Trailblazing, cross-culture gem or crass novelty?
A landmark in race relations against a baseball backdrop, or an attempt to cash in on cheap marketing?
History is, perhaps, still unclear about those queries when it comes to the Dec. 19, 1909, contest at Chutes Park in Los Angeles between the Salt Lake City Occidentals, at the time arguably the premier African-American team in the West, and an aggregation of Japanese all-stars comprised of the best talent from the burgeoning Asian community in the City of Angels.
Scribes at the time heralded the clash as the first one between a black team and a Japanese squad. Newspapers in both L.A. and Salt Lake City pumped up the encounter for a weeks before the event, with many of those publications dubbing the contest a scrum for racial supremacy. Here’s the Dec. 19, 1909, Los Angeles Herald:
“Much interest is being taken in the game throughout the entire state, as it is the first contest ever played between Japanese and negro teams. Feelings run somewhat high between the members of the aggregations, and an umpire of unquestioned ability will fill the position of indicator man.”
And from the Salt Lake Herald-Republican from the same day:
“Two sets of bills have been printed, one of them in Japanese. ‘Little Japan’ has been flooded with the latter and the little brown men are greatly excited over the game. They promise to attend many hundred strong and root heart and soul for their countrymen. The exhibition will be the first one of its kind ever staged in this country.”
And the Dec. 19, 1909, Los Angeles Times did, in fact, use a key word in this discussion:
“A novelty is promised today in the baseball line in a game that is scheduled to be played between a Japanese team and and the colored Occidentals at the Chutes grounds …”
Yep, there’s that word: “novelty.”
Aaaaand, the Dec. 18, 1909, L.A. Herald used other verbiage that put the contest in a … riveting (?) light, under a small header stating, “Japanese vs. Negroes”:
“The baseball game at Chutes park Sunday is an exhibition of the national game in which racial supremacy in the art will be settled. The dodgers being distributed broadcast [sic] over the city announcing the game between the All-Star Japanese team and the colored Occidental champions of the west places the following question before the sporting public:
“‘Are the Japanese superior to the negroes in baseball?'”
So, there you have it — “racial supremacy.” Oy vey.
Well, if we’re determining that last question based solely on the outcome of this one game, then no, they weren’t, at least, again, at the time. The Occidentals ended up downing the All-Stars — who were unsuccessfully augmented by the supposedly exceptional battery of two white players, catcher Jess Orendorff and hurler Bill Tozer — by a count of 7-3 (some sources say 7-2).
After the game, newspapers from both cities — media outlets undoubtedly run by all-white editorial staffs — asserted that Tozer and Orendorff played exceptionally (and, in fact, the latter did have a couple wallops, including a triple) but were foiled by horrible fielding and weak hitting by their Asian teammates.
Very little coverage was given regarding the quality of play of the Occidentals.
Chutes amusement park
Sooooo, where does that leave us? What exactly was this showdown of cultures, a tussle between two ethnic communities that were struggling to establish a presence in the West, two burgeoning cultures that were steadily gaining a foothold in the rich ethnic stew emerging on the Left Coast.
That, dear readers, is a tricky question. At this point, it seems the long-term historical and cultural impact of the game is hazy.
Rob Fitts, one of the preeminent of Nisei and Asian-American baseball, is wary to even hazard a guess. He said “the sources just do not exist — at least in English — to know how the Japanese immigrants felt about baseball and culture or race.”
With very little documentary sources — and fading first-person sources — chronicling early-20-th-century Japanese communities in the U.S., he said, it’s almost impossible to ascertain “the meaning of pre-1915 Japanese baseball to the community.”
However, Rob added that the fact that numerous significant white newspapers covered the contest gives credence to the notion that, despite first-person sources, the showdown was somewhat of a big deal.
At least to the white community, that is. So the question remains: was it a crass, atypical gimmick contrived to exploit the presence of “The Other,” or was it truly a landmark occurrence in the history of the national pastime?
For their part, the Occidentals were quite a troupe. Dating back to the mid-19-oughts, the aggregation tirelessly traversed the Western frontier, playing not only in other Utah cities, like Ogden, but also at locales or against local squads from Idaho Falls and Helena, Mont.
