Pioneering the Pacific Rim: Baseball, California, and the Creation of Transpacific Trade

Babe Ruth in Japan, 1934
Babe Ruth in Japan, 1934
Babe Ruth in Japan, 1934

On September 1, 1964, Masanori Murakami threw a scoreless eighth inning for the San Francisco Giants. Amid a playoff push, Murakami took the mound for his first action in the big show. Though he gave up one hit, he struck out the side and would go on to make nine total appearances that year with one victory, a save, and an ERA of 1.80. The following year, Murakami made 45 relief appearances, went 4-1 with a 3.40 ERA and eight saves. After a contract dispute between his Japanese club and the Giants led to his return to Japan, another Japanese player would not enter the Major Leagues until Hideo Nomo joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, which set off a consistent flow of Japanese players that continues today.

The flow of players was not unidirectional, however — Japanese Americans too played in Japan. Before WWII, players like the Stockton Yamato’s Henry Tadashi Wakabayashi or the L.A. Nippon’s Fumito “Jimmy” Horio settled into Japan’s professional league. 1 In 1951, with anti-American feelings running high in Japan, former San Francisco 49er Wally Yonamine became the first Japanese American to do the same in the postwar period. Yonamine would overcome the catcalls and projectiles hurled at him to become one of the most beloved players in post-WWII Japanese baseball. 2

In their respective debuts, Murakami in San Francisco, Yonamine in Japan, and Nomo in 1995, they collectively provide illustration of the ways in which California served as the transnational bridge between Asia and the United States. Two native Californians, San Francisco’s Lefty O’Doul and Santa Maria’s Tsuneo “Cappy” Harada, saw the value of transnational connections in an ever globalizing world and used baseball to capitalize on them.
Getting Past the Mississippi

In the 1920s, despite its increased popularity, American baseball remained geographically confined. Professionally, the game hardly existed west of the Mississippi River — no teams operated past St. Louis. Western baseball fans had to make do with semi-pro clubs; Californians were luckier than most. The Pacific Coast League (PCL), founded in 1902, had squads like the San Francisco Seals and the San Diego Padres. Major league stars emerged from these teams: Joe DiMaggio from the former, and Ted Williams from the latter, are just two prominent examples.

Recognizing a growth opportunity, Major League Baseball (MLB) officials began to explore the feasibility of expansion through exhibitions. In 1927, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, as part of MLB’s “first ever official postseason cross-country expedition tour by a World Series champion team,” barnstormed across the western U.S. Divided between two teams, the Ruth-led “Bustin Babes” and the Gehrig-headed “Larrupin’ Lous,” the squads competed against one another in front of enthusiastic fans starved for the cachet of major league baseball players.

Along the way they often picked up local players, usually those playing in the PCL, to fill out the two sides. When the teams hit the Central Valley, they recruited four ringers from the Fresno-based Japanese American team, founded by Kenichi Zenimura of the Fresno Athletic Club (FAC). Needless to say, local Japanese Americans took great pride in the fact that members from their community could hold their own not only with white major leaguers, but icons like Ruth and Gehrig. “Nothing validated their pride and sense of identity as an American citizen more viscerally than seeing their own play ball alongside the majors’ reigning stars,” writes Sayuri Guthrie-Shimizu in her 2012 work “Transpacific Field of Dreams: How Baseball Linked the United States and Japan in Peace and War.” 3 The financial success of the western excursion encouraged MLB to look beyond California to expand the sport’s reach and revenue flow.

Artifacts from the 1927 west coast tour of Babe Ruth’s ‘Bustin’ Babes’ and Lou Gehrig’s ‘Larrupin’ Lous’ | Photo: Dennis Amith/Flickr/Creative Commons

If the tour served as the first step toward a more ambitious undertaking, making the next step proved as difficult as the actual expedition. For years, the autocratic commissioner of baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, had denied requests for overseas tours of professionals. Some historians argue that Landis’ well-acknowledged racism factored into such decisions: a 1922 defeat of white U.S. professionals at the hands of the Mita Club, consisting of Japanese varsity players and alumni from Keio University, angered the commissioner, who believed the loss tainted the reputation of MLB and by extension “white American manhood for which the game of baseball stood.” The devastating earthquake that struck Japan in 1923 and its then anemic stadium infrastructure also contributed to Landis’ decision to ban overseas barnstorming. By the early 1930s, however, fresh off the popularity of the 1927 tour, Landis and MLB renewed the sport’s transpacific connections. 4

