Guest commentary: Jackie, Henry and Me

Editor’s note: I have another guest submission here, from Will Clark, a devotee of the Negro Leagues, their history and their legacy. Here, Will gives an emotional retelling of one of the most important, moving moments in his life …

By Will Clark

With this past April 15 being the 73rd anniversary of Jackie Robinson‘s MLB debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the image of his Hall of Fame plaque burned large in my consciousness. It all served to bring to my mind a flood of memories, with one in particular standing out.

That was the memory of my first “pilgrimage” to the “Baseball Shrine of Shrines”: The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and the first encounter with the live viewing of the plaques of Jackie and Henry Aaron (my two baseball heroes).

One early Saturday morning, got behind the wheel of my black 1977 Mercury Cougar XR-7 two-door coupe (named “Queenie,” incidentally), filled up her 26-gallon tank, stuck a cassette in the player, turned the CB radio channel to 19, and headed on the highway.

Armed with AAA “TripTik” routing maps (yeah, this was before GPS, you should know), I cruised along until, a bit more than four hours later, I wheeled onto Main Street in Cooperstown.

Entering the Hall for the first time was, I remember, a humbling experience. I remember, as I walked along and studied the various plaques and exhibits, it felt akin to being in a classic cathedral, a place of reverence. If anyone talked, I wasn’t aware of it.

The one thing that was foremost on my mind was to find the plaques of Henry Aaron and Jackie Robinson, the two ballplayers central in my young life to that point.

It wasn’t very long before I came upon Aaron’s Hall of Fame plaque. Staring at it, felt transfixed, locked into that one spot. A thousand memories rushed through, from every Topps baseball card I owned of his, the books, magazines, newspaper articles.

Then came the memory of the night of April 8, 1974, in a South Bronx fourth-floor walk-up tenement apartment, sitting on a hardback chair on one side, and my father in a similar chair on the other side, both of us watching a black-and-white screen on an old TV set perched atop a dresser drawer.

We witnessed Aaron, taking one quick swing, driving Al Downing’s pitch deep, deep to left field, with Dodger left fielder Bill Buckner climbing the fence in hot pursuit, only to see the ball land on the other side. Through it all, I was remembering a relatively rare occurrence: my father smiling. Felt my eyes beginning to mist and cloud as I stood in front of the plaque.

I continued my reverential stroll through the hallowed Hall, marveling at the exhibits and the legendary names, practically oblivious to anyone else, taking no note at all of the passing time.

Before I knew it, I found myself standing feet from the plaque of Jackie Robinson. Standing in place, eyes locked on the image of a man, a proud, brave man who knocked down barriers, it suddenly felt as if I had stepped into a time tunnel.

I saw and heard my father telling me his stories of the great Jackie Robinson, tales that, with each telling and retelling, brought him to life. I could almost see the large frame in his Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, terrorizing pitchers and catchers with his daring base running, eyes of purpose alight on the diamond.

As it all came upon me, a sense of loss and emptiness permeated my being. For a brief moment, I wished my father (who had died of a heart attack on Sept. 28, 1974) could have been here at the Hall.

An emotional wave swept through and enveloped me, and the tears flooded and burned my eyes, flowing freely. Trying to choke them back proved fruitless, so I just let them flow, caring not one iota who, if anyone, saw me. Then, just as quickly, the flow stopped. I looked into the eyes of the raised face on the wall, and, choking back more emotions, blurted out a halting, “Thank you.”

(Photos from

Many thanks to Will for his excellent submission! And the offer is always open to any and all to submit something of your own. Just email me at Stay safe, stay well y’all!

Celebrating the legacy of Negro Leaguers in Japan

The release of an English translation of “Gentle Black Giants,” a chronicle of the tours of Negro League all stars in Japan and their impact on the development of baseball in that country, prompted me to reach out to co-author Bill Staples, Jr. for an email interview about the book and the goldmine of history contained in it. Below is the lightly-edited interview …

Gentle Black Giants: A History of Negro Leaguers in Japan (NBRP Press, 2019), by Kazuo Sayama and Bill Staples Jr., foreword by Kenso Zenimura


Between 1927 and 1934, the Philadelphia Royal Giants embarked on several goodwill tours across the Pacific to Japan, Korea, China, the Philippines and the Hawaiian Territories. As African Americans, they were relegated to second-class citizenship in the U.S., but abroad they were treated like kings. Unlike the previous tours of major league stars who ridiculed their opponents through embarrassing defeats, the Royal Giants made the games competitive, dignified and enjoyable for opposing players.

In Gentle Black Giants: A History of Negro Leaguers in Japan, Kazuo Sayama and Bill Staples Jr. chronicle the tours of the Royal Giants and demonstrate that without the skill and humanity displayed by the Negro Leaguers, Japanese ballplayers might have become discouraged and lost their love for the game. Instead, the experience of sharing the field with these “gentle, black giants” kept their spirits high and nurtured the seeds for professional baseball to flourish in Japan.

