Wednesday, February 18, 2015

193. Cesar Fernandez: Spring, 80 Years Ago

Today the pitchers and catchers of the Cincinnati Reds organization begin spring training. Although it's 12 degrees here in Kentucky and I'm getting ready to go out and shovel snow, somewhere the sun is shining. Today is a hopeful day, the dawn of another year where anything can happen. 

I love this time. 

If you are a fan of a lousy team, then today is probably the brightest it will be all year, before the statistics are tallied and standings count, before playoff dreams are shattered yet again. If you are a fan of a good team, then today is the dawn of a year you will look back and remember with a certain fondness and years from now proudly tell your pals "I knew it from Spring Training we were going all the way!"

At least for a short while we can all forget about steroid scandals, sleazy player's unions and $12 beers and just focus on the game. Over the next few weeks we'll all watch the little one paragraph baseball stories in the morning newspaper grow longer and more plentiful as the rosters are pared down. In between European Premier League soccer segments and the latest football scandal, maybe ESPN will squeeze in an interview with a new can't-miss star. Some of us will quietly close the office door at work and tune in to a radio broadcast of a split-squad game from far away Florida or Arizona.

The point is, starting today with the "thwack!" of the first ball hitting a catcher's mitt, anything is possible.

And that brings me to Cesar Fernandez.

I don't know who Cesar Fernandez was. All I can find is that he was one of the many hopefuls that turned up at the Cincinnati Reds training camp in Tampa in the spring of 1935. The press photo I stumbled upon said nothing more than his name and that he was a catcher trying to land a place on the team. I don't know where he came from - Cuba or perhaps Puerto Rico? Could be Florida or NorCal. I managed to find that a guy named "Fernandez" (no first name) appeared in 17 games the previous summer with a single A Reds team in Jeannette, Pennsylvania. He hit .295 with a homer, triple and pair of doubles in 44 trips to the plate. As a catcher he made 5 errors in 14 games behind the plate. Probably was Cesar, I'd lay odds it was, but we'll probably never know. After his photo was taken he seems to have disappeared all together.

But today, it doesn't really matter who Cesar Fernandez was. Let's just look at the hope in his face and remember that on that spring day 80 years ago, he, like us, have no idea what the upcoming season holds. 

Play Ball!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

192. Shumza Sugimoto: A False Spring or Lost in Translation?

Yesterday I found a box on my porch containing five advance copies of my book "The League of Outsider Baseball". With shaking hands I cut open the box and started peeling back the cardboard packaging. Peering inside I hesitantly eyed the culmination of five years of work, the actual hard-bound realization of the most pleasurable project of my long career as an illustrator and writer. Next week I'll write a post with some nice photos (not lousy iPhone shots) of the book which I hope you find as incredibly rewarding and interesting as I do! 

Shumza Sugimoto.

He's a footnote to a footnote of baseball history, a ballplayer known not for what he did on the field, but for how he was kept off that field by the white powers that be. You can find Shumza Sugimoto mentioned in books and articles on Japanese baseball, New York Giants histories and scholarly studies of racism in the game. Some writers elevate Sugimoto to a Jackie Robinson before his time, one of the game's great "what-if?" questions. Some more creative historians draw a direct line linking Sugimoto with baseball's most favored "what-if" character, Moonlight Graham.

Who was Shumza Sugimoto?

First mention of the man comes in the Spring of 1905. The mighty New York Giants were beginning their pre-spring training in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Manager John McGraw, always on the prowl for fresh talent, spotted a Japanese ballplayer who happened to be in Hot Springs. As most blackball aficionados know, at the turn-of-the-century Hot Springs was the winter base for the best black baseball talent in the country. The opulent resorts in town fielded virtual outsider baseball all-star teams made up of some of the best black ballplayers in the land who doubled as hotel employees. In the days before radio, television and movies, taking in a ballgame was first-rate daytime entertainment for their guests.

A February 10, 1905 newspaper story reported that John McGraw discovered Shumza Sugimoto in his hotel's massage parlor where he was working as a masseuse. A New York Times article lists Sugimoto as being a 23 year-old outfielder weighing in at 118 pounds. Described as a "jiu jitsu expert", Sugimoto revealed that he had played the previous season with the Cuban Giants. At the time the Cuban Giants were one of the best outfits playing outside the white major leagues. To suit up with them you had to have some serious chops. The story goes on to say that McGraw had the masseuse/ballplayer/jui jitsu expert practice with the Giants who pronounced him as having "all the goods". It was reported that Sugimoto was "as good with the willow as with the wrestling art". Articles claimed that the Japanese outfielder could field, hit and run in "first class style". John McGraw told the sports writers that when the Giants broke training camp and went south on their spring exhibition tour he was taking the Japanese ballplayer with them. Some papers chose to leave off the part where the manager stated that he didn't think Sugimoto would eventually make the team. Follow up stories became a touch more fanciful, playing up Sugimoto's Jiu Jitsu. One story even claimed that Sugimoto came close breaking Turkey Mike Donlin's neck in a club house martial arts exhibition!

