Every once in a while, I really miss my old graduate school bud, Arindam Mukherjee. He and I helped each other through some tough times at Indiana U., and we forged a bond for life during that stint.
Now is one of the times when I miss Ari dearly. But, alas, he’s in his native India — Delhi, to be precise, although he was born and raised in Ranchi — and I haven’t seen him since his academic green card expired a bunch of years ago.
However, I’m still in touch with him via the WhatsApp iPhone thingee, and we trade messages regularly. I try to keep up with what’s going on in his favorite sport, cricket, but it’s a challenge. There’s just not much coverage in the American press, despite numerous attempts by entrepreneurs and other visionaries — both in the U.S. and abroad — to create a foothold for cricket here Stateside. Check out this Web site and this one for the latest cricket dope.
(I should note India advanced to the semifinals of the most recent Cricket World Cup, held last year and hosted by the Aussies and New Zealand. However, Australia won the tourney, its fourth title in the last five Cups. Damn you, Paul Hogan!)
As all baseball historians know, cricket was one of the forerunners — along with rounders and a couple other English pastimes — of the American pastime. Ari and I tried to teach each other the basics of our respective passions, with mixed results. I will say that, to me, cricket bears a striking resemblance to the game of base ball — two words back then — in its nascence, i.e. 1840s to early 18880s, if my memory serves. Today that era in the national pastime is celebrated as “vintage base ball.”
I also have another connection to India: A few years ago I wrote a few articles about Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh, two Indian javelin throwers who in 2008 won a novel reality show contest in India called “The Million Dollar Arm.” Patel and Singh possessed the fastest fireballs out of the many contestants and, as a result, earned them each minor-league contracts with the MLB’s Pirates. (They picked up a whopping $8,000 signing bonus and earned a visit to the White House.)
Their tale is best known through the 2014 Disney movie adaptation starring Jon Hamm. But I got in n the ground floor and was able, before the story became a global sensation, to interview not only the two neophyte pitchers but also the creator of The Million Dollar Arm, Los Angeles sports agent J.B. Bernstein.
Bernstein, along with a few visionary representatives from MLB, have been trying to plant some baseball seeds in the world’s second-largest country and largest democracy. One of the ultimate goals is to build on the success of TMDA and mine India’s vast population for hidden hardball talent.
Unfortunately, Patel was cut by the Bucs in 2010 and returned to India in 2011 to finish school, practice the javelin (his natural sport) and teach baseball to throngs of youngsters, many of whom took part in an ensuing edition of TMDA.
Singh, meanwhile, has struggled with major injuries, causing, for example, to miss the entire 2014 and 2015 campaigns, a painful stint that included Tommy John surgery. But he’s persevering, playing in numerous low-level pro circuits, including the Dominican Summer League and the Australian Baseball League. (Yep, baseball is actually pretty big among the Aussies.) Despite the travails, the Pirates still see promise in the India native — they resigned him late last year.
However, all of these recent exploratory efforts aren’t the first time American baseball figures have attempted to expose India and other parts of South Asia to our Grand Old Game. (Well, it’s old for us, but compared to cricket, baseball is maybe a teenager.)
And it was the Negro Leagues community that did it!
In spring 1945, in the waning days of World War II, ace New York Amsterdam News columnist and editor Dan Burley worked with the military’s USO program to assemble a sterling group of African-American athletes to tour India, Burma and other nations in the Asian theater of the war. (At that time, the modern nation of Myanmar was called Burma.)
(As another side note, in 1943, Burley reported that the National Baseball Congress — the amateur administrative body in American — had launched a 12-team in India. Burley stated that, “In far-off India, which had never been host to a game of baseball until the past few years, America’s national pastime has gone Asiatic.”)
The troupe — dubbed the “Parade of Stars” — included former boxing champ Henry Armstrong, UCLA football star Kenny Washington, former pro football player Joe Lillard, and dual-sport luminary Bill Yancey, who starred in the Negro Leagues for the Black Yankees, Philadelphia Giants and other squads, and shined for the trailblazing African-American hoops squad Harlem Rens.