Ryan Whirty: How did the English translation of “Gentle Black Giants” come to be? What was the inspiration behind the project?

Bill Staples Jr.: I received a copy of the original Gentle Black Giants as a gift from Japanese baseball historian Kazuo Sayama in the spring of 2014. I helped him with some research on a Japanese-American baseball team that competed in the 1935 National Baseball Congress, and he sent the book as a token of his appreciation. 

I flipped through the pages full of beautiful kanji characters wishing I could read it. I could not. I emailed Sayama and thanked him for the gift and suggested that maybe I could someday help translate his book for English readers.

He responded, “I quite agree with you in your idea [for an English translation]. It is kind of a raw material. It’s all up to you to decide how to cook it. It is written for Japanese readers, and I think I will have to add some explanation for foreign readers when it has an English version.” 

After receiving the green light from Sayama to proceed, several attempts to pull the book off with volunteer translators failed (I have three translated versions of Chapter 1, and each one is slightly different). The project required dedication and focus, so I turned to a team of paid translation experts for assistance.

This new English version is a different reading experience from the original Japanese book. It’s divided into two sections, Part I: Gentle Black Giants, the English translation of Sayama’s original work, and Part II: A History of Negro Leaguers in Japan, a collection of stats, articles, essays, newspaper clippings, maps and photos from the Royal Giants tours. Sayama had many unanswered questions in his original book, and fortunately 30 years later we now have the answers. The information in Part II provides new insight and interesting perspectives on the tours, some from the players themselves.

I was also inspired to complete this project because of distant family ties to the story. My wife’s great-uncle, Robert Bailey, played second base with the Dallas Black Giants and Fort Worth Black Panthers in the Texas Negro Leagues and was once teammates with several members of the Royal Giants, including Biz Mackey, O’Neal Pullen and William Ross. I want my children to be proud of their family ties to Negro Leagues baseball history. Therefore, I feel an obligation to help preserve the legacy of the Philadelphia Royal Giants, a ball club comprised of African Americans (and many from Texas) who played a key role in laying the foundation for professional baseball in Japan — a legacy to be proud of and worth celebrating.

RW: Why did the Philadelphia Royal Giants embark on their tours of Japan? How was the team gathered together, and how did they prepare for their voyages to Japan?

BS: I’ll be honest, I’ve been researching the tours of the Philadelphia Royal Giants since 2005, and not once have I ever read anything about “why” the team embarked on their tours to Japan. So, based on what I do know, I’d say it was the same reasons that teams like the Kansas City Monarchs or Pittsburgh Crawfords barnstormed by bus across the continental U.S. – for fortune and fame – a desire to earn money, seek adventure and pursue their love for the great game of baseball. 

(BTW, I also have an unproven theory that perhaps manager Lon Goodwin viewed Rube Foster as his nemesis in organized black baseball. The two were former teammates with the Waco Yellow Jackets in Texas, circa 1900, and I get the sense from various articles that Goodwin often engaged in one-upmanship on the West Coast when it came to Foster and his accomplishments in the East. Even the name “Philadelphia Royal Giants” hints at an attempt by Goodwin to one-up Foster’s early club, the “Philadelphia Giants.”

O’Neal Pullen, Ajay Johnson, Biz Mackey and manager Lon Goodwin in Honolulu, Hawaii, 1927. (Courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum).

It’s quite possible that Goodwin’s desire to achieve success as a promoter of black baseball on a global stage was another reason why the tours occurred. You know, basic human frailties – ego, jealousy, spite, etc. I do think it’s interesting that in 1921 there were attempts to take a Negro Leagues all-star team to Japan, but it never materialized (Chicago Defender, Feb 5, 1921).

Did Goodwin view this as a failure on Foster’s part? Not sure. Maybe the tours were Goodwin’s attempt to match or surpass Foster’s accomplishments in the East? This is just a theory on my part for now. Maybe in the future, another baseball historian can explore this possibility, if interested.

With regards to the Royal Giants tours, I refer to them as “Trans-Pacific Barnstorming” – baseball tours across the Pacific Ocean by steamship, instead of on a highway by bus. It’s also worth noting that while Japan is the only country mentioned in the book title, the team also visited Korea, China, the Philippines and the Hawaiian Territories. In fact, several Royal Giants arranged independent tours to Hawaii, giving some players like O’Neal Pullen (featured on the book cover) additional tours stamped on their passports during the summers of 1928, 1929 and 1931.  

