Friday, April 29, 2011

74. Kenichi Zenimura: U.S.-Japanese Baseball Ambassador

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (May) our current feature is on Japanese American Baseball Pioneer, Kenichi Zenimura (1900-1968). While Jackie Robinson and the Negro Leagues have been well documented, few baseball fans know about the Japanese American Nisei Leagues, or of Zenimura, their most influential figure. A phenomenal player who excelled at all nine positions, Zenimura possessed a gift for using the game to transcend the ignorance and intolerance of his era. As a player, captain, and manager, he worked tirelessly to promote Japanese American baseball, leading goodwill trips to Asia, helping to negotiate tours of Japan by Negro League all-stars and Babe Ruth, and establishing a 32-team league behind the barbed wire of Arizona’s Gila River Internment Camp during World War II.

“Kenichi Zenimura, Japanese American Baseball Pioneer” (McFarland 2011) is a new book by SABR member Bill Staples, Jr. With a foreword by Don Wakamatsu, the first Asian-American manager in MLB history, this biography of the "Father of Japanese-American Baseball" delivers a thorough and fascinating account of Zenimura’s life. In anticipation of the book’s release in June, Staples shares a summary of one of the most under-appreciated aspect of Zenimura’s career, and that of Japanese American baseball in general – the important role played in pre-war U.S.-Japanese baseball relations.

The 1922 MLB Tour to Japan: A Blow to American Sportsmanship
In the fall of 1922 Major League Baseball announced that it was sending a team of all-stars to tour Japan. Among the stars selected were Luke Sewell (Indians, c), Waite Hoyt (Yankees, p), Irish Meusel (Giants, of), George “High-Pockets” Kelley (Giants, 1b) and Casey Stengel (Giants, of).[1] The tour was led by Herb Hunter and was the brainchild of American League Commissioner Ban Johnson, who said, “Perhaps someday we will have the Champions of America meeting the winners of the Japanese series in a real world’s series. This may be my dream, but it is a dream I shall cherish until it materializes.”[2]

On October 14, 1922, Herb Hunter’s all-star club and a young Kenichi Zenimura were literally two ships passing in the night. At that same time that the all-stars were heading West across the Pacific, young Zenimura was returning from Japan where he spent several months coaching baseball at Koryo High School. The Koryo team roster included his cousin Tatsumi Zenimura, outfielder and future Meiji University team captain, and Kisaku Kato, future player and manager for Nankai of the Nippon Professional Baseball league.[3]

Zenimura was born in Hiroshima in 1900, moved to Honolulu in 1907, and as a young man moved to the U.S. mainland after visiting relatives in Fresno. He arrived in 1920 and immediately assumed a leadership role with the nascent Fresno Athletic Club. While he was away coaching at Koryo, the Seattle Asahi won the 1922 West Coast Japanese baseball championship and the rights to represent the U.S. during a tour of Japan in 1923. Zeni had devised a plan to bolster the talent of his club to claim the West Coast Japanese Baseball championship from Seattle. The plan required another trip back to Japan and then on to Hawaii to recruit his former Island teammates to join him on the mainland in California.

Back in Japan, the 1922 MLB All-Stars took on and defeated every college, industrial and amateur team the country had to offer – except one. On November 23, Herb Hunter’s men lost 9 to 3 to the amateur Mita Club, led by pitcher Michimaro Ono.[4] On the surface, one would think that the Mita Club and fans would be happy with the victory over the Americans, but they were not. Reports out of Japan explained why:

America's reputation for sportsmanship suffered a severe blow when the American baseballers threw away Sunday's came to the Mita local nine, which is strong nationally, but obviously no match for the American professionals … The general opinion was frankly expressed that the Americans dropped the frame for advertising purposes, anticipating increased gate receipts later at Osaka and other parts … The Tokio Asahi expressed the disappointment, “We welcomed the American team because we thought they were gentlemanly and sportsmanlike. They have now shown themselves to be full of the mean professional spirit. Japanese baseball followers are not foolish enough to believe they tried to beat Mita … they disappointed our hopes and left an unpleasant impression upon us.”[5]

Losing pitcher Waite Hoyt would later explain that he and his teammates were just “foolin’ around” on the field and meant no disrespect to their Japanese hosts. Nonetheless, the damage was done. As a result of the All-Stars thrown-game fiasco – and perhaps other factors such as the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake in Japan, and restrictive post-season play policies established by Commissioner Landis – no major league team would tour Japan for another eight years. (Note: Ty Cobb did tour Japan in 1928, however it was as an individual and not as a member of an MLB team tour.)

