Review of Gentle Black Giants

Sayama, Kazuo and Bill Staples Jr.  Gentle Black Giants: A History of Negro Leaguers in Japan.  Fresno, CA: Nisei Baseball Research Project Press, 2019. Pp. 387. Appendices. $27.95 paperback.

Reviewed by Leslie Heaphy

With Gentle Black Giants, Kazuo Sayama and Bill Staples Jr. together fill a huge gap in the literature.  While Sayama first wrote about the Royal Giants’ trips to Japan in 1986, this is the first time his work has been made available to readers in English.  With the help of translators, Sayama’s first book has been translated and then supplemented with more research. The purpose of the book is clear – to show the influence the Royal Giants had on the creation of professional baseball in Japan in 1936. Throughout the book, the Giants are often referred to as “shock absorbers” for Japanese players, as Rap Dixon, Lon Goodwin and others showed Japanese players a side of the game they did not see from the Major League All-Stars who also visited Japan.

Nisei Baseball Research Project Press, 2019.

Sayama first was challenged to discover the story of the Negro Leaguers in Japan when he was approached by historian John Holway.  Holway wanted to know more about the Giants visit, especially about the first homerun hit at Jingu Stadium.  Holway claimed it was Negro Leaguer Biz Mackey, although Sayama had never heard that story. That conversation started all the research contained in this book.  It was a mission to find out the real story of what happened when the Royal Giants visited in 1927 and 1932.  In Japanese baseball history books, Sayama only found the basic details of the Giants’ 46-1-1 record.  Sayama and Staples wanted to provide the details behind the simple numbers.  Who were the players?  What happened in each game?  How was the team received by the Japanese press and  their Japanese opponents?  What the research quickly revealed became the title of the book.  The Negro League players came with humility and a desire to simply play, not to dominate or prove they were better.  The comparison to the Major Leaguers often was not often kind. They were described as arrogant, showing no desire to teach or help the Japanese players and acting as if they were superstars rather than just fellow ball players.  These contrasting attitudes led to the use of the term “shock absorbers” when describing the Royal Giants.

But more than the basic story of the Royal Giants’ two trips to Japan, the real contribution of this book is its extensive appendices. Research in a wide variety of primary and secondary sources, especially oral histories, provides a complete picture of Negro Leaguers and their time in Japan. Their two tours are put into the larger context of American tours to Japan, which began in 1905 and have continued to the present day. These trips have included everyone from high schoolers to the Major Leaguers. In addition to the tours, research reveals black players began to be signed to play for Japanese teams in 1936, starting with James Bonner.  Black players were not banned or segregated in Japan, instead treated as guests and friends.  Kenichi Zenimura and Lon Goodwin saw opportunities beyond ticket sales and worked together to promote Negro Leaguers in Japan.

One of the most interesting research pieces included in appendices is the account of Bob Fagen, manager and player. Fagen was part of the team that played in Japan in 1927. Fagen shares the story of Lon Goodwin, highlighting his importance to black baseball in the 1920s. Following Fagen’s account is a 1934 biography of Goodwin from the Chicago Defender. Goodwin is a name even most scholars of the Negro Leagues know little about, making this story is an important contribution to scholarship, especially since Goodwin helped arrange the 1927 and 1933 tours to Japan. Goodwin also arranged opportunities for players in Hawaii. The other person who helped make the trips to Japan possible was George Irie (born Goichi Hajan Irie). After moving to the United States and marrying an American, he served as the travel manager for the Royal Giants.

Staples then introduces readers to pitcher William Ross, who often has been left out of accounts of the Negro Leagues. He attributes this absence to an East Coast bias that has encouraged an ignorance of the stories of Ross and others who played primarily on the West Coast. Ross was part of the team that toured Hawaii and East Asia in 1932-33, going undefeated with a 39-0 record. The final biography covers Biz Mackey, the catcher on the Japanese tours. Mackey took every opportunity to travel and test his skills, even when facing suspension back in the States for jumping his contract. Subsequent appendices feature scrapbooks of tours from 1927 to 1934. For any baseball fan or researcher, the information provided here is invaluable. Included are newspaper stories, maps, photos and telegrams, offering a potentially intriguing entry point for future research. The final appendices, short biographies of the players who took part in all the trips to East Asia, also presents an opportunity for further research.

The Philadelphia Royal Giants trips to Japan are a significant part of baseball history.  Sayama and Staples have provided a window into that story and opened the door for more to be discovered. They make a compelling argument for the importance of Negro Leaguers in pushing for the formation of professional baseball in Japan. Every baseball researcher and fan should have this book on their shelves. 

Dr. Leslie Heaphy is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Kent State University. An admitted New York Mets fan, Dr. Heaphy has published several works on women in baseball and on the Negro leagues. 

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