At least a year ago now, fellow SABR member and historian Rob Fitts, an expert in Japanese baseball history and the author of several books on the subject (seriously, the guy is good), e-mailed me to ask about one Shumza Sugimoto.
It seems that, in early 1905, media reports surfaced that Sugimoto, a Japan native and outfielder, was getting a tryout and had signed a contract with John McGraw and the New York Giants. This report was out of the blue, in just about every sense. If it was true, and especially if he did, in fact, end up playing for the Giants, Sugimoto might very well have been the first Japanese player in the Major Leagues.
Did John McGraw sign a Japanese player named Shumza Sugimoto?
And that would be a huge discovery among Nisei baseball historians and researchers. It also wouldn’t be a surprise, given McGraw’s well known progressive (at least for the era) on race in baseball, a fact also evidenced by his oft-stated desire to sign African-American players.
But apparently experts in Asian baseball had ever heard of this guy. Thus their shock when these media reports were dug up and uncovered.
So why did Rob reach out to me? While I’m certainly intrigued by the history of Asians and Asian Americans — I did an article or two on the passing of Wally Yonamine, the first American of Asian decent to find stardom in baseball in Japan — my actual work rarely crossed into those subjects.
Well, here’s why Rob contacted me. From the Feb. 25, 1905, Sporting Life magazine:
“Shumza Sugimoto, the Japanese ball player, who is now at Hot Springs [where the Giants held spring training] , and may be taken South by McGraw, 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.”
First off, such news that “organized baseball” was all astir over the possibility of a player of another ethnic group competing in the system reflects that it wasn’t just black players who were shut out from white baseball for decades.
But beyond that, the “Creole Stars of New Orleans”? That’s why Rob contacted me — it seems I’m more or less, by default, the expert on African-American hardball in NOLA and the rest of Louisiana.
And the name “Creole” definitely indicates that the Big Easy team would have largely been black. So Rob was curious whether I had come across anything relating to Sugimoto in N’awlins.
My short answer: I had not. In fact, I had never seen any reference in local media to a New Orleans team called the Creole Stars. There were the Creoles and the Crescent Stars, but no Creole Stars.
And after Rob contacted me, I scoured several local historical societies, museums and repositories — including the Louisiana Research Collection and the Amistad Rsearch Center, both at Tulane University, as well as the Historic New Orleans Collection — for any reference to Sugimoto or the Creole Stars.
I found nothing. Zip. Nada. Zero.
Part of the problem certainly is that, at that time, there was no African-American newspapers in New Orleans; a few that were published in the late 19th century had ceased by then, and the Louisiana Weekly didn’t start up until 1925. So there was a huge gap in coverage that would have resulted in no mention of a Japanese player on a Negro Leagues team.
In subsequent e-mails with Rob, he revealed that he has since done a boatload of research himself into an alleged Shumza Sugimoto, including checking out dozens of high school and college baseball rosters in Japan from that time period, and found nothing else about him.
I, meanwhile, as a Japanese friend of mine from grad school, intrepid business reporter Takashi Nakamichi, if he could go through archives of Japanese newspapers during that era, and Taka couldn’t come up with anything, either.
Which didn’t surprise Rob, given his own futile efforts and research.
Then how in the world did a Shumza Sugimoto even get a tryout with the legendary John McGraw? That is the crucial question, and one that can only be “answered” by speculation and guesses.
And the notion that such a player laced up spikes for a Crescent City African-American team? Who knows, really, but all the evidence — or, I suppose, the lack thereof — says no.