Despite the presence of Ruth and Gehrig on that 1927 tour, it would be a hard hitting outfielder, Lefty O’Doul, then a member of the San Francisco Seals, who would come to shape Japanese baseball and its transatlantic connection to America. O’Doul played well on the tour and earned himself a spot on a 1931 trip to Japan. During the first stretch of the tour he wowed Japanese spectators, hitting for a .600 batting average before breaking his ribs in an on-field collision. His affable persona and demonstration of baseball skill and acumen won over many Japanese fans. For O’Doul, the 1931 trip sparked a love affair with the people and culture of Japan that would also benefit him professionally and financially. 5

Lefty O’Doul

Born to Irish American parents in the meatpacking district of San Francisco, O’Doul grew up playing sandlot ball in the neighborhood, commonly referred to as “Butchertown.” By ninth grade O’Doul had swapped textbooks for a lunch pail, joining his father in the butchering industry, working in the meatpacking plants six days a week. But on Sundays he starred as a left handed pitcher in the city leagues. Looking for Irish American talent to appeal to the local working class Irish, the PCL’s San Francisco Seals signed him in 1918 and the southpaw excelled such that the New York Yankees gave him a contract the following year. While his initial run with the Yankees would be disappointing, Lefty returned to the PCL, converted to an outfielder, and in 1927 was named MVP leading the league in hits and RBIs. This success secured O’Doul a second shot at the big time and he would play eight seasons of Major League Baseball.

While O’Doul lacked a college education, his “earnest admiration of Japanese culture” and attempts to learn its language won the respect of many Japanese. Moreover, as a west coast native and witness to Japan’s enthusiastic crowds, O’Doul understood San Francisco’s key location connecting the American Northeast and Midwest to an expanding Pacific Rim. 6

Into the mid-1930s, O’Doul continued his professional career and made repeated trips to Japan as part of larger MLB tours. He even advised one of Japan’s most recognizable teams to change their name from the Dai Nippon Tokyo Yakyu Club to the Tokyo Giants. By 1935, O’Doul’s playing career had ended, but was soon named manager of the double AA San Francisco Seals.

From his position as Seals manager, O’Doul helped the Tokyo Giants arrange a tour of the western U.S. The tour’s opening game against the San Francisco Missions drew 1,500 spectators, the vast majority Japanese and Japanese Americans. A game against the Sacramento Senators drew 5,000. Travelling down to the central valley and Southern California, they played games against the San Jose Asahi, the Fresno Athletic Club, and Stockton Yamato. A three game series against the famed L.A. Nippon in Los Angeles, billed as “the Japanese World Series,” drew Japanese counsel Hori Koichi for the ceremonial first pitch, excited local media like the Japanese language newspaper Rafu Shimpo, and brought thousands of fans to White Sox Park in Boyle Heights. 7

Unfortunately, World War II would greatly disrupt such exchanges. Baseball served as a key aspect of life for Japanese Americans in internment camps. While the sport sutured the rough emotions brought about by internment, several Japanese American players pointed out that it probably prevented their integration into MLB. “If it wasn’t for the war, I think we could have had a Japanese American major league even before Jackie Robinson,” former Japanese American pitcher Tets Furukawa told interviewers years later. 8 In Japan, professional leagues pretty much collapsed during WWII as the demands of mobilization required players to enlist and clubs to donate whatever resources they could to the war effort. After the war however, O’Doul and Harada would play critical roles in shaping baseball in Japan and opening it up to American businesses and sport.