Filling the MLB Void: The Nisei and Negro Leagues Step Up to the Plate
This eight-year (1923-1931) major league void was proudly filled by Zenimura and his West Coast Nisei League peers. Ironically though, just as Zenimura and his teammates were about to enter the role of goodwill baseball ambassadors to Japan, on November 13, 1922 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ozawa v. U.S. to reaffirm the ban on Japanese immigrants becoming naturalized U.S. citizens.[6] First-generation Japanese Americans, or Isseis like Zenimura, would have to wait another 30 years for the opportunity to call the United States of America their true home. Despite the ruling, Issei proudly represented their adopted country during several tours back to Japan. Specifically, during the eight year MLB-team void, Japanese American teams barnstormed the land of their ancestors approximately ten times, with Zenimura involved in four of the tours (1924, 1927, 1931 and 1937). The following is a comparison of pre-WWII tours to Japan by major leaguers and that of Nisei and Negro Leaguers:

MLB Tours to Japan, Pre-WWII
1908 Reach All-Americans
1913 MLB Giants-White Sox
1920 MLB All-Stars
1922 MLB All-Stars
1928 Ty Cobb (MLB exhibition)
1931 MLB All-Stars (Gehrig, O'Doul)
1934 MLB All-Stars (Ruth, Gehrig)

Nisei-Negro Leagues Baseball Tours to Japan, Pre-WWII
1907 St. Louis-Hawaii
1914 Seattle Asahi
1915 Honolulu Asahi
1915 Seattle Asahi
1918 Seattle Asahi
1920 Honolulu Asahi
1920 Seattle Asahi
1921 Hawaii All-Stars
1921 Seattle Asahi
1921 Vancouver Asahi
1923 Seattle Asahi
1924 Fresno Athletic Club*
1925 San Jose Asahi
1925 Sacramento Nippons
1926 Honolulu Asahi
1927 Aratani Guadalupe Packers
1927 Fresno Athletic Club*
1927 Philadelphia Royal Giants (Negro Leagues)
1928 Stockton Yamato
1931 Kono Alameda All-Stars*
1931 Los Angeles Nippon
1931-32 Philadelphia Royal Giants (Negro Leagues)
1933 Seattle Taiyos
1935 Nipponese All-Stars
1937 Kono Alameda All-Stars*
1940 Honolulu Asahi

*Note: Zenimura participated in the 1924, 1927 and 1937 tours, and coached the 1931 Kono Alameda All-Star players prior to their tour.

Debating the Birth of Pro Ball in Japan
The Nippon Professional Baseball league was established in 1936. Many baseball historians credit the famous 1934 MLB tour with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig as the primary inspiration for the start of the first professional league in Japan. However, knowing what we know now about the role of Nisei and Negro Leagues ball clubs and their tireless efforts to export the American style of play before WWII, we now see that the 1934 MLB tour was simply the capstone for building professional baseball in Japan, and not the foundation.

In fact, in the book Gentle Black Giants, Japanese author and historian Kazuo Sayama credits the 1927 tour, especially Mackey and his Philadelphia Royal Giants teammates, as the inspiration for the start of professional baseball in Japan in 1936.[7] Sayama states that Japanese players and spectators knew about the racial segregation in professional sports in America and understood that, although they could not play in the Major League, they were as good as, or even better than, the major league players. Sabur Yokozawa, a Japanese player, later said how the Royal Giants played each game gentlemanly, with warm pedagogical thoughtfulness to the inexperienced Japanese players, while the All-American teams (of 1931 and 1934) sometimes treated the Japanese players with entertaining contempt during the actual games.[8]

Not all researchers agree with Sayama's strong sentiment, but the consensus is this – the 1927 Goodwill Tours of the Philadelphia Royal Giants and Fresno Athletic Club are much more significant than the footnote status they receive in baseball history books. During the 80th anniversary of the 1927 tours, the Nisei Baseball Research Project ( told that the intent in showcasing the role of Japanese Americans and the Negro League all-stars was not to take credit away from the major league tours but instead to “broaden the understanding that there are more ambassadors who built that (U.S.-Japan baseball) bridge.”[9]

After the end of WWII, Zenimura offered advice to his players that reflects a key lesson he learned during his goodwill tours to Japan during the 1920s and 30s. “Try to speed up the mutual feeling between the Americans and Japanese,” Zenimura said. “It is much easier to make efforts of starting a better understanding between us in the field of sports than trying to talk your way through the rough spots." Spoken like a true diplomat.