The Oxys, as the white press occasionally dubbed them, generated a stir when they tried to enter the Utah State League, and one of their managers/players, Michigan-born Frank Black — whose ethnic identity could be a bit unclear, with various Census reports listing him as black and white, giving rise to the notion that he was a light-skinned African-American “passing” as white at times — often ran into scrapes with the law and, occasionally, teammates.
Tullie McAdoo (top) and Bill Pettus
But the roster was, like countless segregation-era African-American teams, a revolving door of talent, with some of those star players being draw to the mysterious West to play for various burgeoning squads, then lured away to other Western squads or back East in search of larger paychecks and a higher level of play.
But the Salt Lake squad’s lineup was also dotted with several Utah natives, many of whom chose to stick with the Occidentals and other hometown or regional teams, content to pocket what lean percentages of game gate receipts and challenge bets they could and to simply enjoy the American pastime.
My buddy and fellow SABR member Ron Auther, probably the preeminent sage when it comes to segregation-era Western blackball, stumbled upon the Occidentals a year or two ago and got the ball rolling as far as research into the Salt Lake squad goes with this nifty blog post.
Ron says the Occidentals’ story must be examined within the context of the social, political, cultural and economic atmosphere of the West in the first couple decades of the 20th century.
In an email to me earlier this year, Ron evaluated the Occidentals thusly:
“I think being adept at keeping the doors open for future consideration in league inclusion was one of the Occidentals far reaching traits. The West had many good players who chose to stay in the Western states for many other opportunities.
“The fact that the African-American population was much smaller in the West than its Eastern counterparts, for this period in history, and the Occidentals still made a lasting impact in the world of organized sports and history, is an achievement in itself. Jim Crow in the Northwest and West was far more virulent than most believe it was compared to the East, North or South. It existed in many ways and on many different levels.”
But the Oxys were good enough to claim, for much of their existence, to be the “colored champions of the West.” That included the 1909 season, which featured a typical slate of furious barnstorming and flirtations with joining the Utah league.
The Occidental aggregation capped the 1909 season with an epic California/West Coast tour, as promoted by the Oct. 13, 1909, Deseret Evening News:
“The Occidental baseball team will leave Salt Lake this evening for Los Angeles where the colored boys will play independent baseball during the winter months, returning here next spring when the diamond bug begins to buzz again.”
The Oxys thus meandered there way toward L. A., where they fearlessly threw down against mostly white squads comprised of athletes of various quality; some were drafted from high-caliber teams like the early Pacific Coast League‘s Los Angeles Angels, while other aggregations, such as McCormick Irish squad that was stocked with ringers from the famous California Winter League, the nation’s first integrated professional baseball league.
Before and after their clash with the Japanese squad, the Occidentals — mainly their manager/player, Frank Black — frequently slapped a wad of cash as a side best, with some pots totaling $30 or $40 and running up to four-figure paydays.
Along the way, the Occidental squad had to endure media reports describing them as “dusky” or other questionable terminology (at least by today’s standards). One paper dubbed them “dingos.”
For their part, of course, Japanese teams and players faced their own wall of bigotry and veiled racism. Papers frequently called them “Japs” and described them as “little brown men.”
For the Dec. 19, 1909, contest with the Occidentals, the Japanese squad was assembled by the aforementioned Jess Orendorff, a fixture on the Los Angeles athletics scene. Up to the December 1909 event, Orendorff enjoyed a fairly successful career as a hardball player, suiting up for the Angels as well as Winter League squads and minor league franchises from Peoria to Galveston to Milwaukee.
Orendorff reached his apex in 1907, when he appeared in a whopping five games for the National League’s Boston Doves. He almost made it back to The Show in September when he was drafted by the Chicago Cubs, but it doesn’t appear that he actually suited up for the Cubbies.
When the call from the Windy City never actually came, Orendorff turned his attention back to L.A. and an apparently new, alternate career — promoter. In the last couple months of 1909, he organized and publicized wrestling cards, boxing matches (called “smokers” a century ago, when the sport was just become legal) and running marathons.
