Wednesday, June 5, 2013

152. Jimmy Horio: The Japanese Ty Cobb


While learning about the Negro Leagues years ago, I became interested in the various teams they competed against when not playing against other black teams. Back before the Second World War there was a whole parallel universe of baseball operating just out of bounds of the recognized leagues affiliated with major league baseball. Researchers Scott Simkus and Gary Ashwill seem to have coined the perfect phrase for these teams and the games they played: "Outsider Baseball". From flickering microfilm and disintegrating yellowing newspapers I learned about the bearded House Of David religious colony from Michigan which sent out as many as 3 different traveling teams a season to play all over the country. I heard about the Nebraska Indians, made up of, you guessed it, Native Americans. I read about barnstorming teams made up of major league stars angling to make a buck. All-Girl teams. Teams of washed up players sponsored by a shoe company. Prison teams. The F.B.I. had a team which J. Edgar Hoover never failed to come out and support. And I also came across the Japanese All-Stars which toured North America in 1935.


Among the Japanese players was a lone American, Jimmy Horio. I was fascinated by what little I could find out about him and when I started this site Horio was among the first players I featured. It was a much too short overview of a career which spanned two continents and 2 decades and heavily influenced the way the game was played in Japan. Over the years I have received many emails asking about him and the original story is consistently one of the most-read pages on my site. Information about Jimmy is hard to find in English, but over the years I have been digging up every article I could find about the 1935 Tokyo Giants and their players. Rob Fitt's beautifully written book "Banzai Babe Ruth", about the 1934 Tour of Japan, features Horio as a minor character and offers some good insight into his time with the Dai Nippon team. I also managed to have some key articles translated from the Japanese by a colleague of my fiancé which helped me gain much insight on how Horio was treated in the Japanese Baseball League. Now I believe I can say this is the most comprehensive article about one of the most interesting and little-known players in "Outsider Baseball" history.


At the same time immigrants from Europe began flooding into the Eastern United States, on the other side of the world there began a similar exodus as thousands of Japanese emigrated to Hawaii and California. At the turn of the 19th century, the Horio family from Hiroshima were one of the many hopefuls to sign a contract to become indentured servants to one of the vast Hawaiian sugar plantations in exchange for free steamship tickets and the chance at a better future.

If at first it seemed too good to be true, the Horio's found out they were right. Passage to Hawaii was spent in the rancid steerage section of the ship packed in with hundreds of other immigrants. When the horrific crossing was over the new immigrants found that life on a Hawaiian plantation was anything but easy. Guards armed with whips made sure the back-breaking field work was done swiftly while the whole Horio family and others like them labored from dawn to dusk under the brutal tropical sun. The Horio's eventually had 8 children of which Jimmy was the seventh and the fifth one born in Hawaii. By the time he was six the family decided to head back to Japan.

Upon returning to Hiroshima, Jimmy Horio entered school and played baseball. However, times were still tough in Japan so Mr. Horio packed up the whole family again and sailed back to Maui in 1919. Continuing his ball playing, Jimmy grew up to be quite tall for the time, 5'-11" and this helped propel him to become a star athlete in his high school, playing basketball and track in addition to baseball. Outside of school Horio made local headlines with his advanced play in the semi-pro Maui plantation league. 

Once again Horio's father decided to head back to Hiroshima, but this time Jimmy stayed behind. He was an American and he never was able to speak Japanese without a halting, heavy accent. He dropped out of high school and dedicated himself to fulfilling his dream - becoming the first Japanese-American to play in the major leagues. Since Hawaii didn't have anything more advanced than sandlot and factory league teams, and the chance of being spotted by a major league scout was slim-to-none, Jimmy decided to try his luck in Southern California.

Los Angeles had a thriving Japanese community and like every other ethnic enclave in the country, the Japanese had their own baseball teams. Horio got a job as a truck driver and played a season with a lower-tier team sponsored by the Grand Central Market. When the Grand Centrals met the L.A. Nippons, California's best Japanese team, for the 1930 Southern California Japanese League title, the Nippons invited Horio to join them. One of his new teammates was Yoshio Takahashi, a fellow Hawaiian and in a few years the two would be among the pioneers of the pre-war Japanese Baseball League. The Nippons visited Japan in 1931, a tour that helped spread the popularity of the game in that country. Since Jimmy was bigger than a typical Japanese male at the time, he particularly impressed local fans with his hitting and outfield play. He had become a switch hitter by now, also a rarity in Japan as almost every player hit right-handed. Since he spoke Japanese, something many of the second-generation players on the L.A. Nippons did not, Horio cultivated friendships with many of the opposing players, a connection he would put to use later on in his career.