The story behind the makeup of the 1927 Royal Giants’ roster is complex. After playing in a two-game series in Fresno, CA, during the Fourth of July weekend, 1926, against Kenichi Zenimura’s Japanese American Fresno Athletic Club, Goodwin’s Los Angeles White Sox were invited to participate in a tournament in Fukuoka, Japan. Zenimura had previously toured Japan in 1924, and in the summer of 1926 already had plans in place for a second tour in the spring of 1927. Historians posit that Zenimura inspired and/or encouraged Goodwin to take his ballclub to Japan the following spring as well.   

In 1927, Goodwin managed two teams – between the months of April and October, he led the Los Angeles White Sox, the only African-American team in the semi-pro leagues of southern California; and from October to April he managed the Philadelphia Royal Giants, a team of Negro League all-stars who competed in the California Winter League

Goodwin’s CWL team in 1926-1927 included top Negro League talent from the East, including: Newt Allen, Andy Cooper, “Rap” Dixon, Frank Duncan, Willie FosterGeorge Harney, “Crush” Holloway, Newt Joseph, “Biz” Mackey, “Dink” Mothel, O’Neal Pullen, “Bullet Joe” Rogan, “Turkey” Stearnes and Willie Wells.

Goodwin’s invitation from Japan was expressly intended for the semi-pro L.A. White Sox, but according to telegrams sent to Japan before the team arrived, his plan was to tour with the entire lineup of his CWL Royal Giants instead. 

Unfortunately for him, only five of the 14 CWL players agreed to participate: Cooper, Dixon, Duncan, Mackey, and Pullen. (Note: These AWOL players received threats of steep fines and lifetime bans from Negro League officials while in Japan). To fill the remaining spots of the Royal Giants roster, Goodwin tapped the top talent of the L.A. White Sox, and signed: Joe Cade, Alexander Evans, Robert Fagen, Junior Green, Ajay Johnson, John Riddle, Eugene Tucker and Jesse Walker

According to box scores from the March 1927 Chicago Defender, Goodwin invited the semi-pro White Sox players to join the Royal Giants roster as substitutes for the remaining games of the CWL season to prepare for the tour. The blended roster of professional and semi-pro Royal Giants embarked on their first tour on March 9, 1927.

One of the appendices in Part II of Gentle Black Giants summarizes all six of the Royal Giants Trans-Pacific barnstorming tours. In short, between 1927 and 1934, a total of 47 different individuals (44 players, 1 manager, 2 promoters) spent 641 days on tour, and covered approximately 52,348 miles. Manager Lon Goodwin, pitcher Andy Cooper and catcher O’Neal Pullen were the most active of the barnstorming Royal Giants, participating in more than 70% of the collective days on tour.

RW: What did the Royal Giants find when they arrived and toured in Japan? What was the scene in Japan at the time, politically, socially and economically?

BS: The timeline of Japan’s history is tracked by eras that coincide with the reign of a new emperor. When young Prince Hirohito (age 25) assumed the throne after his father died in 1926, it marked the beginning of the Showa era. So, when the Royal Giants arrived in 1927, to the Japanese, it was the year Showa 2. At that time, Japan was already a great power and would grow even more powerful under Hirohito. Japan had the ninth-largest economy in the world, the third-largest navy, and was a respected and leading member of the League of Nations

Featured (left to right) are Ajay Johnson, Rap Dixon, Frank Duncan, Biz Mackey shaking hands with Tokyo Mayor Nishikubo Hiromichi, John Riddle (middle), Eugene Tucker, Andy Cooper, George Irie, and Jesse Walker (Courtesy of a private collector).

Japan was still recovering from a natural disaster that occurred in late 1923 known as the Great Kanto Earthquake. Similar to the earthquake that devastated San Francisco in 1906, much of the death and destruction in the Japanese quake was caused by fire. The Kanto disaster also fanned the flames of racial tension between ethnic Koreans and Japanese, with hundreds of deaths occurring in race riots in quake-stricken areas.

With regards to baseball, by 1927 the game had eclipsed sumo as the nation’s most popular sport. That same year Meiji Shrine (Jingu) Stadium opened (Biz Mackey hit the first home run there on April 20), and that same year Hirohito became the first Japanese Emperor to attend a baseball game.   

Baseball was first introduced to Japan some 50 years before the Royal Giants arrived. During the Meiji period (1868-1912) sometime around 1872-73, American Horace Wilson accepted a teaching job at Ichiban Chugaku (now Tokyo University) and used baseball as a recreational activity for his Japanese students. The game later thrived through amateur industrial teams, high schools and universities during the early Taishō period (1912–1926), and the first semi-professional team was established in 1920, the Daimai ballclub sponsored by the Osaka Mainichi Shinbun newspaper. 

Several major league teams toured Japan prior to 1927, including the Reach All-Americans in 1908, the NY Giants-Chicago White Sox World Tour of 1913, Major League All-Stars in 1920, and Herb Hunter’s All-Stars in 1922. From a diplomacy standpoint, U.S.-Japan baseball relations suffered a huge blow during the ‘22 tour. 

