Tuesday, May 8, 2012

117. Lee Gum Hong & Kenso Nushida: China vs. Japan


Back when I was living in Hollywood, I was browsing the baseball section of a bookstore on the Sunset Strip and came across a book I'd never seen before called The Golden Game: The Story of California Baseball by Kevin Nelson. Since I always like to learn about local baseball history where ever I happen to live, I picked up the book and was impressed by Nelson's offering. While most authors would have retold the standard Pacific Coast League stories, the Brothers DiMaggio, Teddy Ballgame's humble beginnings and the coming of the Dodgers, The Golden Game was much more because it was chock-full of little known aspects of the game's history in California. One of the neatest stories I gleaned from Nelson's book was the 1932 duel between Japanese and Chinese pitchers meant to capitalize on the ongoing Sino-Japanese war in China. Always on the lookout for interesting stories to research further I took note of the game and just recently got enough relevant research material to write this week's story...

It's the last home stand of the 1932 Pacific Coast League season. Oakland Oaks owner Vic DeVincenzi is looking at the end of yet another dismal year for his club both in the standings as well as at the gate. Unable to field a good team he knew he'd have to do something different to attract cash-strapped depression-era crowds. With the Sacramento Senators coming to town DeVincenzi knew they were sure to pitch their new attraction, Japanese-American Kenso Nushida. A late season signing, Nushida had so far appeared in every one of the PCL ballparks except Oakland and his presence on the field allowed the Senators to tap into the otherwise ignored Japanese-American fan base. While the usual white PCL fans stayed home rather than spend their hard earned money on lousy ball teams, Japanese-Americans turned out in droves to support the first ballplayer of Japanese extraction to play professional ball.

The business savvy gears in DeVincenzi's mind started turning. There had to be some angle to this Nushida business that he could build upon. Then looking at the days newspaper he saw it - Japan had recently invaded Manchuria in Northern China. Outside of Asian communities not many Americans really cared or even knew about what was happening in Manchuria but among the Japanese and especially the Chinese communities this was an heated issue. DeVincenzi turned the thing around in his head and soon had his plan - Sacramento had their Japanese pitcher - Oakland with it's large Chinese population will produce their own Chinese ballplayer and settle the Sino-Japanese war right there on a baseball diamond!

It's not known how much Sacramento's signing of Kenso Nushida was serious or publicity stunt, but I'm pretty sure Senators' owner Lew Moreing was seeing dollar signs when he sat down to get Nushida's signature on a contract making him the first Japanese-American to play organized baseball. While he may have been a legit prospect, Sacramento's rookie wasn't a spring chicken by any stretch of the imagination - he was in his early 30's and had been around. He was a "Nisei" which was Japanese for "second generation American" and was born and raised in Hawaii where he was teammates with another Japanese-American baseball pioneer, Ken Zenimura at Honolulu's Mills High School.

Known by his Americanized first name of Roy, Nushida was a pretty small guy, about 5'-2" and just over 100 lbs, but he made up for his diminutive stature with an impressive assortment of curve balls. A teammate on the Senators called him "one of the smartest pitchers he had ever seen" and crowds loved to watch the little pitcher strike out the much larger players he faced. Nushida played around the semi-pro circuit on the island and in 1922 he came to America with the barnstorming Honolulu All-Stars. Recognizing that the West Coast's burgeoning Nisei baseball circuit, Roy Nushida decided to stay in Northern California and for the next 9 years became a fixture of the Japanese-American semi-pro leagues in between working as a salesman in Stockton. With the vast Japanese market so far untapped by any Pacific Coast League team, Moreing and the Senators had a marketing goldmine. When Nushida was signed by the team, the Senators were barely holding onto third place statistically unable to get close to the first or second slot. With Sacramento about to embark on their last trip around the PCL circuit it was the perfect time to bring out their Asian rookie to create a media buzz and put those Japanese fans in the stands from LA to Seattle. Changing his first name from Roy back to his Japanese name of Kenso, Nushida began his tour of the league.

