Monday, October 31, 2011

95. Buck Lai: The Celestial Speed Demon

If you've been reading my stories for a while, you'd already know that before the 1950's, the best ballplayers weren't all in the major leagues. The Negro Leagues had their stars as did the Cuban and Puerto Rican leagues. Here in the States we had a thriving semi-pro circuit and that is where guys like Buck Lai plied their trade on Saturday and Sunday afternoons throughout the 1920's...

Three times Buck Lai came perilously close to becoming the first Asian-American to play Major League ball. The first time was 1915 when the Chicago White Sox invited Lai, then known as Lai Tin, to join the team for spring training. Sox manager Nixey Callahan had seen Lai play ball when he toured with the Chinese Travelers. The team was made up of Hawaiians and each summer toured extensively throughout the States. The son of Chinese immigrants and a native of Hawaii, Lai was a star athlete back in Honolulu not only in baseball but he held the high school record for the 100 yard dash and running broad jump. Though newspapers reported his expected presence at Chicago’s camp that spring, Callahan was sacked as manager and apparently so was Lai’s direct link to the the Sox.

By 1916 Buck had married a Brooklyn girl named Isabel and was living in Audubon, N.J. While working as an inspector for the Pennsylvania Railroad he played semi-pro ball against top-notch Negro League teams and other touring ball clubs, continuing to make a name for himself in the press becoming known by the nickname "Speed Demon". Two years later the Philadelphia Phillies came knocking and after a tryout was signed to their farm club in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His first year there he batted a respectable .293 and along with Chinese-American teammate Andy Yim, was a favorite of the Bridgeport Americans’ fans. According to newspaper accounts the two “Celestials” sometimes serenaded the crowd, Buck belting out the hits accompanied by Yim on ukulele.

The next year he suffered an injury to his hand which dogged him for the rest of his life and effectively ended his hopes of making the big leagues. Lai played a total of 4 seasons with Bridgeport and batted around .260, about average for the league.

Still keeping his day job, Buck joined the Brooklyn Bushwicks, a major league-quality semi-pro team and was their starting third baseman for more than 10 years. The Bushwicks played 4 games a week and often out-drew the Dodgers in attendance. Besides Buck the Bushwicks boasted quite a few former and future major league players and they played against the best teams in outsider baseball.

Baseball researcher Scott Simkus reviewed 248 Bushwick box scores for games played against top-tier Negro League competition and found Buck hit an astonishing .297! He then compared that record with another contemporary third baseman, Negro Leaguer and Hall of Famer Judy Johnson who hit .295 against the same teams as Buck. Since the Bushwicks were very well-known around the New York area, it was just a matter of time before John McGraw of the New York Giants came calling.

In the spring of 1928, 33 year-old Buck Lai travelled to Augusta, Georgia to join the Giants. Though Buck played third his whole career, New York already had the best third-sacker in the league, Freddie Lindstrom. Buck was offered the chance to win the job at second base but failed to make the cut. Newspaper accounts reported that while Buck was not the best fielder, he more than compensated with his base running, batting and all-around smart sense of the game. Despite all this the Giants thought he was too small to last a season in the majors. Reluctantly Buck agreed to join the Giants top farm club. Lai played 4 games for the Jersey City Skeeters before calling it quits and rejoining the Bushwicks.

In the mid-1930’s Buck formed his own travelling team called the All-Hawaiian Nine featuring the best players of Chinese, Japanese and Hawaiian decent. As the they toured the U.S. showcasing the skills of Asian-Americans, a few of his players were offered tryouts by pro ball clubs. Taking after his Pop, Buck’s teenage son, Lai Jr., joined the All-Hawaiians as well. By 1939 Buck had retired from playing ball and resettled back in Audubon, N.J. While working at a ship building company, Buck stayed active in the game by managing a few semi-pro teams in the Camden area and scouting for the Dodgers. With a lifetime of brilliant outsider baseball behind him, Buck Lai passed away in March, 1978 at the age of 83.

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