Yancey was particularly suited for the ambitious endeavor — a few years earlier he served as a Negro Leagues baseball scout in Panama and other Central American and Caribbean countries, a job that was lauded by his comrades back home.
The India ensemble made several stops at various U.S. military camps through South Asia and, according to media reports, performed for and entertained tens of thousands of appreciative, fervent G.I.s.
Their routine included demonstrations of their respective sports by each athlete, Q&A (or “bull”) sessions with the audience, and some boogie-woogie piano playing by Burley himself to close out the extravaganza. In addition, Armstrong flashed his old skills by winning an open boxing tournament in Calcutta.
In a dispatch from that city, an Amsterdam News correspondent (likely Burley himself) lauded the all-black USO crew for enlivening throngs of soldiers of all colors:
“Everywhere the unit has appeared it has received a rousing reception and wild acclaim from soldiers and sailors in the audiences. So popular has the unit become since its departure from the United States last April 6 that commanding officers of various installations in the China-India-Burma theatre are competing with one another for the services of the athletes. …
“Altogether the show is considered absolutely tops in the opinion of [the] Special Service Officer whose job it is to route such revues through the various military bases and and installations. In fact, it is being said that for morale value the sports show has done more in its short time in India than any other factor to give the hard working men a lift in spirits. The show has been playing to both white audiences and has stimulated the fighting men [to] no end with its color, drama and sports aspects.”
Several correspondents from the Stateside African-American media apparently tagged along with the entertainers as they visited bases along the Stilwell Road between India and Burma, and, one reporter dispatched, “traveled over 780 miles of the famous Ledo Road; played Calcutta, Karachi and other large cities and centers in India; and is due to return to the States sometime [in July].” (The Stilwell Road was forged as a key Allied supply line in Burma during WWII and was later redubbed the Ledo Road.)
In all, the troupe spent about three months traversing South and Southeast Asia, covering an estimated 50,000 miles and performing for 100,000 troops of all colors. One photo of the trip published in the May 19, 1945, Cleveland Call and Post pictures Armstrong shadow boxing with two Indian boys in Calcutta. The paper wrote: “Henry Armstrong, apparently convinced a left hook is the same in anybody’s language, tackles the job of teaching a pair of Indian youngsters the art of boxing.”
Also raving about the crew was National Newspaper Publishers Association correspondent Frank Bolden, who in June issued a report from somewhere “along the Stillwell [sic] Road, India-Burma”:
“It is a show that really gives the GIs entertainment and a terrific morale boost because it is right down the alley for any red-blooded American youth. …
“All in all it is a good show, and it has and is still being received widely by both colored and white military personnel alike. And the men are deeply appreciative for the efforts spent in their behalf by some of our top notch performers. …”
However, Bolden then lamented, “It’s too bad that more of our great and well-known stars are unable to make a trip this way to entertain some mighty swell ‘fifty-dollar-a-month-room-and-board guys,’ who here on the ‘Victory Road to Tokyo’ are making it possible for those back home to carry on for years to come. Over here the show goes on too, ya know.”
The impact of the USO show and its success was deeply felt by the athletes themselves, it seems. An article in the July 21, 1945, issue of the Afro-American — under a headline reading, “Bill Yancey, Back from Tour, Says CBI Yanks Dream of Home” — related Yancey’s impressions.
“… Billy found the morale fairly high,” the dispatch read, “but only one thing on the minds of the soldiers, including a great many officers, and that was ‘getting back home.’”
Of course, the troupe’s venture must be placed into historical context. On May 8, 1945, about a month into the USO tour, Germany surrendered to the Allies in Europe, marking what was to become V-E Day.
Meanwhile, thousands of U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines were pushing through the South Pacific, advancing from island to island amidst brutal, bloody, costly fighting with the Japanese. As the American troops advanced, the U.S. launched the nuclear age when it dropped atomic bombs in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima (Aug. 6) and Nagasaki (Aug. 9).
The two bombings, combined with the victories of U.S. troops, convinced Japan to surrender to the Allies on Aug. 15, creating, forever onward, V-J Day.