Now with the Senators coming to Oaks Park, owner Vic DeVincenzi sent out feelers searching for a talented pitcher of Chinese extraction. He didn't have to go far - two of his regulars, catcher Bill Raimondi and first baseman Leroy Anton had been teammates at Oakland High with a damn good prospect. Al Bowen was currently a 21 year-old strike out ace for the Wa Sung Athletic Club in Oakland. He'd been the star of his high school team and along with his two brothers helped form the Wa Sung ball club in 1926 which created quite a name for itself beating up on local semi-pro teams. By the time he signed with the hometown Oaks he was an inch shy of 6 feet and had been striking out between 12 and 16 batters a game. His dominance on the mound attracted large crowds from Oakland's Chinatown so along with a decent arm Bowen came complete with a ready-made fan base. The only problem was his name - Al Bowen didn't exactly bring to mind exotic images of the magical far east. As long as he was appearing in an Oaks uniform Al Bowen would be known by his Chinese name - Lee Gum Hong.

Nowadays it would be unthinkable and down right irresponsible to fan the flames of a foreign ethnic war in order to boost attendance at a sporting event. Could you imagine a modern-day highly publicised Jewish-Palestinian pitching showdown between the Columbus Clippers and the Buffalo Bisons? In 1932 it wasn't insensitive but damn good business and the newspapers played along doing all they could to sell some extra papers in the waning days of the baseball season. Besides the Oakland and Sacramento papers, news of the Sino-Japanese showdown was carried nationwide. Nushida seems to have remained silent on the whole thing but the newly named Lee Gum Hong shot his mouth off like a proto Mohammad Ali telling sports writers "this is a battle between nations. I represent China and Nushida represents Japan. And China shall win."

The "Japan vs China" game was set for Wednesday night, September 28th. The publicity spread in the days leading up to the game brought in just the Chinese fan support Vic DeVincenzi had hoped for. The Wa Sung Athletic Club alone bought 100 tickets and Oakland's Chinatown where Lee lived flocked to the ballpark in droves. All told more than 3,000 enthusiastic fans filled Oaks Park, a darn good turnout for a late season game between two lousy teams going nowhere.

With his former Oakland High catcher, Bill Raimondi, behind the plate, Lee Gum Hong took the mound in the first inning. His supporters in the crown not only voiced their approval vocally but with a liberal supply of firecrackers, the traditional Chinese method of celebration. Hong quickly gave up an unearned run through a fielding error and a hit but got out of the inning without any further damage. Nushida was hit hard from the start and by the second inning the Oaks scored 3 runs. The little pitcher showed signs of tiring and after having the satisfaction of striking out Hong was sent to the showers after 4 1/3 innings. All told Nushida gave up 3 hits, 3 runs, 3 walks and struck out 2.

After giving up the 1 unearned run in the first, Hong pitched marvelously and to the delight of the firecracker throwing fans had a 1 hitter going into the 6th inning. He was wild though and had put 2 Senators on the bases after hitting them with pitches. Now taking the mound in the 6th Hong fell victim to the Oaks lousy fielding. A cheap infield single by Cal Lahman followed by Alex Kampouris' hit put runners on first and second. Perhaps unnerved by the developments, Hong then drilled Ray French in the ribs to load the bases with no outs. Kettle Wirts hit an easy double play ball to shortstop Greg Mulleavy but he bobbled it and a run crossed the plate with only one out. Nushida's replacement, pitcher Lefty Vinci slugged a base clearing triple and Hong was taken out of the game. Hong had lasted 5 1/3 innings, gave up 4 hits, walked 4 and got charged with 2 earned runs and was tagged with the loss as the Senators went on to beat Oakland 7 to 5.

The Sino-Japanese war wasn't resolved by any stretch of the imagination that night. Hong and Nushida were pretty disappointing as they were both out of the game by the 6th inning but the crowd brought in by the spectacle couldn't be ignored. Since in the Pacific Coast League each series between teams lasted the entire week, the Oaks and Senators decided to have a rematch 5 days later on the last day of the 1932 season.

Lee's fans came through again and the stands at Oaks Park were filled for the Sunday double header. The Senators took the first game making it 5 straight over the Oaks but the crowd was really only there for the finale - the great Chinese-Japanese Battle Royale. The second game between Nushida and Hong was to be only 7 innings, tradition back then for a double header.