Then, as soon as it began, the story ends. Before the Giants left Hot Springs, Sugimoto declared in the February 25th edition of Sporting Life Magazine that he "does not like the drawing of the color line in his case, and says he will remain a semi-professional with the Creole Stars of New Orleans if his engagement by the Giants will be resented by the players of other clubs.”

Sugimoto's semi-voluntary retirement was picked up by a few newspapers who spun it into a broader discussion on race and sports. The above quote is interesting in that it is one of the earliest use of the phrase "color line" in conjunction with baseball. Articles appeared in the sporting press questioning why Japanese were excluded when American Indians were welcomed. One article has Cincinnati Reds managers Frank Bancroft and Ned Hanlon and the team's owner Garry Herrmann going on record as having no objections to a Japanese ballplayer and notes that there appeared to be no rule or by-law prohibiting Sugimoto from joining the Giants. Interestingly, Black athletes were not mentioned in the race discussion. At any rate, the Giants headed south to play their way into shape and Shumza Sugimoto disappears.

Or did he? I think the better question is: "Did Shumza Sugimoto  even exist in the first place?"

I'm really not sure. 

The Sugimoto story brought together two of the finest Blackball and Japanese baseball historians you could assemble: Rob Fitts and Ryan Whirty. However, this research dream team could unearth no previous or subsequent record on Shumza Sugimoto. Fitts, probably the fore-most American expert on Japanese baseball history, could find no trace of a ball playing Sugimoto in Japanese archives. Whirty is a specialist in Louisiana blackball and he could not verify even the existence of the Creole Stars of New Orleans team Sugimoto was to play for in 1905. Over the years Negro League historians like Gary Ashwill and Phil Dixon have successfully mined newspaper archives for information and box scores for the 1905-era Cuban Giants. Although the Cuban Giants played on the fringes of organized baseball, the team was very successful and left a trail of box scores and stories from wherever their barnstorming took them. Sugimoto doe not appear in any photograph of the team nor does his name appear in any box score or game recap.

But Bill Staples, the go-to man on Japanese ball players in America and head of SABR's Asian Baseball Committee has another take on the Cuban Giants/Creole Stars link. Bill suggests we take a step back from taking team names mentioned in the newspaper articles literally - "Cuban Giants" might have referred to one of the many barnstorming teams that used the name "Cubans" back at the turn-of-the-century. In Bill's own words: "It's not out of line to think that as an Issei, Sugimoto's English was not perfect, so perhaps he tried to explain his playing experience and a reporter misinterpreted what he said? I've seen many articles where a reporter gets a fact wrong, and then it is repeated by others. If we explore this possibility then maybe this would point us to more clues about Sugimoto the real person."

Also Bill brings to our attention that the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis brought many foreign ball players to the States. Again, I'll let Bill explain: "That year baseball was an exhibition sport there (perhaps with the Olympics too, which was held in conjunction with the fair), and teams and players came from all over to compete." Bill emailed me an example of a 1904 immigration record of a Cuban ball player arriving at the Port of New Orleans with the intention of attending the World's Fair. "With that it mind, I suspect there were other Cubans playing ball in St. Louis in 1904, and maybe this is where Sugimoto played briefly with a team that might have called themselves the Giants (Giants was a popular team name in the early 1900s). In we see that on March 8, 1904. S. Sugimoto arrived in New Orleans from Cuba. Perhaps he learned about the Cuban baseball plans in St. Louis World's Fair when he was in Cuba?" 

Very interesting stuff.

My own research uncovered that if you opened a newspaper in the spring of 1905 you'd find a few mentions of men and women named "Sugimoto", just none who played ball. There was a troupe of female Japanese jugglers and acrobats called the "Sugimoto's Score of Japanese" who toured the country from 1904 through 1906. These geisha-clad ladies played every vaudeville and opera house from California to Denver to Baltimore. A Mr. Sugimoto could be found touring the east coast giving intellectual talks on Buddhism to packed houses. Another man named Sugimoto was a prominent businessman in Cincinnati, Ohio and was touring the Midwest giving lectures on Japan. In the spring of 1905 it was announced that Waseda University's baseball team was scheduled to tour the eastern United States for the first ever Japanese-American Intercollegiate games.

Besides the name Sugimoto and Japanese baseball being readily found in newspapers across the United States, you have to take a broader look at the time period during which this McGraw story takes place. 

During 1904 and 1905 the Japan and Russia were fighting a savage war in Manchuria. While this conflict is all but forgotten today, back in '04 and '05 this was big news. Russia was a creaky superpower on the way to revolution and Japan was a brand-new nation that fascinated the West. The war began with Japan's sneak attack on the Russian port of Port Arthur. The complete defeat of the Russian Pacific Fleet was the first time an Asian nation inflicted a military defeat on a Western power. The subsequent Russo-Japanese War was the first modern conflict to be fought on a large scale using machine guns, observation balloons and all-steel and steam warships. This clash of modern arms attracted newspaper correspondents and military observers from every nation. Since the Japanese were on the offensive, most of the newspaper correspondents were attached to the Japanese army and the majority of newspaper articles on the war were Japan-centric. 