Now, I don’t think the theatres in India and Burma were as important as the Allied military actions elsewhere. However, their placement in South Asia coincided with historic, history-defining events in Asia.
By 1945, the groundswell of the India independence movement — led, of course, by Mahatma Gandhi — had reached the tipping point as it used non-violent resistance to force colonial Britain to abandon its stranglehold on India, its people and its resources.
On July 18, 1947, that peaceful yet overwhelming effort achieved its goal, as the British conceded the country’s independence. Also, a day earlier, the new, majority-Muslim nation of Pakistan split off from the Hindu and Sikh-led India, setting in motion events that resonate to this day.
Undoubtedly the African-American U.S. troops watched the Indian independence movement closely, realizing what a nation of oppressed people could do to obtain freedom. As we know, the success and spirit of the Indians’ peaceful resistance greatly inspired Dr. Martin Luther King and the rest of the ensuing American civil-rights movement.
The African-American sports media definitely took a cue from the development of India’s method of peaceful resistance as a way to oust the colonial British. In 1953 — eight years after the black USO tour and six after Indian independence — Atlanta Daily World sports columnist Marion Jackson asserted those lessons could be applied to fight the insistence of certain Cotton States League teams’ on not taking the field against other squads with African Americans:
“Just how this will affect Cotton States League attendance is not known at the moment but a silent protest is in the offing which is similar to the non-violence campaign initiated by minorities in India, Kenya and other South African countries under the heel of sadistical [sic] rulers.”
Shifting back to 1945 and the push to win the war, the still-segregated black American troops joined thousands of other U.S. soldiers in sweeping east across Europe until they captured the German capitol of Berlin and toppled the Nazi regime. That victory coincided, of course, with the push in the Pacific.
Just like the black troops in India saw, first-hand, the effects of racial tyranny, the African-American soldiers looked at what the Allies were fighting — totalitarian government bolstered by ethnic cleansing and genocide toward Jews and other European minorities — and saw distinct parallels to their own second-class status back home in the U.S. The paradox of segregated black troops fighting for freedom overseas deeply affected the “Negro” soldiers and sailors after they returned home after the war.
Indeed, even before they shipped home, African-American soldiers in South Asia already felt the ongoing sting of segregation, even in uniform. In July 1945, Baltimore Afro-American war correspondent Max Johnson issued a missive from Cairo about what the USO troop witnessed during their travels:
“For example, Armstrong, who has been fighting fourteen years and once held three championships simultaneously, said he was impressed by the marked loneliness of those soldiers in the areas where his troupe [v]isited.
“‘After seeing how they must exist,’ Armstrong said, ‘I think that any man who spends six months out there should be brought back to the States and released immediately from the Army.’”
But Armstrong’s consternation was dwarfed by the indignation displayed by other members of the USO corps. Johnson continued writing:
“Lillard, who is on leave from his job as a New York policeman, shared the same views and was disgusted with the numerous indignities the colored troops faced there as a result of the racial discriminatory practices of white Americans commanding.
“Also outraged on this score was Burley, who contended that conditions were the worst — almost beyond belief.”
The American troops did, eventually, return home. Although they were greeted by a just-booming economy and the benefits of the landmark GI Bill, they also arrived Stateside just as the Iron Curtain fell, triggering a Cold War between East and West, USSR and US, democracy and communism.
However, the civil rights movement did ramp up, and once it started snowballing, there was no stopping the long overdue and much savored victories of equality and integration.
Occasionally the subject of mining the population of South Asia for baseball talent popped up; in October 1945, writer Fay Young in a column opined about the lack of fresh blood about the African-American community and pondered whether a ringer or two could be plucked from that region.
Such efforts continue to this day, but, alas, have met with only limited success, although American baseball execs remain optimistic. But just as importantly, that all-black USO tour of South Asia in 1945 might very well have played a role, albeit probably minor, in bringing true democracy to our country.
Final note: N’Awlins, my current abode is host of the incredible National World War II Museum. If you happen to be in the NOLA area, definitely check it out!