Hong allowed 2 hits in the first but settled down and got out of the inning. Nushida looked shaky in his half of the first but got out of it as well. In Hong's half of the second inning, Cal Lahman, the same guy who started the Senators rally that proved his undoing in the previous game, smacked a solo home run. This time however Hong bore down and ended the inning. The wheels came off Nushida in the 4th. Local boy Bobby Loane, a recent signing who had mostly rode the bench, showed what he could do by expertly beating out a slow roller sparking the Oaks offence. Just like that Oakland got 6 more hits without making an out and 7 runs crossed the plate before Nushida was sent to the showers.

As the stands periodically erupted with firecrackers, Hong cruised to an easy 1 run victory. After the game the fans swarmed Hong and the celebrations continued late into the night in Oakland's Chinatown. Presumably Vic DeVincenzi and the Oaks front office must have been celebrating as well. Their little commercialization of a far-off war paid off handsomly.

As for the real Sino-Japanese war, the Imperial Army quickly subdued the disorganized Chinese Army and installed a puppet government in Manchuria which they renamed Manchukuo. Four years later the Japanese provoked an incident with the Chinese Army at the Marco Polo Bridge which they used as an excuse to invade the rest of China. The first stage of the Second World War had begun, the results of which still negatively effect relations between the two Asian nations.

The local Sacramento and Oakland papers speculated that both Hong and Nushida would be back with their respective teams the following season but it was not to be. Neither played again in professional baseball, though both had long careers with local semi-pro teams. The reason why neither player were invited back is unknown. It was proven that the presence of a Chinese or Japanese player on a team would bring in the lucrative and so far untapped Asian market. It makes no rational sense why Oakland or Sacramento, both terrible teams, couldn't carry a player like Hong and Nushida or find more talented Asian-Americans to replace them. The signing of Hong was a publicity stunt to begin with, but he did pitch decent ball. Given the chance he might have developed into a pretty good pro ballplayer. Nushida on the other hand was a darn good semi-pro player but he was getting up there in age and his stature dictated that he just didn't have the stamina to last a whole game at the professional level. But all throughout Northern California there were plenty Nesei who could, but after 1932 no one cared to look.

Lee Gum Hong, now Al Bowen once again, organized charity efforts for Chinese refugees during the long war with Japan and served in the United States Foreign Service overseas. He remained a fixture of the Bay Area's Chinese community for the rest of his life. Roy Nushida tried unsuccessfully to catch on with a professional team and returned to playing in the Northern California Nisei leagues where he was well known. He returned to his native Hawaii in 1940 to attend to his father who was in ill health. Nushida and his family were on Oahu as the Japanese bombs dropped on December 7th and he remained in the islands until his death in 1983.

Besides Kevin Nelson's great book, I was greatly helped by Bill Staples, Jr. fellow SABR member and author of the book on Nisei baseball pioneer Kenichi Zenimura. When I wrote to Bill about the story I was thinking of writing but running into dead ends, he kindly pointed me in the right direction when it came to Kenso Nushida since he was a teammate of Zenimura and was included his book. Thanks again Bill!

After writing this story I was contacted by a few members of Kenso Nushida's family. Dave Shoo kindly corrected me on a few factual errors about his Grandpa which I incorporated into the post. Thanks Dave and mahalo right back at you!


2 comments:

  1. Hi -- Kenso Nushida was my great uncle. Do you have anymore prints of his baseball card? I'd like to buy a few for my cousins (his grandchildren). Please let me know how I might get a few.

    Many thanks!

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  2. Gary:

    Thanks for the wonderful account of the "Japan vs. China" series between the Sacramento Senators and Oakland Oaks. My grandfather was Kenso Nushida, and I had read a little about the game but didn't know any of the details that you recounted. I also didn't know that he changed his name to "Roy," at least on the ball field. However, your post and Nelson's book contain an error. My grandfather did not return to Hawaii in 1942 to escape possible internment. He actually came back to the islands in 1940 to help care for his father, who was ill at the time. He and his family (including my mother) were on Oahu as the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor.

    Thanks again for uncovering and sharing Kenso's story with us.

    Mahalo,

    Dave Choo

    ReplyDelete