When the Nippons returned to Los Angeles and no professional scout came to offer a contract, Horio went looking for them. In the spring of 1934 he earned himself a place on the Sioux Falls Canaries of the Nebraska State League. The Canaries were an unaffiliated Class D club and none of his teammates would make it to the bigs, but at least he had his foot in the door.  His spirited play earned him the nickname "The Yellow Peril" and though his average was only a meager .250, he ran the base paths with abandon and his play in the outfield was stellar. In August a news wire service picked up on Horio and ran a syndicated story under the headline "Nippon Slugger Really Hits' Em" along with his picture. Another story lauded him as one of the attractions of the league and claimed that he "takes to professional baseball like a hobo to a hand out." Kind of a clumsy analogy but at least the establishment was taking notice of the Hawaiian. A Cardinals scout came to Sioux Falls to take a better look at Horio, but by the end of the 1934 season nothing ever came of it and he returned to Los Angeles.

Although he told reporters in Nebraska he was 21, Jimmy was now 27, married, and facing a rapidly closing window of opportunity to get to the majors. It was while contemplating his future in the fall of 1934 that he read about the major league tour of Japan that winter and the Japanese national team that was being formed to oppose them. With stars like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx, there was bound to be lots of opportunity to show what he could do - if only he could get a place on the Japanese team. Horio reasoned that the Japanese would surely value his American expertise and they'd have to let him join the team - they just didn't know that yet. Like his Father before him, Jimmy packed up his wife, boarded a ship and sailed off into an unknown future.

When Horio reached Japan he wrote to the new Japanese team's manager, Daisuke Miyake, and got himself a tryout. Showing the fast, aggressive way of play he learned as an American he easily earned himself a place on the Dai Nippon (meaning "All-Japan") club. He was disappointed to learn there was no salary paid to any of the ballplayers but he must have figured the chance to showcase his talents against the best big league players in the world was worth the risk. Miyake also told Horio that after the exhibition games against the Americans there would be a new professional Japanese league and when it began the Yomiuri Shinbum newspaper, who was sponsoring the Dai Nippon team, would pay him retroactively.

Before the Americans arrived Horio helped train the Japanese players. The press, both American and Japanese, had covered the lead-up to the tour with considerable enthusiasm and Horio knew that the opportunity to play against a team like the American All-Stars was a once in a lifetime chance. At first he performed well. His daring base running made him stand out from the other Japanese players and he fielded impressively as well. However as the tour wore on Horio was hampered by sickness and became more and more ineffective. His fielding suffered and his hitting, which was never his strong suit, fell off drastically. After 15 games he batted a disappointing .195. His one highlight was a dramatic 3-run homer hit off Washington Senators ace Earl Whitehill. Horio told a Japanese newspaper that while he was disappointed with his performance, a few of the big leaguers were kind to him and offered constructive advice to improve. But when the Americans sailed away in the beginning of December, the elusive contract he was hoping for from a big league team failed to materialize. Still without a paying job, Horio signed on with the Dai Nippon team for their tour of North America which was departing in February. At least he would get free passage back to America.

The team was called "The Dai Nippon Tokyo Yakyu Kurabu" (Great Japan Tokyo Baseball Club), but by the time they played their first game in America they'd been renamed the "Tokyo Giants" by Lefty O'Doul, who helped arrange the team's schedule. 

The Giants' toured extensively, playing all-levels of ball clubs from small town factory teams to AAA level minor league teams. Gauging their success and talent is not an easy thing to do as they did extremely well against amateur teams and decent against minor league opposition, however the games against minor league teams were during spring training and many of the teams did not field their best players. None-the-less, the tour was very successful and huge crowds packed the ballpark when the Japanese came to town. American audiences were fascinated by their cultural differences such as tipping their caps and bowing deeply to the umpire when coming to bat or being thrown out steeling. Particularly noted during the tour was Jimmy Horio's excellent fielding and newspaper accounts are filled with mentions of the Japanese-American's exploits in the center field. He was also promoted as their power hitter and in the Giants' batting lineup he was often featured in the cleanup slot. His fluency in Japanese and English made it much easier for the tour to navigate it's way through the back roads of North America. It is reported that the Tokyo Giants' record for the 1935 tour stood at 74 wins and 34 losses. More importantly to Jimmy Horio was that the acclaim he received on the tour led to that elusive professional contract.