America loves an underdog and the majority of the country was pulling for little Japan. Plus the United States was in the middle of a surge of immigrants from Poland, Ukraine and other countries that were under the oppressive thumb of the Czar. All these newly minted Americans were rooting for Japan to kick the hell out of Russia.

If you were a bored and mildly playful sportswriter in the spring of 1905 with a hankering to file a phony dispatch about a foreign ballplayer, you'd most likely conjure up a Japanese one.

It's isn't like this hadn't happened before: as far back as 1887 the story of a Chinese ballplayer signed by the White Sox made the rounds. (Please the wild tale on Teang Wong Foo HERE). It is very interesting to note another, more well known incident that took place just a four years earlier featuring the exact same elements of the Sugimoto story: John McGraw, Hot Springs, Arkansas and an ethnic ball player. In the spring of '01, McGraw was the manager of the Baltimore Orioles and he tried unsuccessfully to pass off blackball star Charlie Grant as an American Indian named "Chief Tokohama". (For the whole story please see my post on Chief Tokohama HERE). The story made all the papers and the incident became an early baseball legend. It wouldn't be a stretch to imagine a bored sports writer conjuring a fake story to sell a few more newspapers. 

Bill Staples enters again to offer his take on whether or not a sports writer would fake this story. The February 25th Sporting Life article in which Sugimoto reveals he will remain a semi-pro was written by William F. H. Koelsch. Back at the turn-of-the-century Koelsch was a highly respected sports writer who closely followed the New York Giants before, during and after spring training. McGraw and his club were Koelsch's beat and he was the go-to man for anything Giants. Bill raises a good point: Would a guy like Koelsch risk his reputation by spreading false information?

As another side-note to this tangled tale is a story originating from Chicago in the winter of 1911. According to Chicago Cubs president Charles Webb Murphy an infielder named Ito Sugimoto wrote asking for a tryout with the club. The article mentions that this Sugimoto played semi-pro ball in Hawaii and San Francisco where he was a resident. The letter was forwarded to manager Frank Chance and just like Shumza six years before, this Sugimoto conveniently disappears...

Well, that's my take on the whole Sugimoto - first Japanese ballplayer - Cuban Giants story. On one hand, I would like to see the whole yarn proven true. The stories it provoked sparked a dialogue on racism and baseball's color line like never before. Like I wrote in the introduction, I've even seen it writen quite matter-of-factly that when Sugimoto left the Giants his place was taken by - wait for it - Archibald "Moonlight" Graham! Now that would be one heck of a story. (As Bill Staples points out, this comes from both men being mentioned in the same half page Sporting Life article by William F. H. Koelsch). On the other  hand, when put into a broader historical context, it not only reveals a long forgotten war but also demonstrates how Americans and the west in general were fascinated with the world's mysterious new superpower, Japan.

Special thanks goes out to Bill Staples who adds a great counter-point to my original story. You may remember Bill from a story and illustration we collaborated on just after the publication of his book "Kenichi Zenimura, Japanese American Baseball Pioneer”. This excellent piece of research not only recounts the life of a pioneering ball player but also tells the story of Japanese-American baseball in America, one of the great untold chapters of baseball history.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

191. Shipwreck Kelly: Football Star, Baseball Mercenary

Ah, Super Bowl Sunday. For a die-hard baseball fan like myself, no day makes baseball season seem as far away as Super Bowl Sunday. As a nod to football, yet keeping baseball in the forefront, I give you Shipwreck Kelly. Hard-core football historians (if there are any of them) know Kelly was a star running back for the University of Kentucky in the late 20's - early 30's and then was one of the first stars of the fledgling NFL. He also played baseball.

This little story about Shipwreck Kelly is part of a
series I've been working on for a few years: Bluegrass Baseball. Now that my book is wrapped up and at the publisher (on track for a May 5, 2015 release), I returned to this hardball tribute to my adapted home. While there aren't dozens of Hall of Famers that hailed from Kentucky, there are quite a few interesting characters that played a significant part in the history of our National Pastime. Over the past couple of years I've featured a few of them: Happy Chandler, Fred Toney, Casey Stengel, Mickey Stubblefield, Pee Wee Reese, Humpty Badel and Bob Bowman
Hailing from Springfeld, Kentucky, John Simms Kelly was the University of Kentucky’s first star running back. He earned the nickname “Shipwreck” because of what he did to the opposing team’s defensive line. Kelly won the All-Southern Conference honors in 1929, 1930 and 1931 and still holds the university record for most yards gained in a game (280). Before one game he called a press conference to predict a 50 yard touchdown run (he did!).

Besides a gridiron star, Kelly was one of the Wildcat’s varsity outfielders from 1929 to 1931. When UK dropped their baseball program in 1932, Kelly and many of the other Wildcats hired themselves out to the various semi-pro teams around Lexington.

After graduation Kelly played professional football in the NFL’s New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. His larger than life personality and wealth made him one of the most popular sports stars of the 1930’s. After his playing days Kelly bought the Dodgers football team. During World War II he worked with the FBI as a spy tracking the movements of Nazi agents in South America and the Caribbean. A charter member of the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, Kelly later became both a champion golfer and world-class big game hunter and is a relative of Giants quarterback Phil Simms.