Among the stars on Hunter’s team were Waite Hoyt, George Kelley, Irish Meusel, Luke Sewell and Casey Stengel. Once they arrived in Japan, the big leaguers defeated every college, industrial and amateur team the country had to offer — except one. On Nov. 19, Hunter’s All-Stars lost 9-3 to the amateur Mita Club, led by future Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Michimaro Ono. On the surface, one would think that the Mita Club and fans would be happy with the victory over the Americans, but they weren’t. Reports out of Japan explained why:

“America’s reputation for sportsmanship suffered a severe blow when the American baseballers threw away Sunday’s game to the Mita local nine, which is strong nationally, but obviously no match for the American professionals …. The general opinion was frankly expressed that the Americans dropped the frame for advertising purposes, anticipating increased gate receipts later at Osaka and other parts…. The Tokio Asahi expressed the disappointment, ‘We welcomed the American team because we thought they were gentlemanly and sportsmanlike. They have now shown themselves to be full of the mean professional spirit. Japanese baseball followers are not foolish enough to believe they tried to beat Mita …. They disappointed our hopes and left an unpleasant impression upon us.’” 

Losing pitcher Waite Hoyt would later explain that he and his teammates were just “clowning around” on the field and meant no disrespect to their Japanese hosts. Nonetheless, the damage was done. As a result of several factors — including the 1922 Herb Hunter All-Star thrown-game fiasco, the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake in Japan, and restrictive post-season play policies established by [Major League Baseball] Commissioner [Kenesaw Mountain] Landis — no major league team would tour Japan for another eight years. This major league void would be filled by the top talent from the Japanese American and Negro Leagues.

RW: Why did the people and baseball fans of Japan accept the Royal Giants as equals and as friends? What was it about Japanese society and culture that made it more welcoming?

BS: There are several reasons why the Royal Giants were embraced by the people of Japan in the 1920s and 30s. First, Japan already had a rich and positive history involving people of African descent. A few examples include: Yasuke, the former African slave who became the respected “Black Samurai” (soon to be a movie starring Chadwick Boseman); Pyrrus Concer, a former American slave who visited Japan before Commodore Perry; and Japanese students who enrolled at historically black colleges during the Meiji Era. For a deeper dive into this rich history, I recommend Yukiko Koshiro’s paper, “Beyond an Alliance of Color: The African American Impact on Modern Japan,” (Duke University Press, Volume 11, Number 1, Spring 2003). 

Baseball card of Japanese baseball historian Kazuo Sayama, Dodgers Fantasy Camp, Vero Beach, FL, 1994. “His goal in life is to write good stories.”

The second factor at play was the involvement of Japanese Americans in the Royal Giants tours. African Americans and Japanese Americans were “brothers in a shared struggle” for equality in the United States. This is reflected in the 1913 quote by W.E.B. DuBois, “The fight of the Japanese for equal rights is similar to the fight the Negroes are making for their rights. Educated people of all races recognize that the color line is artificial.”

The passing of the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924 only added more fuel to the fire. Unofficially called “the Japanese Exclusion Act,” it ended all immigration from Japan, created tension between the U.S. and Japan, and fostered more racial animosity towards people of Japanese ancestry already living in the U.S. 

So, a kinship developed between Japanese Americans and African Americans, and this was especially true on the West Coast where anti-Asian sentiment was the strongest. In fact, it was not uncommon for Japanese Americans visiting the Jim Crow south, when forced to choose between “colored” or “white” amenities, to self-identify as “colored.”

During the 1927 tour, Japanese American Joji “George” Irie served as promoter for the Royal Giants. He scheduled games and acted as interpreter and cultural liaison between the team and people of Japan. Irie was able to arrange meetings between the Royal Giants and high-ranking officials, including the mayor of Tokyo and Emperor Hirohito himself. Japanese business leader and future politician, Gikaku “Steere” Noda of Hawaii, served in a similar role for the team during their 1932-33 tour.  

The third and final reason the Royal Giants were embraced by the people of Japan was a simple matter of respect. Respect is a two-way street, and the Royal Giants were received with dignity and respect because they treated everyone they met in Japan – opposing players, fans, officials, hotel employees and high-ranking officials – in the same manner. This mutual respect was reflected in a lengthy letter of gratitude written by Lon Goodwin and published in the Asahi Sports. (Highlights from this letter are included in another response to a question below.)

RW: How did the Japanese react to the type of baseball played by the Giants, and what impact did the Giants’ tour of Japan have on the growth of baseball in the country?

BS: Gentle Black Giants was first written by Kazuo Sayama in the mid-1980s, and it reflects his passionate research in the archives of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, and most importantly, his in-depth interviews with several Japanese ball players who competed against the Royal Giants.

