Friday, January 29, 2010

Larry Raines and the Americans Arrive!

On January 28, 1978, a few months before I was born, Larry Raines died in Lansing, Mich. at the age of 48. Some sources refer to an addiction to alcohol later in life, an addiction that could possibly have been the cause of such an early death. One thing is for certain- Larry could play baseball. He played it in several countries in a host of different leagues over a 20 year period. And during that time he was one of the few ball players, and possibly the only, to spend time in five big leagues- the Negro American League, the Majors, the Minors (International, American Association and PCL, Cuba, Japan, and even the Puerto Rican Winter League). It was during his second tour of Japan, in 1962, that he was joined by two of the greatest stars of MLB in the 50's: Don Newcombe and Larry Doby (who is one of the only two, along with Goose Gossage, HOFers to have played across the sea). However, Newcombe, Doby and Raines were at the tail end of a frenzy of players to make the trip to Japan in the post-war period.

The numbers, still, are relatively small, especially before 1950 and the development of the two league system. Since it's inception, the professional league in Japan was less-than-open to foreign players, in part due to the political nature of the time (in 1936, the leagues first year, Japan was in the middle of preparations to invade China and signing pacts with Nazi Germany). Most foreign players in the game were Nisei (second generation Japanese) from Hawaii, or, like Bozo Wakabayashi (the Hall of Fame pitcher, pictured right) and Herb North, world travelers from birth. However there were a few players from the mainland US, most notably Bucky Harris (not the same Mr. Harris who took Washington to it's lone World Series victory in '24- his real name was Harris McGaillard and he was the first foreign professional player in Japan).

After the war and the move to a more complete system consisting of a Central and Pacific League, the amount of foreign players began to increase, beginning with Wally Yonamine, the only American to be honored for his playing with a spot in the Hall of Fame (Bozo, born in Hawaii, had revoked the Japanese part of his dual citizenship in 1928, but then switched during the War and was, from then on, only a citizen of Japan), in 1951. From that point, a steady stream of players began to arrive from Hawaii and the continental US, though they were still mostly Nisei. Below is the list of the first ten, including the first three non-Nisei players from the US:

Wally Yonamine 1951
John Brittian 1952
Jun Hirota 1952
Tomoharu Kai 1952
Dick Kitamura 1952
Katsumi Kojima 1952
Masoto Morita 1952
Jimmy Newberry 1952
Bill Nishita 1952
Marion O'Neil 1952

For more information about Yonamine (whose superstardom paved the way for the rest), Hirota and the other early Nisei, check out the books of Rob Fitts. The second foreign player after the war, Brittian, was also the first star from the Negro Leagues to make his way over to Japan, accompanied by his former Birmingham Black Barons teammate Jimmy Newberry. The fact that former Negro League players, as opposed to former minor or major league talent, were the first to play makes sense: though harboring some 'anti-foreigner' sentiments for decades, the pro leagues in Japan had been open to a variety of nationalities and country-less wanderers since their inception in 1936 (during the height of the Nationalism that would catapult the country into a two-front war). Hall of Famers Wakabayashi and Victor Starffin, as well as Harris and Nisei like Kaizer Tanaka and Den Yamada, had always been a part of the system. With the collapse of the Negro Leagues imminent, and the other pro leagues (slowly) opening their doors to diversity, the 1950's were a golden era for the wayward ballplayer. And, with segregation still strong (especially in spring training facilities well into the sixties), many of these players probably felt more at home in a foreign country.

Britton, or Brittian (as it is sometimes spelled in Japan), was born in April of 1919, and made his way in 1940 to the Negro American League, filling the 3rd base slot for the New Orleans/St. Louis Stars. By 1944 he was sharing the left side of the Birmingham infield with Artie Wilson, leading the Black Barons to a championship that year. Perennially at the top of the standings for the next seven seasons, the Barons fielded such stars such as Ed Steele, Lester Lockett, Lymon Bostock, Sr., Willie Mays, Jimmy Newberry and Piper Davis (who, as manager, made sure to keep the hard drinking Newberry away from the wunderkind Mays). Newberry was the star pitcher of the Birmingham team in their greatest years, and as such garnered the admiration and attention of Black Barons business manager Abe Saperstein. Saperstein is best known as the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, but he also served as president of the West Coast Negro Baseball Association, and managed the affairs of the Black Barons- he also had connections in Japan.