But his first sporting affair was the Dec. 19, 1909, baseball match between the Salt Lake City Occidentals and the Japanese All-Stars, and he seems to have stirred up a fair amount of interest in the clash. Stated the Dec. 15, 1909, L. A. Times:
“Jess Orendorff, best known to the sporting fans as one of Hen Berry’s ball tossers, has blossomed forth into a promoter of sporting pastimes, and is to give his first offering at Chutes Park next Sunday afternoon when the Occidental colored ball champions are to play a nine of crack Jap players.
“Capt. Morri, of the Jap team, who plays the second sack, has helped Orendorff collect an aggregation of fast players, who should give the Utah champions a rattling good game. …”
The L.A. Herald from Dec. 17, 1909, dove further into the issue of “racial supremacy,” speculating about the abilities of each team almost as if each squad was somehow representative of their entire respective cultural community. The article thus revealed the stereotypes and subtle racism that led to local white fans developing keen interest in the showdown. Said the Herald:
“Both nines have been practicing daily for the contest and a question of racial supremacy will be decided when the two clubs cross bats.”
The paper revealed that the supposed ringers, Tozer and Orendorff himself, were slated to lace up their spikes for the Japanese team, a move that made “the Japs … more than confident …”
“Just whether the Occidentals will be able to do anything with Captain Morri’s Japs no one has been able to decide. The brown men are an unknown quantity and while said to be a little weak with the stick, they make this up by their wonderful infielding. Batting practice for the past week also has done wonders for them.
“Although the colored team has easily conquered the Los Angeles Giants and several other fast amateur nines, it is an even money bet that they will have met their match among the semi-professional teams when they cross bats with Morri’s aggregation. One of the largest crowds of the season is expected to fill the Chutes park bleachers when the teams clash. It is rumored that the winners will be challenged by the fast Los Angeles All-Stars.”
Of course, we know what happened by the time the curtains fells on the much hyped cross-cultural confrontation. The result was a decided victory for the Salt Lake fellows, but different papers described the spectacle with varying narratives.
The Salt Lake Tribune, for example, stated that “[t]he Japanese put up a good game, but the negroes showed superior team work and hit harder and oftener [sic].”
Other reports asserted a decent crowd of roughly 1,500 spectators — including, according to one source, several scouts from other teams — that the “Orientals” outplayed the Oxys through the first four innings, but after that the “little Japanese boys” slipped up and suffered “stage fright,” filling the “E” column up and negating what was described as a heroic efforts by Tozer and Orendorff.
When speaking to the press after the contest, Orendorff asserted that the event was a successful spectacle and that he was pleased with the outcome. He did, however, bash the alleged ineptitude or Morri at second base.
There were numerous problematic facets of the event. Orendorff’s triple role as player, promoter and bookie was undoubtedly an ethical conflict or interest; the media descriptions of the two teams reaching into stereotype and vague bigotry, especially concerning the Japanese team; and the team-hopping and payroll-jumping of the ever-changing Occidentals roster.
But life certainly went on. After that, the Occidentals continued on their journey through the West (and, according to one source, a plan to venture east to tour the South, an ambitious undertaking, to be sure). The club continued on with shuffling management and rotating lineups into the mid-1910s, eventually relocating to L.A., shuttling between the two cities, and putting forth performances of steadily declining quality before finally peetering out.
And, on the other side, the Japanese-American community continued to embrace America’s pastime and steadily getting better and better at it, until numerous Japanese clubs of rock-steady quality dotted and barnstormed across the Western landscape and beyond.
But, again, back to the original question: what long-term, historical and cultural meaning is held in the Dec. 19, 1909, hardball clash between the African-American Salt Lake Occidentals and the aggregation of Japanese all-star players in the City of Angels? What do we take away from what was hyped at the time as the first game between squads of the two ethnicities?
That, my friends, is a very, very good question — one that, unfortunately, can’t be answered at this point. Undoubtedly, as various baseball researchers — from Auther to Fitts to any number of other enthusiasts (maybe even me) — continue to dig deeper, more and more will be revealed, especially in terms of specifics.
But for now, let’s just say that the game was, in hindsight, both monumental and trivial, a landmark happening and a frivolous novelty, a groundbreaking meeting of cultural goodwill and discovery and a cheap attempt to cash in on cultures that were still mysterious and unknown to the white population in the West.