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Japanese Baseball Began On My Family's Farm In Maine

Horace Wilson and other members of his family in a portrait believed to date to the 1860s. He's the mustachioed fellow standing at top right. (Courtesy of Abigail Sanborn)

There's this strange story about my family that doesn't often come up in casual conversation. We don't talk about it much. I had to prod them when I donned my headphones and stuck a microphone in their faces to do this story. But as soon as we share, people shout, "Why didn't you tell me about that before?"

Here it is: My great-great-great-uncle introduced baseball to Japan.

No one in my family knew for generations, and in 2000 a fleet of Japanese people came to our farm in rural Maine and surprised us with an invitation to visit their country to promote the legacy of Horace Wilson — a man my family had more or less forgotten.

We had to enlist our oldest relative just to identify him in the portrait from around 1860 that hangs in our house (and is at the top of this story). We weren't sure which brother he was. Mustache, no mustache? Furrowed brow or contemplative gaze?

Here's what the Japanese told us about our uncle: After he left the farm and fought in the Civil War, Horace traveled to Japan in 1871 for reasons we've never uncovered. He then taught at what would become Tokyo University.

As the story goes, he taught his students a game at recess involving bases and a bat and, with that, brought baseball to the country. While Horace wrote home to Maine every now and then, he never once mentioned baseball, or even Japan.

Instead he spent his time urging his younger brother to keep up his correspondence:

"Your very pleasing letter came when I had not heard from home for a month. It made me smile right out loud."

Letters like these are all that we knew of Horace, who returned to the U.S. in 1877 and lived in the San Francisco area until his death in 1927. When we heard that a man named Kazuo Sayama, a baseball historian, was writing a book about Horace's pivotal role, we were shocked.

Tip: If you're looking to buy Sayama's book, Amazon translates the Japanese title thusly: Man Wilson Told The baseball In Japan For The First Time.

Around the time we learned that Horace had "told the baseball," Japanese players were just beginning to join the ranks of the U.S. major leagues. Since then, many have joined and excelled. Their highlight reels are played over and over on Japanese TV.

We thought we'd respond to the Japanese interest, and, what the heck, maybe we'd get some Red Sox tickets out of it. What we didn't know was that soon an envoy of Horace Wilson enthusiasts would come to our home, to present us with a proclamation.

It was sweltering late afternoon on the farm in 2000. My grandmother was sitting on the porch in her rocking chair, trying to entertain the Japanese visitors.

A couple of journalists, a representative from the Baseball Federation of Japan and, important, an interpreter had traveled all the way to make a pilgrimage of sorts, to what they revere as the birthplace of Horace.

As Grammy remembers, it didn't go so well: "I looked over at them and they were sleeping. And I said, 'Oh, I guess I won't offer them a bed. I'll just stop there.' I was entertaining them and they went to sleep."

Jet lag hit them hard. The more alert visitors in the group were gawking at my father, who was milking cows in the barn. Others wandered the fields, all the while refusing to remove their coats and ties.

At supper, we had spaghetti and meatballs, along with corn on the cob. Grammy remembers that a few of the Japanese had never had corn that way before. We're happy to have the guests, we thought we'd shown them a good time (despite the napping on the porch), and just when we thought we had done our duty, one of the men rose.

He delivered an invitation: Would members of the Wilson family be willing to represent the legacy of Horace and visit Japan?

So off we went. I was 13 and went with my father, my aunt and my cousin. None of us knew what to expect, but very quickly, we realized we'd be getting the royal treatment.

We had a posse of chauffeurs, interpreters and chaperones everywhere we went. I kept a journal throughout the trip, and it reveals on the day we landed in Japan:

"We arrived at the airport late and had to take a train/subway to our hotel. Everyone is very distressed."

Our hosts were desperate to keep us happy, seemingly oblivious to the fact that we were thrilled just to be there. We never expected we'd have a photographer following us, days filled with nine-course lunches, meetings with baseball officials and the ultimate moment: the high school baseball championship.

A gathering of players from all over the country, the tournament is more a pilgrimage than a sporting event — and we played a pivotal role. First, there's the parade of teams, where we were the dignitaries, waving to every team that marched across the field. Next up: the first pitch. At such a momentous event, you can't just throw out the first pitch. Certainly not. What you need is a few helicopters, some red smoke and a parachute.

My cousin Rose and I sprinted to the center of the field as the helicopters flew overhead, spewing a festive jet stream. The ball descended from a parachute. We picked it up and crossed home plate to pass it to the man who would throw out the first pitch: a Japanese-American astronaut, of course.

As my father recalled, this man had "gone into space and thrown a baseball around, so the Japanese thought it had come full circle from Horace Wilson to space."

Thousands of Japanese baseball fans cheered us. Afterward, we were featured in the newspaper, people stopped us on the street to get our autographs, gawked at us, asked to have photos taken.

From my journal:

"We met some ball players who wanted their pictures with us. They were really happy, considering they lost their game."

The theoretical end of this story is that, yes, we succeeded. We must have made a good impression on the people we met. We nailed that run to home plate with the parachuted ball. We sat quietly and smiled appropriately in all of the photos. Horace Wilson was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. The chairman shipped us a terribly heavy bronze plaque to add to what we cheekily call our "Horace Shrine" at home.

No, we haven't started selling tickets for a viewing. You can't find a Horace Wilson souvenir or make a pilgrimage to Wilson Farm for the true Japanese baseball creation experience. Sorry, no Horace Wilson bobbleheads for sale.

There's a reason for that. When I interviewed members of my family for this story, it was a bit like pulling teeth. You can hear the hesitation in their voices. This isn't what we're used to because we're not supposed to tell boastful tales or make ourselves part of creation myths.

