Japan’s First Black Baseball Player
Even if you don’t follow baseball, you might have heard of a dude named Jackie Robinson. You know, first black player in the MLB in 1947, brilliant talent, philanthropist, all that.
But what you might not know is that 11 years before the MLB color line was broken, there was a black pitcher playing for a Tokyo team.
In 1936, a group of seven clubs came together to form the forerunner to what is now the Nippon Pro Baseball Organization — the Japanese equivalent of the MLB. One of the teams, Dai Tokyo, ended the first spring/summer season with an embarrassing record of 0 wins, 1 tie, and 13 losses. So the owner asked an acquaintance to find some foreign talent.
That foreign talent arrived on a boat on October 5th, 1936. His name was Jimmy Bonner, he was 24, and he had a hell of a pedigree.
He was also black.
According to the Kokumin Newspaper that came out the next day, Bonner was playing pro for a black team after graduating middle school, and was playing for the Oakland Oaks when drafted. He had been batting above .400 for the previous five years.
Some of this might not quite be accurate. I can’t find any evidence of the Oakland Oaks having black players at the time (especially after their 1916 mixup with Jimmy Claxton), nor can I find any record of him in any Negro League rosters. But then again, there were a lot of teams back then, so he may have just been on ‘a black team,’ not necessarily a Negro League team.
The name and location certainly check out, though. Recently, an old contract popped up in an auction. It’s for one James E. Bonner, who promises to play for the Dai Tokyo Baseball Club:
Note item (2), where it mentions payment. Bonner was signed for the exorbitant salary of 400 yen per month. That wouldn’t even get you a hot lunch in Tokyo nowadays, but in 2014 money, 400 yen is something like $23,000 a month. For comparison, the biggest pitcher at the time, Eiji Sawamura, was making about 170 yen a month.
Here’s the second page:
Check out the guy listed at the bottom as the agent for Dai Tokyo — Harry Kono. Harry was a businessman and baseball fanatic from Alameda, California. He would later go on to form the Alameda Kono All-Stars, a team of Japanese-American players that would tour Japan, as well as a team that he put together while imprisoned in the Gila River internment camp during WWII.
Bonner received a hero’s welcome.
This really stands out if you consider the barbaric conditions black Americans were dealing with in the 30s, in their own country. Talented players couldn’t get a job in the white leagues; Bonner went halfway across the world and was getting paid like a king.
It’s also interesting to note that the papers didn’t just refer to him as an ‘American’ player, or try to lighten him up in photos or play down his race. They were positively amped to have a black dude on Japanese soil. There’s probably some reasons for that, though.
At any rate, the headlines are something to see:
“Black Pitcher Rushes Onto the Scene
Excellent Fielder, Holder of Amazing Strikeout Record”
They weren’t kidding about the strikeout record. He was reported as having thrown 46 strikeouts in three games (over two days, no less) in the States, and his performance in practice was suitably impressive. Newspapers said that he had a viciously fast and powerful submarine pitch. One of the catchers said that most players in the league probably wouldn’t even be able to hit it.
Despite the language barrier, he did make an impression on spectators. Aside from his skill, he got along well with his team. People described him as ‘athletic’ and ‘charming.’ He played a couple of unofficial matches, and things were looking good.
But once the real season started, so did the trouble.
Bonner couldn’t keep control of his pitches, and walked 14 batters over the space of four games. In his third game, he made a fielding error that cost them the match. News reports went from glowing, to confused, to dismissive.
After only a month, he was taken off the roster.
And nobody knows what happened after that. He played his last game on November 10th, and an article that came out in the Yomiuri Shimbun said that he’d been sent back to America for ‘health reasons.’ Did he move back to Oakland? Did he ever play again? It’s hard to say, because the newspapers simply stopped following the story, and I can’t find record of him in any U.S. papers. Nobody’s even quite sure of where or when he was born, and the pictures included in this piece are the only ones anyone’s ever seen of him.
Here’s the only other picture I’ve got, along with another bruiser of a headline:
Releases an Amazing Crossfire
from his Iron Arm”
The craziest part is that even though Bonner didn’t live up to expectations on the mound, he was a hell of a batter. In the few games he did play, he got 11 hits out of 24 at-bats, leaving him with a 0.458 batting average.
The former owner of Dai Tokyo admits in his memoir that he didn’t know much about baseball at the time. Maybe he let the hype get to him, and fired Bonner too early. It’s possible that if he had let Bonner concentrate on his batting game, and given him some time in another fielding position, Bonner could have had an impact on the game of baseball. In Japan, and maybe in America.
But he never had the chance.