A Chinese guest star

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Lee Gum Hong, aka Albert Bowen

The biggest news in Lee Gum Hong’s life came in late September 1932, when he became the second person of Chinese descent — some press reports at the time erroneously called him the first — to play in organized baseball after being signed by the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. Lee, who was born and raised in Alameda County and attended and pitched for Oakland High School, was more popularly known as Albert Bowen, one of a trio of baseball-playing brothers that also include George and Edward Bowen.

It was in September of ’32 that Al Bowen took the mound for the Oaks to square off against the Sacramento Senators. But this was no ordinary contest, because opposing Bowen and the Oaks was Sacs twirler Kenso Nushida, the first Japanese-American to play organized ball. There’s a good chance that the Oaks inked Bowen for the novelty factor, a PR move designed to boost sagging attendance with the contest against Nushida, and quite possibly to exploit Japan’s recent invasion of China by playing up the hardball duel as one between representatives of countries at war.

Despite several strong innings of hurling, Bowen was tagged with the 7-5 loss thanks partially to poor defensive support from his teammates. With more than 3,000 fans — many of them from the Bay Area’s burgeoning Chinese populace — attending the match, the two teams held a rematch a few days later, this time with Bowen notching a 7-1 victory over Nushida for his only professional hardball W — he was released by the Oaks at the end of the season.

But those contests against Nushida weren’t the only remarkable efforts put forth by Bowen, who used a fiery fastball to handcuff batters on the East Bay semipro circuits for the Wa Sung Athletic Club, a longstanding Chinese-American social organization in the area, as early as 1926, when he was just 15 years old. He was, for example, the ace of the Wa Sung hurling staff while the squad was in the revolutionary Berkeley International League in 1936.

But in late 1935, during the famed Oakland Tribune California state semipro tournament, that Bowen performed perhaps his most important, and certainly most underrated, feat — he pitched for the otherwise all-black Berkeley Pelicans in the tourney.

For a fan of African-American baseball like myself, such an effort is monumental, representing a cultural crossover that had been virtually unheard of before.

Let’s set aside the fact that historical research into the surprisingly strong hardball tradition in the Chinese community, especially on the left coast, is not just incomplete, but virtually and woefully non-existent. While much work has been done digging up the history of Japanese-American baseball, little, if any, parallel efforts in the the Chinese tradition have been undertaken.

So the existence of the Wa Sung club team — and its fair amount of success in the Bay Area semipro scene — represent a possible starting point for rectifying that tragic historical omission. That and, of course, Al Bowen’s brief stint in the PCL.

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In April 1926, the Oakland Tribune ran an article and a couple photos of two Chinese-American baseball clubs, including the Wa Sung, a squad that already included the Bowen brothers. Stated the paper:

“Chinese ‘Babe Ruths’ may someday dominate America’s national pastime. Young China has taken seriously to the game of baseball. Yesterday two ball games were played in which the young Celestine settled family disputes in the American way.”

Parallel to these developments was the emergence and strengthening of the black baseball scene in the Bay Area, a situation perhaps exemplified by the long-running success of the Berkeley Colored League, sponsored and overseen by California sports impresario and promoter Byron “Speed” Reilly. Among the numerous African-American club and semipro squads that blossomed in this environment was the Berkeley Pelicans.

The two communities merged beginning in August 1935, with the launching of the third annual Tribune state semipro tourney. The Pels, with Al Bowen leading the way, started out well in the event, beating the Oakland Black Sox in an early-round clash, as reported by the Tribune:

“That brings us to the Pelicans, Berkeley Negro team with a Chinese pitcher, who gave the Oakland Black Sox only three hits last night as his mates garnered 13 off Brown, Stout and Perry. … Bowen twirled steady ball of the winners and also had a perfect evening at the bat, getting a single, double, triple and base on balls in his four appearances at the plate, and scoring three runs. Neither of the runs made off him were earned.”

As the state tourney progressed and the competition got stiffer for the Pels, the Berkeley squad began to wear down. Three weeks after that initial win, Bowen, after a stellar start, tired in the middle innings in a 6-1 loss to the Tallant Tubbs. The Pelicans were then booted from the tournament with a 5-2 loss to the Alaska Packers.

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But Bowen’s contributions to the Berkeley Pelicans over success in 1935 didn’t go unnoticed. In its September 1935 issue, the local baseball publication, The Basehit, ran an article about the Pels and particularly noted Al Bowen’s presence on the mound for the African-American squad:

“The Pelicans have as one of their pitcher a Chinese boy. This boy, Albert Bowen, has been pitching for the Wa Sung A.C. and a few years ago had a try-out with the Oaks.”

However, 1935 wasn’t the only hardball campaign in which Lee Gum Hong lined up alongside black players in the Bay Area. Near the end of the 1936 Berkeley International League season (in which the Wa Sungs took part with the Bowen brothers), a team of all stars gathered from the various BIL squads squared off against the St. Louis Blues in an exhibition match-up and fundraiser for the BIL. (The BIL for a time included the Berkeley Pelicans, with Jack Smith and Leon Angie as representatives in the league’s founding executive circle.)

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Al Bowen was a part of the international league all star team’s pitching rotation. Another hurler for the BILs? Our old friend and Oakland native Harold “Yellowhorse” Morris, whom I’ve chronicled before because of his membership on the Van Dyke Colored House of David based in Sioux City, Iowa. In the charity game, Morris represented the Athens Elks. (The BIL squad also included George Bowen as a catcher.)

In an ensuing installment of the Lee Gum Hong/Albert Bowen story, I’ll detail, using archival research and personal interviews, Bowen and his familial background, including his residence in an otherwise all-black neighborhood.

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