JQ Magazine: Book Review — ‘Gentle Black Giants’

Gentle Black Giants proves that the Royal Giants’ legacy has lived on in the countless tours taken by American teams to Japan since they first graced Asian shores nearly a century ago.” (NBRP Press)

By Rashaad Jorden (Yamagataken, 2008-10; Kochi-ken, 2018-present) for JQ magazine. A former head of JETAA Philadelphia’s SubChapter, Rashaad is a graduate of Leeds Beckett University with a masters degree in responsible tourism management. For more on his life abroad and enthusiasm for taiko drumming, visit his blog at www.gettingpounded.wordpress.com.

In the 1930s, major leaguers including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig went on tours of Japan, dazzling throngs of new fans while dropping nary a match (Gehrig’s group visited the country in 1931 while the Bambino arrived three years later). Those visits by all-star teams were widely credited for generating Japanese enthusiasm for baseball, which in turn helped launch professional baseball in Japan. But many (if not most) baseball fans are unaware the first American professional baseball players to tour Japan were not major leaguers.

A recently expanded book by the Nisei Baseball Research Project delves into a group of Negro Leaguers who sparked the growth of Japanese professional baseball. Gentle Black Giants: A History of Negro Leaguers in Japan explores the tours taken by the Philadelphia Royal Giants that contributed to the development of baseball in the country. Co-authored by Kazuo Sayama and Bill Staples, Jr. (the former is a Japanese baseball historian, the latter is a baseball researcher), Gentle Black Giants was first published in 1986, which coincided with the 50th anniversary of the birth of Japanese pro baseball.

At first glance, it’s apparent that Gentle Black Giants resembles a victorious baseball squad as numerous contributors pitched in to create an extensive resource about the link between the Negro Leagues and Japan. While the cover suggests a collaboration between Sayama and Staples (Sayama penned the original version of the book in Japanese while Staples took charge of the English translation), several editors and authors collaborated to create this new edition.

The book is largely divided into two halves, and Part I makes heavy use of newspaper articles to chronicle the game action along with quotes from Japanese observers that testified to the character of the Royal Giants. Part II of Gentle Black Giants delves further into the world of Negro League baseball with chapters dedicated to, among other topics, Jimmy Bonner (the first African American ever to play pro baseball in Japan, roughly a decade before Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers), the Royal Giants Hall of Fame catcher Biz Mackey, and their manager Lon Goodwin.

How did these athletes, who were far from household names in their own country, get to Japan? Largely because the major leaguers’ tours were sponsored by the enormously influential Yomiuri Shimbun while the Royal Giants’ visits weren’t sponsored by any newspapers, George Irie (the promoter responsible for the team’s arrival) seemingly did very little in the way of publicizing the tours. It’s unclear from the book why he took the role of promoter and why he arranged for the team to visit Japan. Not surprisingly, finding information about the Royal Giants was challenging, as news articles that the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame preserved about their games weren’t detailed and a lot of the recordkeeping in the book seems rather inconsistent. A fair amount of the book is devoted to the research Sayama did to gather information about the Royal Giants (who despite their name played their first games in the California Winter League). While too much of the book is centered on Sayama’s journey into primary sources, it’s clear that he succeeded in providing readers extensive information about the team.

Sayama excels in illuminating historic moments and players from the Royal Giants’ tours, such as Mackey becoming the first person to hit a home run at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium. The book thoroughly documents key games (largely against teams from college, amateur, and industrial leagues), such as the Royal Giants’ 9-1 victory against the Mita Club from Keio University in their first game in Japan in 1927. In addition to the biographies of certain Negro Leaguers, the second section of the book lists tours undertaken by American teams to Japan (and Japanese teams to the U.S.) and newspaper articles documenting the Royal Giants’ tours around the baseball-playing globe.

As for the title, “Gentle”—a term used by an author of a 1927 piece in Baseball World—was an appropriate term for the Royal Giants. Unlike some major leaguers who taunted their Japanese brethren (according to Sayama, Babe Ruth once held a parasol while playing first base in a game during his Japanese tour), the Negro Leaguers humbly went about excelling during their trans-Pacific excursions. “They could have easily overpowered most of their opponents but refrained from running up the score,” writes Dexter Thomas, one of the contributors to Gentle Black Giants. “When a missed call from an umpire resulted in the single loss of their otherwise undefeated 24-game tour, the Giants accepted the results with a smile.”

In fact, the Royal Giants (whose tours also featured several Cubans) found being away from the segregated United States a breath of fresh air: Royal Giant Frank Duncan called the Japanese “The most wonderful people I’ve come in contact with.” The team even wrote a love letter to the Japan that was published in Asahi Sports in April 1927. The feeling was mutual, as Sayama notes that the respectful way the Negro Leaguers approached the game gave Japanese players confidence and hope that they also could succeed in high-level baseball.

The Royal Giants served as ambassadors whose influence has endured long after Negro Leaguers stopped touring Japan. Staples believes these African American players helped lay a foundation: in the eyes of one historian, Japanese baseball, with its emphasis on “teamwork, finesse pitching, and the sacrifice bunt” greater resembles the old Negro Leagues style than the more individualistic MLB. In fact, such appreciation is echoed by none other than Ichiro: the future Hall of Famer has held the Negro Leagues in high regard, repeatedly visiting the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, where he once made a donation in the memory of prominent Negro Leaguer Buck O’Neil, whom he befriended during trips to the city.

Early in the book, Sayama writes that historically important events are often ignored because they lack a champion to tell their stories. Fortunately, today’s baseball aficionados now have the chance to learn about a long-forgotten aspect of Japanese baseball through Gentle Black Giants, which proves that the Royal Giants’ legacy has lived on in the countless tours taken by American teams to Japan since they first graced Asian shores nearly a century ago.

For more information, visit http://www.gentleblackgiants.com.

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