To learn more about Zenimura’s role as a global baseball pioneer and passionate U.S.-Japan ambassador, visit

Praise for the book:

Kenichi Zenimura, Japanese American Baseball Pioneer by Bill Staples, Jr. Foreword by Don Wakamatsu

Bill Staples, Jr. is a dedicated baseball historian, author and a meticulous researcher who utilizes twenty-first century technology to root out the most obscure facts about his subjects. His work on Kenichi Zenimura is a groundbreaking effort. –William F. McNeil, baseball historian, author, Sporting News-SABR Research Award Winner (2007), Five-time recipient of the Robert Peterson Award

Staples’ tireless research and love for the game has resulted in "Kenichi Zenimura, Japanese American Baseball Pioneer,” one of the great untold stories of our American pastime and an essential for any baseball faithful. –Kerry Yo Nakagawa, historian, author, filmmaker, founder/director of the Nisei Baseball Research Project

Hopefully (this book) helps transform a long-neglected chapter of baseball history – Nisei baseball history – into a well-chronicled saga for all fans of all races, creeds and colors to appreciate. –Don Wakamatsu, First Asian-American Manager in MLB History

Bill Staples, Jr., is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), a board member of the Nisei Baseball Research Project, and a past speaker at the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He lives in Chandler, Arizona. Learn more online at

[1] Baseball Tourists start trip today, New York Times, October 14, 1922, pg. 16
[2] Majors’ club picked to tour Japan, The Ogden Standard-Examiner, June 22, 1922, pg. 8
[3] Gila Parade of Baseball Stars, Gila News-Courier, October 7, 1943, pg. 6
[4] SABR Asian Baseball Committee Japanese Baseball Page,
[5] BIG LEAGUERS BOOT ONE IN JAPAN, Herbert Hunter takes MLB all-stars to Japan, The Fresno Bee, December 14, 1922, pg. 9
[6] Timeline,
[7] David King, “Finally Getting His Due,” San Antonio Express-News, July 30, 2006, Pg. 01C
[8] Sayama Kazuo, “Black Baseball Heroes: The Rise and Fall of The ‘Negro League’,” (Shinsho, 1994) 11-12
[9] Black Giants were treated like royalty, By Stephen Ellsesser,, February 23, 2007

Thursday, April 14, 2011

73. Mose Solomon: The Rabbi Of Swat

When I first started this blog a little over a year ago, I started receiving many requests for players to be profiled on here and given The Infinite Baseball Card Set "treatment." Out of all the emails I began to notice that it was not one particular player that was asked for the most, but rather a whole ethnic group: Jewish ballplayers. I did cards and stories on here of Sandy Koufax and Moe Berg, but I began slowly researching different players of the Jewish faith, trying to find characters who would fit in with the kind of stories I like to write. Guys with interesting stories who may not be known to the casual fan of baseball history. Mose Solomon was one of those guys, and in fact he appears on page 7 of the Premier Issue of "21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball."

By the early 1920’s the owners of all three of New York’s ballclubs recognized the prospective value in finding a viable Jewish star to play for their team. Jews made up a large part of New York’s population and they embraced the National Pastime with a passion. Their loyalty was spread evenly among the three teams and each owner salivated at the thought of discovering a Babe Ruth of the Jewish persuasion which would undoubtedly attract the bulk of the city’s Jewish fans. So imagine the excitement caused when news spread of a Jew from the Lower East Side playing in the minors in Kansas hitting an unheard of 49 home runs in the summer of 1923. Manager John McGraw of the New York Giants, watching his attendance get siphoned away by the Yankees and Babe Ruth, nearly tripped over himself trying to purchase the contract of this gold mine in the making. Before he even made it to the Polo Grounds he was dubbed “The Rabbi Of Swat” by the press. As the train carrying Mose Solomon from Kansas neared New York City, the expectation of a million fans had reached a crescendo.