Baseball is all about timing, and Sayama was indeed the right man in the right place at the right time to capture this story. He interviewed several Japanese players who remembered vividly and fondly their games against the visiting Negro Leaguers. So, the information and the positions stated in the book reflect the views of the former players who not only called the Royal Giants players “Gentle,” but also referred to them as, “The Other Fathers of Japanese Baseball.”    

The Royal Giants were called “Gentle” because they were viewed as respectful guests off the field, and thoughtful competitors on the field. Sayama captures multiple examples of this sportsmanship shared by the former players, including:

  • Biz Mackey bowing back to a Japanese pitcher after being hit by a pitch
  • The Royal Giants not arguing blown calls by fledgling umpires
  • The Royal Giants keeping the games competitive and not humiliating their opponents by running up the score
  • The Royal Giants offering positive words of encouragement, during games and afterwards in the press, about the Japanese potential as ballplayers. 

RW: You argue in the book that the Royal Giants had more of a positive impact on the development of the sport in Japan than did the similar tours of major league stars. Why do you think that was?

BS: It’s important to remember that arguments presented in this book reflect the positions of Japanese baseball historian Kazuo Sayama, which were greatly influenced by the former Japanese ball players who competed against both the Royal Giants and the Major League All-Stars.

Chapter 17 of Sayama’s translated book provides an eye-opening list comparing and contrasting the tours of the Royal Giants versus the tours of the white major league all-stars in 1931 and 1934.

A Philadelphia Royal Giants jersey is displayed on stage at the “Baseball’s Bridge to the Pacific” symposium at Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, Japan, on March 22, 2018. Left to right: Yoshikatsu Masaki, Bill Staples, Jr., Toyokazu Ishihara, Kyoko Yoshida, and Isao Takano. (Bill Staples, Jr.)

His conclusion is that the Royal Giants deserve more recognition and credit because their presence played a key role in the formation of a Japanese professional baseball league in 1936. He thinks that without the influence of the Royal Giants, a Japanese professional baseball league would have eventually started on its own, but not as early as 1936. 

According to Sayama, other countries rejected baseball because the visiting major league professionals left the developing players disillusioned with the game through humiliating losses. He argues that “The Royal Giants were the shock absorbers,” that made it possible for Japanese players to not get discouraged, maintain their love for the game, and continue to thrive and eventually become professionals. 

In the preface of the new English translation, I temper Sayama’s enthusiasm with a more moderate position, one that neutralizes any dualistic thinking that it must be either the Royal Giants or the major league all-stars who deserve all the credit for the start of a professional baseball league in Japan. I said: 

“Professional baseball is a business model that relies on two key components for survival: 1) highly-skilled ballplayers to create a quality product (the supply), and 2) the fans who pay their hard-earned money to watch the game (the demand). The debate about which tours inspired the start of professional baseball in Japan — the Royal Giants or the major league All-Americans — is not a zero-sum game (i.e. for one side to be right, the other side must be wrong). I think there is a degree of truth in both perspectives. The Royal Giants played a key role in helping to create skilled ballplayers, whereas the All-Americans played a key role in generating excitement among the media and fans. Thus, professional baseball grows and/or survives with only the right mix of player talent (supply) and fan interest (demand). It is a yin and yang relationship — one does not exist without the other. So, when it comes to the debate about which teams or tours inspired the start of professional baseball in Japan in 1936, I do not think it is wise or productive to debate which is more valuable, the yin or the yang. Having said that though, it is critically important to preserve the history of both sides of the story, which Sayama demonstrates has failed to occur when it comes to celebrating the Philadelphia Royal Giants …”

RW: Likewise, what impact did their travels in the country have of the Royal Giants themselves? How did they like the country, and how did they like the people of Japan?

BS: I previously mentioned the letter by Lon Goodwin (pgs. 52-53 of Gentle Black Giants). It reflects the Royal Giants’ feelings about their travels in Japan. Below are some highlights from that letter: 

“Dear Japanese players and fans from the baseball field, although we had admired the Yamato race for some years, our respect for you grew immensely after being treated so well by the Japanese people …

“We believe that Japanese baseball will continue to thrive greatly in the future. However, our admiration for Japanese baseball is due not only to the skills that were shown in the Daimai game, but also to the respectable sportsmanship that the Japanese players demonstrated.

“Frankly, we think there is not any other country where we could play and enjoy games while not paying any attention to wins or losses. We especially admire the passionate baseball fans, who are well educated and watched the games with respectful manners. That left us with a great impression of Japanese baseball. The more we thought about the dilapidated American stadiums, the better and nobler the Japanese stadiums appeared. We think that the stadiums are used by all the fans, and are for the Japanese people to enjoy real sports.

“We wish great success and a promising future to Japanese baseball society, and we also express thankfulness for their hospitality and kindness from the bottom of our hearts to our Japanese hosts through Asahi Sports.”

