jose and had them translated into English. I also located Japanese author Masaru Ikei, a professor at Keio University, who had interviewed Bucky in 1976.

Progress was slow in those pre-Internet days, but with the help of a fellow Japanese baseball enthusiast, Jeff Alcorn, I finally located Bucky Harris’s daughter Collece in 1995. About that time, I also located the North and Matsuura families. Through Japanese author Yoichi Nagata, I learned that the remaining teammate, Sam Takahashi, had no children.

After meeting and interviewing the surviving families, my curiosity was satisfied for a while. I then continued research for my book on Japanese American baseball, “From Asahi to Zebras,” which was published in 2005.

For the last several years, I have been contributing to a book on San Jose’s Japantown, which should be out next year. Finally, after 15 years, I have turned my attention back to the story of Bucky Harris and the first Americans in Japanese baseball. I began my renewed efforts last year with a trip to Tokyo’s Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum for research and to meet with Professor Ikei, who is now retired. More recently, I traveled to Los Angeles for research at the Japanese American National Museum’s Hirasaki National Resource Center. I decided to try and combine the visit with a reunion of the players’ families.

On Sunday May 15, I met with the McGalliard, North and Matsuura families for a reunion to celebrate their fathers’ venture to Japan 75 years ago. We gathered at the home of Wally Matsuura in Los Angeles. This was the first time the players’ children had an opportunity to meet. It was a wonderful evening full of stories and the renewal of friendship between families.

 

Ralph Pearce is the author of the book “From Asahi to Zebras: Japanese American Baseball in San Jose, Calif.” He has been contributing to an upcoming book about San Jose’s Japantown and is doing research for a new book about the first Americans in Japanese baseball. He can be contacted at rguy@prodigy.net.

 

All player statistics from http://www.japanbaseballdaily.com/DataWarehouse.html

Comments

  1. Great story. I can’t wait for ralph’s book

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