Lefty O'Doul in Japan
Lefty O’Doul in Japan

Tsuneo “Cappy” Harada

The postwar career of Tsuneo “Cappy” Harada encapsulates the shift in attitudes toward Asian Americans in Cold War U.S. Born in 1921 to a soon to be widowed Santa Maria field laborer, Harada worked along side his father while playing semi-pro ball for the Santa Maria Indians. In 1936, the Indians played the Japanese Tokyo Giants who had swung through the Central Valley on a second barnstorming tour of the states. Encouraged by Harada’s “speed and agility,” the team pursued him — but the teenager declined, deciding to remain with his father in the fields. By the late 1930s however, Harada had established himself with a semi-pro team in Edmonton Canada while working full time in a local lumberyard. With a forthcoming invitation to the St. Louis Cardinals spring training on the horizon, Harada’s athletic career seemed to be on the ascendency until December 7, 1941. While his Issei father and sister were sent to an internment camp in Bismarck, North Dakota, Harada enlisted in the military where he was placed in the linguistic training program.

After the war, Major William Marquat, the director of the Supreme Command for the Allied Powers’ (SCAP) Economic and Scientific Section (ESS), tapped Harada as his right hand man in U.S. reconstruction efforts in Japan. Together the two men championed baseball as a means to inculcate democratic values in the Japanese people, while also consolidating the sport as a commercial enterprise. Marquat remained the key decision maker, but Harada stood present for every policy he enacted, and served as a “forceful advocate for Japanese supplicants.” 9

Working with key figures in Japan, Marquat and Harada used athletics as the nation’s first steps toward reconciliation with the U.S. and the world. For example, in 1949 they arranged for Japan’s best six swimmers to compete in Los Angeles at the U.S. National Championships, making it the first overseas tour of Japanese athletes since WWII. The event proved wildly successful as Furuhashi Hironoshin, the nation’s most accomplished swimmer, broke records in three freestyle events, and the competition provided Los Angeles Japanese Americans with a brief moment of pride and satisfaction as they attempted to resettle following internment. 10

In Japan, Harada helped to solidify American interests; baseball once again provided the opportunity. Shigeru Mizuhara had been a star third basemen for the Japanese team Tokyo Big Six and a member of the Tokyo Giants when they toured the U.S in 1935 and 1936. Drafted in 1942 for military service, Mizuhara fought in the Manchurian theater. As the war wound down, The Soviet Union’s Red Army captured Mizuhara, placing him in a forced labor work camp. Upon hearing of his fate, Harada flew to the Soviet controlled Far East to “expedite Mizuhara’s repatriation.” Upon Mizuhara’s return, officials bypassed the usual “debrainwashing program” for those returning from the USSR, instead ferrying him to a Giants game in Tokyo. In a teary eyed speech, he told the crowd, “I, Mizuhara, have finally come home.” The moment remained “etched into the minds” of Japanese baseball aficionados. 11

By the early 1950s, a two league structure, modeled heavily on the U.S.’s MLB, had been established with the Pacific League and the Central League, each with seven teams, culminating in a world series between the two league champions. 12

Meanwhile O’Doul and Harada continued to exert their influence. In 1950, O’Doul returned to Asia with Joe DiMaggio as part of a USO mission to entertain UN forces in Korea. Stopping over in Japan, they held clinics and competed in home run derbies. At the opening game of the inaugural world series, O’Doul threw out the first pitch with DiMaggio at the plate and Marquat as catcher. This junket would set off a string of biannual post season tours of Japan by U.S. major leaguers. The 1951 Far East tour of the O’Doul All-Stars represented the melding of U.S. martial and ideological interests: the military provided the reason and the means, while officials trumpeted the sport as a form of Cold War “American cultural diplomacy.” Appreciative of O’Douls efforts, the Japanese welcomed the barnstorming Americans with a “traffic stopping hero’s welcome.” For Japanese professionals, the 1951 tour would mark their first victory against a team of American pros. 13

Wally Yonamine's rookie baseball card for the Tokyo Giants
Wally Yonamine’s rookie baseball card for the Tokyo Giants

That same year, O’Doul also played a key role in introducing the Hawaiian-born Wally Yonamine into Japan’s professional leagues. Yonamine was no stranger to trailblazing. In 1947, Yonamine played one season for the San Francisco 49ers, becoming the first Asian American in pro football. A few years later O’Doul discovered Yonamine playing for a San Francisco Seals affiliate in Salt Lake City, where he advised Yonamine to try his luck in Japan; in 1951, he debuted with the Tokyo Giants.