Years later, Royal Giants first baseman Frank Duncan shared his memories about Japan with Negro Leagues historian John Holway: 

“The people were wonderful over there (in Japan). I loved them. I hated to see them go to war. Wonderful people, the most wonderful people I’ve come in contact with. We played all over — Osaka, Kobe, and into Nagasaki. They had some nice teams over there in Japan, but they weren’t strong hitters. Pretty good fielders, fast, good baserunners …”

The interviews with the Japanese players also revealed the Royal Giants feelings about their experience in Japan: 

  • “A member of the Giants, whose name I forget, said to me, ‘I like Japan and the Japanese people. There is no racial barrier here. What a good country! I’d like to come back here again.’”
  • “I heard the (Royal Giants) players say that if a war took place between the U.S. and Japan, they would cheer for Japan. Life is not as simple as baseball. When they say that they would cheer for Japan, they are saying that we are a colored race, too.”

RW: How can this book help American baseball fans understand the history of baseball in Japan, as well as why the sport took hold so strongly in the country?

BS: There’s a long list of people who helped the English translation of Gentle Black Giants come to fruition. Three of those individuals were kind enough to provide testimonials for the back cover, and I think that together their words help answer the question of how this book can help American fans better understand the history of professional baseball in Japan: 

  • “Staples does an excellent job of presenting Kazuo Sayama’s Gentle Black Giants to English readers for the first time. Hopefully this project helps foster a greater appreciation for the global impact of the black athlete and their positive influence on the history of professional baseball.” Raymond Doswell, Ed.D., Vice President/ Curator, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
  • “Gentle Black Giants is a pioneering book that vividly presents African-American ballplayers’ striking impact on Japanese baseball.” Kyoko Yoshida, baseball historian, Ritsumeikan University
  • “Today’s MLB players are standing on the shoulders of the Nisei and Negro Leagues pioneers who transcended prejudice by playing the game in the U.S. and elevating the sport in Asia as pre-war goodwill baseball ambassadors.” Kerry Yo Nakagawa, founder, Nisei Baseball Research Project

As to why the sport took a strong hold in Japan, some historians argue that baseball has great appeal because it was the first sport in the country that emphasized cooperative team play, unlike the individual activities of sumo and kendo. The people of Japan were drawn to the mental and spiritual aspects of the game as well. Discipline, hard work, and team spirit resonate with the Japanese work ethic.

At the end of the day though, Gentle Black Giants is about the positive impact Negro League players had on the start of professional baseball in Japan. With that in mind, I often compare the creation of pro baseball in Japan to the building of a pyramid.

Participants in the “Baseball’s Bridge to the Pacific” symposium at Ritsumeikan University, on March 22, 2018, enjoying a post-event celebratory meal in Kyoto, Japan. Left to right: Toyokazu Ishihara, Bill Staples, Jr., Kyra Staples, Yoshikatsu Masaki, Isao Takano, and Kyoko Yoshida. (Bill Staples, Jr.)

The introduction of baseball to Japan in the 1870s laid the foundation. Between the 1870s and the 1930s, hundreds of tours took place – by semi-pro teams, high school and university teams (from both sides of the Pacific, U.S. and Japan), Japanese American teams, Negro Leagues teams and major league stars.

Each tour laid a stone that helped build this pyramid. And then, in 1934, Babe Ruth and his peers visited Japan, and in doing so, laid the final and most visible stone on the top of this pyramid. Yes, professional baseball in Japan did start after Babe Ruth’s visit, but it’s important to remember and give credit to the others who played an important role in its creation – much like the overlooked and underappreciated Philadelphia Royal Giants.


In conjunction with the celebration of the Negro Leagues Centennial (1920-2020), Gentle Black Giants is now available for $19.20 (reduced from $27.99). 

Gentle Black Giants was translated and published by NBRP Press, and proceeds from the book sales support the non-profit educational activities of the Nisei Baseball Research Project. 

Visit to learn more or visit to purchase your copy today. 

About the authors:

Kazuo Sayama is the author of over 40 books. He is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and the Sports Literature Society. He is the winner of the Ushio Nonfiction Award, Wakayama Prefecture Culture Award, Mizuno Sportswriter Award, Joseph Astman Award and Tweed Webb Award.

Bill Staples, Jr. is a board member for both the NBRP and Japanese American Citizens LeagueAZ Chapter, SABR Asian Baseball Research Committee chair, researcher for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, SABR Research Award winner and past speaker at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Visit his blog at:

Howard Kenso Zenimura, the son of Japanese American baseball pioneer Kenichi Zenimura, graciously signed on to write the foreword to the book before his passing in December 2018. His father served as a catalyst in the Royal Giants’ first tour to Japan in 1927, whereas Kenso is recognized as one of the first Americans to play for the Hiroshima Carp of the Nippon Professional Baseball league.