Thanks to Saperstein, Newberry and Britton came together and joined forces once again on the Hankyu Braves for the 1952 season, after a stopover together with the Winnipeg Buffaloes in the Mandak league of Western Canadian Baseball (Japanese Baseball and Canada had been linked for decades already, going back to college tours and of course the first pro tour's arrival in Saskatoon). One rumor persists that the pair were on loan from the St. Louis Brown, with whom Saperstein had a relationship as well. For the Braves Britton hit .316 (fifth in the league) with 5 triples, and Newberry went 11-10 with 100 strikeouts (second in the league), helping the Braves to a fifth place finish, just a few steps out of the gutter. Look here (scroll about three quarters of the way down) to see a great photo of the two with their Hankyu manager Shinji Hamazaki.

The following season Newberry went back to Canada, but Britton stuck around for another year of Braves baseball. He wasn't left alone, however- he was joined by a few more Americans- once again former Negro League players Rufus Gaines (though there is little evidence he did actually play with the Elite Giants) and Larry Raines, another product of Abe Saperstien's extended reach.

Born in 1930, by the time he was twenty Raines was playing for the Chicago American Giants in the Negro American League, manning the shortstop position and helping out Satchel Paige during his stay between Major League tours. It was the twilight of the Negro Leagues, and the CAG were not the same as the team Rube Foster put together a quarter century before- they finished last in the league, but Raines stayed for one more season before making the trip to Japan, most likely riding on the success of Newberry and Britton.

It was in Nishinomiya with the Braves that Larry became a star. In his first season in the Pacific league, he hit .286 while leading the league in at bats, runs scored and stolen bases (he had 61). What was most impressive, though, was his ability to combine power with that speed- his 16 triples not only led the league, but beat out his nearest competitor by nearly twice the amount. He came close to breaking Masayasu Kaneda's two year old NPB record of 18, and still holds the record in the Pacific League.

His fielding, however, was not his strong point- for instance, in '54 he was next to last in fielding percentage and one of the leaders in errors. These contributions helped the Braves move out of the cellar and into second place, closer to the top than they had been since 1949. However, his accomplishments at the plate the next season made 1953 look tame.

In '54, Larry won the batting crown with a .337 clip, beating out MVP Hiroshi Oshita by .016 points. Add to that the league lead in doubles, hits and at bats, and one could make the case that HE should have been the MVP. Yet, he also scored 96 runs (10 more than his nearest competitor), swiped 45 bases and drove in 96 runs, good enough for second overall. His .535 slugging percentage was behind only Futushi Nakanishi. This was enough to earn him his second trip to the All-Star game (it was in '52 that Britton had been the first foreign All-Star) and, more importantly, the shortstop spot on the Best 9 team- making him one of the first two non-Nisei to be so honored (Charlie Lewis earned the catching spot that same season).

The success he earned in Japan prompted Raines, once again with the assistance of Saperstein, make the journey back to the States, where he struggled for a bit before once again finding success at shortstop with Indionapolis of the American Association. He again led the league in triples (as well as stolen bases) and earned a tryout (along with a young Roger Maris) with the Indians in 1957- not before honing his skills with Almendares in the Cuban Winter league, where he hit 4 triples in only a hundred or so at-bats.

Though he impressed Cleveland enough to earn a spot at short and third (and even a garnering a Sporting News All-Rookie spot at third), but his lackluster glove work and less than stellar bat (though he did hit the ball well and scored 39 runs in only 266 PA's) caused him to lose his job to Minnie Minoso the following season.

He once again found fire in the minors, first in the Puerto Rican Winter league, then improving his glove work and hitting a respectable .303 with San Diego in the PCL, where he might have run into Larry Doby, who had played with the Padres the previous season. Doby would be traveling to Japan to play for the Dragons with Don Newcombe the next season. Whatever the circumstances, Raines found himself back in Japan to start the '62 season, back with the Braves, while Doby and Newcombe were with Chunichi in the Central League. It's possible that, revived by his stint in the PCL, (where, according to Larry Moffi and Jonathan Kronstadt, he learned to throw harder and shorten the time it took to get the ball to first), Raines thought he could capitalize on his previous Japanese success. He only played in 73 games but drove in 27 runs, splitting infield duties with Chico Barbon, also nearing the end of his long career.

Japan Baseball Daily mentions a possible problem with alcohol, a problem that can account for his diminishing skills as well as his early death. He finished his career with at least 265 stolen bases through the various leagues he appeared in, an impressive mark that may never had been appreciated once he was back in the states, without fame in Lansing. He was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Lansing, and few other records indicate how he lived out those final years.