We're Mainers. We're farmers. We're not people who change the landscape of sports on the other side of the world. When I ask my sister why she thinks people are interested in this story, she says it's not because of our family, but "because it's a really interesting story to deal with international relations."

Grammy ended the interview by praising the Japanese visitors and telling me how kind they were. "That's it," she says. "Don't waste your batteries anymore."

Theo Balcomb is a producer at NPR.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Video

This is a clip from a video of Theo Balcomb's childhood trip to a baseball tournament in Japan in 2001.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today professional baseball season began in Japan and if you're following it closely, you know that Hiroshima Carp beat the Chunichi Dragons three to two and the Orix Buffaloes squeezed out the Nippon-Ham Fighters in extra innings six to five. Baseball is big in Japan, very big and an American is credited with introducing the sport there in 1872.

The Civil War veteran and school teacher named Horace Wilson, his contribution is memorialized in a Japanese documentary.

(SOUNDBITE FROM DOCUMENTARY)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Horace Wilson who was born in Gorham, Maine in 1843. In 1872, he introduced baseball to the students in order build a healthy body more suitable to get better result on their studies.

CORNISH: Not everyone this side of the world where baseball originated knows the Horace Wilson story. Neither did his own descendents. It so happens that NPR's Theo Balcomb is part of that family and with the help of her mother, father, aunt, cousin and grandmother, she has the story of what happened when they found out.

THEO BALCOMB, BYLINE: Horace Wilson. Who is Horace Wilson?

PATRICIA: I believe that Horace is my or was my great, great uncle.

BALCOMB: Grew up on a farm.

PATRICIA: He was born in Gorham, Maine.

BALCOMB: In my house in a little room, the birthing room.

PATRICIA: Whom I had never met. I was two years old when he died.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We had no idea about Uncle Horace's involvement with baseball in Japan.

KATE: He was recruited to go and teach English and math in Tokyo.

BALCOMB: One day at recess was like, hey, guys, want to learn how to play a game, taught them how to play baseball.

PATRICIA: You would've thought that someone would've said, well, Uncle Horace was instrumental in getting them interested in baseball.

BALCOMB: My mom got this call...

ABIGAIL: Philip Block(ph) came to try to find a descendent of Horace Wilson.

BALCOMB: Then, we got connected to the guy who was writing a book about Horace. This man named Kazz(ph) and so Kazz brings over these guys, like a newspaper reporter. They brought four or five people to the house.

ABIGAIL: We were in the midst of haying.

BALCOMB: They show up...

SCOTT: I was milking the cows and I looked up and here is a wonderful Japanese man in his coat and tie watching me milk a cow.

BALCOMB: My mom makes this big dinner.

ABIGAIL: For some reason, I'm really not sure why, I had decided to make spaghetti and meatballs.

BALCOMB: And then we all sit down to dinner and suddenly they start making this...

ABIGAIL: Special proclamation.

BALCOMB: They have come to invite us to go to Japan. As the descendents of Horace Wilson, we need you to come to bridge the gap between east and west, you know, they go through this whole - like, they somehow tie World War II into it. I mean, this is a very big deal for them. So we say, sure, we'll take a trip to Japan. We figure out who's going to go.

ABIGAIL: So we sent them Theo and Rosie.

BALCOMB: I and my cousin, we were both 12 or 13 at the time. My aunt was going to go and then, they needed a man.

SCOTT: Most of Horace's descendents in this area were all female, but the Japanese very much like males.

BALCOMB: My dad's like, sure, I'll go.

SCOTT: I'm not the biggest baseball fan.

BALCOMB: The irony being that my dad has no relation to Horace whatsoever.

SCOTT: They were very, very happy to see me.

BALCOMB: And so that is how we began this really weird three-week trip.

ROSIE: We were treated kind of like rock stars. I remember being gawked at a lot because we were blond and a redhead.

BALCOMB: We had this one big moment where it was the culmination of the high school baseball championships, I guess.

ROSIE: And we were guests of honor. We had our own box.

BALCOMB: So we're there, like, we're the dignitaries, right? So we're waving.

ROSIE: We knew nothing about it other than it what they had told us.

BALCOMB: When they go to throw out the first pitch, they fly planes over the stadium and they drop the ball down to the field. And my cousin and I were supposed to run out to the center of the field and catch the ball.

Theo (unintelligible) Balcomb-san, Rose Ruth Sanborn-san.

During the game, there's a presentation. We have to go out in the center of the field and they present to us a plaque commemorating our visit and honoring Horace Wilson. The plaque is so heavy. It's bronze. It has this portrait of Horace and then this message to our family honoring him. And the man who is presenting it is this tiny little old guy.

SCOTT: I believe he was in his late 80s, if not early 90s.

BALCOMB: He is holding the plaque and my dad is like, oh, my God, he's going to drop it. He's going to drop it.

SCOTT: Because it was extremely heavy. But we were both bowing and bowing and bowing and somehow the plaque got from his hands to my hands.

BALCOMB: And it's August in Japan, right, so it's sweltering, so my dad is like trying to hold this plaque and then he gets interviewed by some woman.

SCOTT: They told me that, first of all, there was going to be this ceremony, that I would be asked several questions by a reporter and I should think about how I would answer them.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Have you ever heard anything about this (unintelligible), like how did he teach (unintelligible)?

SCOTT: Horace Wilson believed that education should include exercise of the body as well as exercise of the mind. Of course, no one knows what Horace Wilson believed at all so we made it up on the spot.

BALCOMB: So that was the trip. The joke I make is, I'm big in Japan because I was for two weeks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: NPR's Theo Balcomb with the help of her family, her father, Scott, her mother Abigail, her cousin Rose, her Aunt Kate and her grandmother Patricia. If you want to see pictures of Horace Wilson and his descendents, go to NPR.org. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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