Additionally, several historians whose areas of expertise include Negro Leagues and/or early Japanese baseball history also contributed to the book. The all-star lineup of contributing historians includes editor Gary Ashwill, and authors Bob Luke, Ralph M. Pearce, Dexter Thomas and Kyoko Yoshida.

About NBRP Press

NBRP Press is the publishing arm of the Nisei Baseball Research Project, a non-profit founded in 1996 by Kerry Yo Nakagawa to preserve the history and legacy of Japanese American baseball, which includes the building of baseball’s bridge to the Pacific between the U.S. and Asia. To learn more about the educational activities of the NBRP, visit

A holiday debut for Bill ‘Devil’ Holland

Richmond Palladium-Item, Sept. 1, 1918

Editor’s note: This week we have an excellent submission from Alex Painter, kind of a follow-up to my recent interview with him about the recent release of his book on blackball in Richmond, Ind. I offer many thanks to Alex for submitted this article, and I encourage anyone else reading this who might want to submit a post for the blog! Just email me at!

By Alex Painter

Labor Day 1918 was met with a different kind of optimism and exuberance that the holiday, not even four decades old, had ever experienced. By September of 1918, the ‘war to end all wars’, the First World War, was drawing to a close, but the United States’ rapid mobilization for warfare the year before had truly put the importance of the American industrial worker to the forefront of the American conscience — nearly as much as the doughboys dodging bullets, bombs and poisonous gases in the trenches overseas. The newfound possibilities of the American industrial machine would continue to spur invention and innovation for the coming decades. 

Baseball, too, would mobilize for the global conflict. Christy Matthewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Harry Heilman number just three of the 27 eventual members of the Baseball Hall of Fame who served the Allied war effort. All told, a full 38 percent of the major league baseball players would serve the war effort in some capacity.

Though Major League Baseball would continue play through wartime, some minor leagues suffered immensely from the player shortage. One such circuit was the Class B Central League, based primarily in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. The league, in existence since 1903, shuttered before the 1918 season, also citing attendance issues. 

One such member of the league, the Richmond Quakers, based in Richmond, Ind., who were set to compete in 1918 with legendary Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown as manager, suddenly went defunct. This rapid change of events was problematic for the east central Indiana city, who had just finished construction on Exhibition Park — a brand-new, $12,000 ballpark to house the minor-league Quakers the season before. 

Bill “Devil” Holland (standing at far left) with the 1920 Detroit Stars

Short of sandlot-caliber and prep clubs, there was no team around to use the new facility, much less have a hope of filling the seats with a viable number of spectators.  

Though the baseball outlook in the city looked bleak, Richmond sporting goods magnate George Brehm seized an opportunity out of Indianapolis, and successfully booked Warner Jewell’s ABC baseball team, an all-black club who were themselves without a home field, to use Exhibition Park for the remainder of the summer in early June. Jewell’s ABCs, though certainly a somewhat-known commodity, were a second-tier offshoot of the celebrated Indianapolis ABCs, an outfit owned and managed by the famed and future Negro Leagues executive C.I. Taylor.

An issue that Brehm would have been otherwise unaware of was that, due to inactivity, most of Jewell’s club had gone home; only three of the team members remained from their final game the previous month. 

In less than a week, a delightfully eclectic roster for the new all-black team was composed, including then-21-one-year-old future Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston, with Jewell’s club formally taking on the moniker of the “Richmond Giants.”

Palladium-Item, Aug. 28, 1918

From June through the end of August, the Giants were the toast of the town on the baseball scene in Richmond, registering a 9-3-1 record, while defeating teams from larger cities such as Indianapolis and Dayton, Ohio. Blackball veterans such as George Board, Will McMurray and James Lynch, along with young upstarts such as Connie Day, William “Specks” Webster and Charleston, all suited up for the Giants that summer.

However, heading into Labor Day weekend, the team had not one but two doubleheaders on the slate, and the Giants were nearly tapped out. Injuries had taken their toll, as had players being called to military service (as such the case with Charleston). Only a couple of the Giants actually resided in Richmond, which certainly made travel logistics another issue facing the team. On Sunday, the Giants were to face the Muncie, Ind., Valentines twice, and the Richmond Athletics, the city’s all-star team, twice on Monday. 

Pitching, in particular, was running incredibly thin for the Giants.

In search of quick reinforcements, probably through an endorsement made by a team member, a teenager was plucked from the sandlots of eastside of Indianapolis named Elvis “Bill” Holland, a short, stocky, right-handed pitcher. It’s possible Holland was summoned due to an earlier recommendation from Charleston himself, who also grew up and lived on the city’s east side. 

Regardless of how he was originally solicited, the 17-year-old Holland suited up, and was handed the ball to start the first game of the holiday weekend against the Valentines on Sunday, Sept. 1, 1918. It would be his professional debut. 