After the Japanese players went home in July, Horio happily stayed in the United States as he'd signed a contract with the Sacramento Senators of the Pacific Coast League. The opportunity to play in the PCL might have been initiated by a helpful recommendation from "Lefty" O'Doul who was now playing-manager of the San Francisco Seals. Again, news wire services picked up Horio's story and made him a minor news item across the country as he began playing in the highest rung of minor league baseball. The Senators had a working agreement with the Brooklyn Dodgers and more than half of his teammates would go on to play in the majors. With Brooklyn's lousy record leaving them perpetually mired in the second-division along with bleak prospects, it was not far-fetched to assume Jimmy Horio might actually become the first Asian-American in the major leagues. He got into 10 games and was batting .260 when tragedy struck.

Horio's wife Yoshiko had been in a car accident earlier that spring from which she seemingly recovered. However in late July while Jimmy was playing for Sacramento she was rushed to a Los Angeles hospital. With Jimmy at her side she passed away on August 2nd. Two weeks later Horio returned to the Senators, but understandably distracted, he wasn't very effective.

Throughout the Pacific Coast League local Japanese fans turned out to stage "Jimmy Horio Days" when Sacramento came to town. On August 25th San Francisco held their tribute to the only Japanese-American in professional ball. Japanese Boy Scouts marched on the field and women who dressed in traditional kimonos were admitted free. When Sacramento traveled to Los Angeles to play the Angels on September 1st, the local Japanese community delegation presented Horio with a bouquet of flowers when he came to bat in the first inning. With 9 out of 10 fans in the stands of Japanese decent that day, Jimmy reciprocated by smashing a single and scoring two runs as the Senators beat the Angels.

The "Jimmy Horio Day" in L.A. was the high watermark of his season. In the 10 games he played in after returning from his wife's death in he went 5 for 21 and his average stood at the .250 mark when the season ended.

Now a 30 year-old widower with a mediocre season of minor league ball behind him, Horio was at a cross-road. He was seething about not being paid his retro-active money by the Yomiuri Shimbun when a Japanese League failed to emerge in 1935 and he desperately cast around for a new team to play for. Finally, the Seattle Indians invited him to their spring training camp in Santa Monica. Among the exhibition games Seattle had lined up was one against the 1936 edition of the Tokyo Giants. The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper decided to once again send a team to North America, but this time it wasn't a mere exhibition tour - this was spring training for the inaugural Nippon Professional Baseball League season.

Still sore about his money, Horio begged Seattle manager Dutch Reuther to play him against his former team. Boiling over with anger, the Giants former center fielder hit a two-run single that led the way to a 9-0 route of the Japanese. Despite his timely hitting against his old team the Indians declined to give him a contract when they broke camp and started the season.

Apparently Jimmy patched things up with the Giants, because a month after the game in Santa Monica, Horio was back with the team and was given much ink in a feature article in the Spokane Daily Chronicle. After the Giants' spring training Jimmy returned to Japan and officially joined the Nippon Professional Baseball League. Although the Giants declined to sign him, Horio joined the Hankyu Ball Club which was managed by Daisuke Miyake, the man who led the Dia Nippon and Tokyo Giants. Again, although his averages were low, .233 for the first half of the split season and .217 for the second, his influence on the game in Japan well out-weighed his offensive output. The press dubbed him "The Ty Cobb of Japan." 

Though recognized at the time as being a great influence in how the Japanese played the game, like most innovators, he was far from popular. Due to his rudimentary Japanese, Horio had trouble fitting in with his teammates who almost to a man had attended the best universities in Japan. Horio had dropped out of high school and had lived a far from ideal life as had most of his teammates. On the field he was stoic and unemotional. His face was described as fearless with a perpetually stubbly chin.  Horio's great height, combined with strength said to be superhuman, made him the most imposing player in the islands. Unlike the other players in the league, Horio swung-away like American sluggers, highly unorthodox and offensive to the "hit and run" John McGraw-like way the Japanese played the game. While his average may not have showed it, Horio was famous (or infamous) for the furious speed of his line-drives which no other player on the island could match. While most players owned only a single bat, Horio travelled with several dozen which the conservative Japanese must have viewed as frivolous. 

Horio steadily increased his batting average, batting over or close to .300 for the 1937-41 seasons. He further made himself unpopular among Japanese fans when he switched from Hankyu to the Hanshin Tigers, Hankyu's hated rival. He starred for the Tigers until 1941 when he and Tadashi Kameda, another American player in Japan, left the island due to the deteriorating political situation between the two countries.

Jimmy continued to play semi-pro ball in Hawaii during the war, playing until he was 39 years-old. Back in Hiroshima his father passed away in 1943 and he lost a brother when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city in August of 1945. Jimmy Horio died from bone cancer in 1949 and although he never reached his goal of becoming the first Japanese-American in the majors, his influence on the game in Japan is still felt, forever known as "The Ty Cobb of Japan".


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