Born on Hester Street on the Lower East Side, Mose Solomon’s immigrant parents moved the family west to Ohio when he was a kid. Mose and his brothers grew up big and athletic, one brother becoming the boxing champ of Ohio and Mose taking up both football and baseball. He played on the Carlisle Indian School football team that featured Jim Thorpe until he was unmasked as being a Caucasian by a sportswriter. Mose started his professional baseball career in 1921 with the Vancouver Beavers and in the rough and tumble world of the low minors he made a name for himself as a man who would not put up with any anti-Semitism. Unlike many other Jews at the time including his brother Henry, the champion boxer who called himself “Henry Sully”, Mose refused to change his name to a less-ethnic one. It became evident in any place he played that he had no reservations about using his fists to fight back. Mose Solomon was one tough Jew.

It was while playing for the Hutchinson Wheat Shockers in the Southwestern League in 1923 that Mose became a legend. Out of nowhere he pounded 49 home runs, breaking the old record set way back in 1895. By September he was batting .421 and leading the league in doubles, hits and runs scored. News of his feat made newspapers all over the country and that is how John McGraw became aware of what he thought would become the Giants key to financial success. However prodigious his offensive skills were, his defensive abilities left much to be desired. In just 108 games he committed 31 errors covering first base. Even Hutchinson’s management, who would benefit greatly from selling Solomon’s contract warned the Giants about his liability in the field. None-the-less, Giant’s scout Dick Kinsella purchased his contract from the Wheat Shockers and put Mose on the next train east.

The much-heralded “Jewish Babe Ruth” rode the Giants’ bench while McGraw decided what to do. Finally on the last home game of the season, with the crowd yelling for Mose Solomon to take the field, McGraw put him in as a replacement for outfielder Ross Youngs. In the 10th inning with the score tied 3-3 and a runner on second, Solomon slammed a double to drive home the winning run. He played one more game for the Giants that year and all told went 3 for 8, a batting average of .375. Although he was ineligible to play and would not be paid, McGraw wanted Solomon to stay with the team while they played the Yankees in the World Series. Mose knew his family needed money however and declined to stay in New York, choosing to play pro football instead. An insulted John McGraw sold Solomon to Toledo, letting him find out about his demotion by reading it in the newspaper.

Mose drifted around the low minors until 1929, ending his career with a .313 average but his offensive production never again approached his 1923 numbers. Always a liability in the field, Mose Solomon was a designated hitter born way too soon. After baseball he moved to Florida and began a long and successful career as a building contractor.

The Premier Issue of "21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball" is finally released and can be purchased by clicking on the tab right below the arrow on the main header of this blog.

Friday, April 1, 2011


HERE IT IS! Hot off the presses - the test copies of the Premier Edition of 21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball. Each new issue will be a 20 page themed journal featuring 14 or more original illustrations and stories like you've gotten used to seeing here on the Infinite Baseball Card Set blog. The premier issue's theme is "Jewish Baseball Pioneers & Stars" and features 14 original drawings and stories exploring the contribution Jewish players have made to the history of the game. Sure there's Moe Berg, Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax in this issue, but I also tried to bring you players you might not be that familiar with, after all, isn't that what you've come to expect from the Infinite Baseball Card Set blog?

The players featured and illustrated are as follows:

Lipman Pike - 1866 Philadelphia Athletics 
Jake Atz - 1902 New Orleans Pelicans 
Abel Kiviat - 1912 Olymics 
Guy Zinn - 1914 Baltimore Terrapins 
Al Schacht - 1919 Jersey City Skeeters 
Mose Solomon - 1923 Hutchinson Wheat Shockers 
Jimmie Reese - 1927 Oakland Oaks 
Hank Greenberg - 1929 Brooklyn Bay Parkways 
Coon Rosen - 1934 Friedman Boosters 
Moe Berg - 1934 Major League All-Stars 
Moe Franklin - 1946 Tampico Alijadores 
Sam Nahem - 1946 Brooklyn Bushwicks 
Mickey Rutner - 1950 Toronto Maple Leafs 
Sandy Koufax - 1953 Coney Island Parkviews

The journal is printed on glossy card stock and the illustrations are printed front and back, in eye-catching full color. This little book actually exceeds all my expectations and I'm very proud to unveil it today. Although this issue was written and illustrated solely by me, the future editions will be in conjunction with Scott Simkus, a fellow writer and researcher who shares my interest in the forgotten nooks and crannies of baseball history. Together we are finishing up the second issue of 21 which will be an in-depth look at the 1933 Pittsburgh Crawfords and will feature never-before seen statistics and 17 original illustrations.

21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball is $25 (shipping and handling included) and can be purchased by following the PayPal link below... (Books will be shipped starting on Saturday April 9th)