The Valentines, a fast, tough unit, had just defeated the same team from Randolph County, Ind., that had dealt the Giants all three of their losses on the season. It is safe to say the lineup was seasoned, with a local newspaper even claiming there to be multiple former and future minor-league prospects on the roster. The teen was sure to have his hands full.

Richmond Palladium-Item, Sept. 2, 1918

The Giants offense made it a bit easier for Holland out of the gate, striking for two runs in the first and one in the bottom of the third. 

Using his lively fastball and an array of off-speed pitches (perhaps even an emery ball or two), Holland retired hitter after hitter after hitter. The seasoned Valentines had no answer for the teenage hurler, whose windup and delivery kept hitters off-balance (Satchel Paige later said “didn’t nobody pick up on his ball”), did not yield a hit until a bloop single in the top of the seventh inning.

That would be all the offense the Valentines could muster against Holland, whose Giants backed him with six runs, clinching an improbable 6-1 victory in his debut. The youngster was not only pitching for contact, but he was also flat-out missing bats, fanning 11 opposing hitters in the complete-game, one-hit gem.

“Holland, a youngster, did the hurling for the Giants,” the Richmond Palladium-Item wrote the following day. “His pitching was the best seen on the local diamonds this year in a Sunday game.”

The Giants tied the Valentines the second game that Sunday, and prepared for two more games the following day, Labor Day.

Holland would once again receive the ball to start the first game the following day, Sept. 2, this time against the Richmond Athletics. The Giants-Athletics doubleheader would actually be just one facet of the Labor Day athletic demonstrations; Giants outfielder Jack Hannibal, a professional boxer also known as “The Fighting Poor Boy” and “The Indianapolis Iron Man,” would spar 10 rounds after the doubleheader in a boxing exhibition. 

The Athletics were the de facto “all-star” team of Richmond’s Sunday Afternoon League (SAL). 

The teenage Holland, though squaring off mostly against men a decade his senior, battled once again. Unlike the previous day, his defense let him down a bit, registering four errors, and allowing for an unearned run in the first and three more in the fourth, and the Giants found themselves in a 6-3 hole by the eighth inning.

The Giants themselves would battle back, forcing extra innings, to which Holland would stay in the game all the way through the 11th inning until yielding the winning run to the Athletics in an ultimate 7-6 defeat.

But, when the dust settled, Holland “the colored moundsman, fanned 13 (more) men” than Monday, according to the Palladium-Item.

Quite a debut weekend for the stocky youth. In approximately 24 hours, Holland had thrown 20 innings, only allowed five earned runs (2.25 ERA), and struck out 24 hitters. 

The following season, the still-teenaged Holland would throw a couple games for the Richmond Giants once again. On May 11, 1919, he scored a 1-0 revenge win against the Athletics, again punching out 13 hitters via the strikeout. 

Spurred in part by his exploits with the Giants in Richmond, Holland was able to land a contract with the Detroit Stars of the freshly-minted Negro National League. He would spend three seasons with the club, starting (and winning) the second-most games in team history, behind Baseball Hall of Famer Andy ‘Lefty’ Cooper. His 249 strikeouts again rank only behind Cooper’s 388. 

Holland eventually acquired the nickname “Devil” because of a legendary competitive streak. Negro League second baseman Dick Seay once called Holland the toughest pitcher he ever faced, while also reflecting on his fiery disposition, “(If) you hit him, and the next time you came up there, you had to duck. And you knew it. He’d look at you mad, (and) let you know he’s going to throw at you: ‘Get ready to duck now.’”

Holland would spend the majority of his career pitching in New York City, pitching for the New York Lincoln Giants (1923-1924, 1929-1930), the Brooklyn Royal Giants (1925-1928) and the New York Black Yankees (1931-1941).

On July 6, 1930, Holland, then a member of the Lincoln Giants, became the first black pitcher to appear in a game at Yankee Stadium. His proudest day.

The East-West All-Star line-up, with Bill Holland, first row, third from left

In his 21st season, 1939, the -year-old Holland was named to his first East-West Negro Leagues All-Star team. He would pitch two more seasons before retiring after the 1941 season. 

A documented career that formally began as a teenager on Labor Day at Exhibition Park in Richmond, Ind., ended with Holland leaving an indelible mark on the Negro Leagues. According to formal league statistics on, Holland ranks:

Strikeouts – 1,094 (fifth).

Complete Games – 173 (fifth).

Games – 291 (eighth).

Wins – 116 (10th).

Holland — whom “Cool Papa” Bell put in his top four Negro Leagues pitchers of all-time, with the likes of Smokey Joe Williams, Bullet Joe Rogan and Satchel Paige — died in New York on Dec. 3, 1973, at the age of 72.