Yonamine’s first game turned out to be rather inauspicious. As a Japanese American, many fans reacted to him with great hostility, as noted in his obituary: “he was not only the enemy, he was a traitor.” Yonamine played hard and aggressive, bringing a hardnosed style and importing new techniques to the league, such as the hook slide and the drag bunt. Initially his dogged competitiveness horrified Japanese fans, “but then they slowly started adapting it themselves, because they saw it won games.” Thriving over 12 seasons as a player, batting .311 lifetime, and several more as a manager, Yonamine was elected to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994. “When I came to Japan,” Yonamine reflected in 2005, “I wanted to do three things: to manage a championship team, get into the Hall of Fame, and to shake hands with the emperor.” A fateful meeting in Los Angeles, after his playing days, while working as a scout for the Giants, enabled him to accomplish the third. 14

Along with O’Doul and Yonamine, Harada pioneered postwar transnational entrepreneurialism. In 1953, Yomiuri, a Japanese newspaper, agreed to a Tokyo Giants tour of spring training as a nod to the 100th anniversary of Admiral Mathew Perry’s arrival in Japan. Harada’s travel agency booked the tour and designated his own Santa Maria into the arrangement, using the town’s Elks Field as the central venue. Mizuhara served as field manager. While the Giants squeaked out victories against the 1952 Pacific Coast League’s champions, more importantly Harada had opened international eyes to the economic potential in transpacific cultural exchange. “The commercial success of pro baseball in postwar Japan, the Japanese adoration of things American, and the permanent U.S. military presence in the postwar Far East,” reflects Guthrie-Shimizu, “combined to create new markets for American led transnational sports and entertainment businesses.” 15

Harada remained an influential powerbroker in Japanese baseball. At the end of 1950, Harada left the military and established his own sports business in Japan. Like other Nisei linguists serving in the U.S. military, Harada capitalized on his language proficiency, familiarity with U.S. and Japanese culture, and transpacific connections by pursing personal business opportunities in Hawaii and post-occupation Japan. Harada and other Nisei sports entrepreneurs took advantage of the growing nexus between U.S. Cold War military expansion, tourism, and baseball. 16

Historians often highlight twentieth century California for its influence on urban planning, suburbanization, and leisure. Indeed, the Golden State at mid-century seemed the definition of the American Dream. Yet at the same time, Californians like O’Doul and Harada were busy charting a new transnational course that would help buoy state finances in the last decades of the twentieth century and represent the state’s economic and cultural future in the twenty-first. Californian’s baseball dreams could never be confined by the coast.


1 Sayuri Guthrie Shimizu, Transpacific Pacific Field of Dreams: How Baseball Linked the United States and Japan in Peace and War, (Chapel Hill, NC: North Carolina Press, 2012), 158.
2 Bruce Weber, “Wally Yonamine; Changed Japanese Baseball” New York Times, March 4, 2011,
3 Guthrie-Shimizu, Transpacific Field of Dreams, 131.
4 Ibid., 119, 132.
5 Ibid., 132, 136.
6 Ibid., 136 – 138.
7 Ibid., 161-163.
8 Kerry Yo Nakagawa, “Manzanar: Family, Friends, and Desert Diamonds Behind Barbed Wire,” in The National Pastime: Endless Seasons, Baseball in Southern California, Eds. Jean Hastings Ardell and Andy McClue, 2011
9 Guthrie-Shimizu, Transpacific Field of Dreams, 206.
10 Ibid., 218.
11 Ibid., 218.
12 Ibid., 225-226.
13 Ibid., 226-227.
14 Bruce Weber, “Wally Yonamine; Changed Japanese Baseball,” New York Times, March 4, 2011
15 Guthrie-Shimizu, Transpacific Field of Dreams, 228.
16 Ibid., 227, 240.

This article originally appeared under the Intersections column for KCET Departures in October 2014.