In "The League of Outsider Baseball," Gary Cieradkowski has collected the stories of ballplayers ranging from preposterously obscure to utterly unappreciated. Lots of those players appeared in the major leagues, but two of the pitchers involved in an especially unlikely matchup did not.
Cieradkowski joined Bill Littlefield to explain.
BL: Kenso Nushida pitched for the Pacific Coast League’s Sacramento Senators in 1932. In an early season tilt against the Oakland Oaks, Nushida was matched against Lee Gum Hong. It was a pairing that might have made any promoter of prizefights proud. I think I’ll let Gary Cieradkowski pick it up from there…
GC: It was 1932, the summer of '32. It was right in the depths of the Great Depression. It's just going to get worse. The Sacramento Senators had a not-very-good team that year, and they were looking to boost their attendance any way they could. And they wound up signing a guy by the name of [Kenso] Nushida.
Nushida, born in Hawaii, was a pitcher in Northern California's Nisei Leagues. Japanese fans loved him.
He's a little guy; he's about 5-foot-2, just about 100 pounds soaking wet. But he had this great curveball. He had a whole assortment of junk pitches that he would throw. And he would just baffle hitters, No. 1, because he was so small, and No. 2, because he would be able to throw these crazy curves.
[Hong] would just start railing to the press that he represents China and they're going to fight this and China is going to win this on the field, so he really whipped up the press into a frenzy.Gary Cieradkowski, Author
So the Senators wind up signing him. It was a smart move because not only did they get a pretty good pitcher, but he came with his own ready-made fan base. All the Japanese-American fans that would see him in semi-pro fields started going to the Senators games to watch him pitch. So the Senators make a round of all the Pacific Coast League teams and they come into Oakland. Now Oakland has an even more miserable team than Sacramento at the time — they're just wallowing in a terrible place in the standings. So the owner of the team, a guy named Vic DeVincenzi, sees a marketing idea.
The owner of the Oaks looked out his window and saw that there was a huge Chinese-American population in Oakland. So he got a great idea: not only was he going to get his own Chinese player to tap into this untapped market of Chinese-American fans, he's going to put him up against Nushida when he comes to town, and they are going to fight this Sino-Japanese War on the ballfield.
They go out and they try to find the suitable Chinese pitcher. Well, two of the guys on the Oaks had played high school baseball with a guy named Al Bowen. Al Bowen's real name was Lee Gum Hong. He was Chinese-American. He was about 6-foot-2 — big, burly pitcher — and he was a strikeout king on the sandlots of Oakland. Oakland signs him to a contract. The press starts playing up this Chinese-Japanese rivalry. Nushida never really made any comments about being Japanese or standing up for Japan. On the other hand, Hong started courting all the newspapers and he was kind of like a pre-Muhammad Ali. He would just start railing to the press that he represents China and they're going to fight this and China is going to win this on the field, so he really whipped up the press into a frenzy.
Japan v. China as a pitching duel fizzled. Nushida hit the showers early. And Hong left the game in the 6th inning.
So neither man wound up with the win that day, but there were about 3,000 Chinese fans that filled Oaks Park. They just went crazy and they're throwing firecrackers, they're cheering on Lee Hong, and it's a complete success.
To get 3,000 fans out to see two lousy teams in 1932 in the depths of the Depression, that was a huge deal. I mean these people really came out in droves to support their guys. It's interesting to me that the Pacific Coast League didn't continue to tap into that.
BL: Do we know whether Nushida and Hong ever shook hands after the game? Where they friends? Did they go have a beer together when this epic battle had concluded?
GC: I don't think so. Before the game they would take pictures of the guys shaking hands and standing next to each other. Nushida went on to have a very, very successful semi-pro career. And he wound up going back to Hawaii, which is where he was born, and played baseball there for years.
Hong played for a few more years and during World War II he joined the State Department and represented the United States over in China for many years.
Bill's Thoughts On "The League of Outsider Baseball"
[sidebar title="An Excerpt From 'The League of Outsider Baseball'" width="630" align="right"]Read an excerpt from 'The League of Outsider Baseball' by Gary Cieradkowski.[/sidebar]I was initially skeptical of "The League of Outsider Baseball," in part because some of the stories of these allegedly obscure ballplayers were familiar to me. Then I looked more closely at the book.
Gary Cieradkowski has done a terrific job of collecting stories with which even serious fans may be unfamiliar. Everybody’s heard of Willie Mays, baseball’s greatest player. But how many people know that in 1950, when Mays was the only black man playing for the Giants' minor league team in Trenton, New Jersey, his teammates were uncomfortable with the fact that when they visited the team in Hagerstown, Maryland, Mays couldn’t stay in the team hotel? Those teammates walked across town and slept on the floor of Mays’s room, just to make sure he was OK.
We decided to devote our treatment of "The League of Outsider Baseball" to the terrific story Cieradkowski had to tell about a Pacific Coast League game in 1932. We might as easily have invited him to tell at length the story of Hector Espino, the great home run hitter in Mexico who elected to remain in his homeland rather than allow himself to be exploited by Major League owners. In 1964, Espino turned down the opportunity to join the St. Louis Cardinals because the Cards wouldn’t agree to cut him in on what they were paying his Mexican League team for his contract. Espino’s leverage? He liked playing in Mexico. Later he turned down the Angels, allegedly because their manager directed a racial slur his way, and the team’s assistant GM called him a coward.
"The League of Outsider Baseball" is full of lots of other good stories about players you’ve never heard of as well as some you thought you knew.
This segment aired on May 23, 2015.