Before the end of the 50's, another 36 men from the continental US, Cuba and Hawaii would play in Japan and set a precedent for all Gaijin (Japanese term for foreigner) to come:

Billy Wyatt 1952 11
Tsutomu Yaji 1952 12
Rufus Gaines 1953 13
Charlie Hood 1953 14
Fumi Kashiwaeda 1953 15
Len Kasparovitch 1953 16
Leo Kiely 1953 17
Al Long 1953 18
Ben Mitsuyoshi 1953 19
Phil Paine 1953 20
Larry Raines 1953 21
Mitsuru Watanabe 1953 22
Larry Yogi 1953 23
Harvey Zenimura 1953 24
Howard Zenimura 1953 25
Jim Doole 1954 26
Charlie Lewis 1954 27
Mitsuo Matsuoka 1954 28
Jimmy McCabe 1954 29
Sal Recca 1954 30
Chico Barbon 1955 31
Don Bussan 1955 32
Fibber Hirayama 1955 33
Andy Miyamoto 1955 34
Bill Pinckard 1955 35
Alvin Spearman 1955 36
Noboru Fujishige 1956 37
Dick Pariene (or Parente) 1956 38
Stan Hashimoto 1957 39
Allen Yamamoto 1957 40
Carlton/Haruo Hanta/Handa 1958 41
Jack Ladra 1958 42
Bob Alexander 1959 43
Ron Bottler 1959 44
Glenn Mickens 1959 45
John Sardinha 1959 46

15 of the players are Nisei, and a few more were players looking for a home just like Raines, Newberry and Britton. Al Spearman was another former Negro American League player who also played in the Mandak league and was also, apparently, a gold glove boxer. Same as Rufus Gaines, who came over to the Braves with Raines- he pitched brilliantly for Hankyu, going 14-9 with 142 strikeouts. However, little else on his baseball career exists.

Some made the best of their time in Japan- Marion O'Neil (one of the first 10) and Billy Wyatt were stationed in Japan with the US military and ended up playing for the Lions, at the peak of their dominance. Many others, like Charlie Hood, were in Japan b/c of military reasons, and others, like Harvard educated Jim Doole, in Hawaii. And Leo Kiely became the first former Major Leaguer to play in Japan, pitching, and winning, six games in 1953 after pitching for Boston in '51 before being drafted and arriving in Asia courtesy of Uncle Sam.

Even Glenn Mickens, a former UCLA star and Brooklyn prospect, mastered the shuuto and was a two time All-Star.

The Giants had a monopoly on the first wave of Nisei to make their way to the NPB, but some made their mark elsewhere. Howard and Harvey Zenimura were the sons of Kinichi Zenimura, a giant in Japanese American baseball, who was instrumental in, among other things, the continuation of baseball in the internment camps into which most Japanese Americans were forced during WWII. Zenimura also helped to get Fibber Hirayama to Japan, where he became one of the greatest bespectacled players of the 50's, and one of the most celebrated Carp players of all time.

It was the 31st player, though, Chico Barbon, who was, along with Fibber, the biggest star. He could never really hit for average, but in every other category he was at the top of the list.

Barbon was born, according to Japan Baseball Daily, in Matanza, Cuba, and began his career in Western Canada with the Florida Cubans and Indian Head Rockets(though some sources put him in one of the Negro Leagues, and the Rockets had been the Jacksonville [FL] Eagles of the Negro American League before moving to Canada, well before Chico was in the picture; others also place him in the outfield of the Matanzas team, and then with the Havana Cubans in 1953 as Humberto Barbon). It was once again through the efforts of Abe Saperstien that Barbon was introduced to Hankyu management, and he made his way to Japan in 1955.

By that time, Raines had left the Braves, and the only remaining American was Al Spearman- though anyone in the crowd may have seen two Americans. However, that season Barbon became the first Cuban-born athlete to play professional baseball in Japan, and he immediately became a star. His 49 stolen bases led the team, and with 105 runs scored, he was the only one in both the Pacific and Central leagues to score over 100. In addition, he led the Pacific league in at bats, hits and triples. On top of all of that, he was, by far, the best second baseman around: his .975 fielding percentage in '55 was tops, and his totals in every other category were first or second in the league. His performance, though, was not enough to earn either an All-Star selection or a place on the Best9.

Barbon would not have to worry about unrecognized glory- he would go on to play 1228 games for the Braves over the next ten years, and another 125 for the Buffaloes in one final season. Though he was recognized only once (in 1958) for his play at second with a spot on the Best 9, his impact was felt all around the league. In his first four seasons, during which he played his best ball, the Braves never went below .500 and finished at the top of the heap every season. And he would finish with the top four base thieves in every year between 1955 and 1961, leading the league from '58-'60: his 308 lifetime thefts are still good for 24th on the all time list.

Yet he was only an All-Star once in 1959, and finished his career with only one Best 9- it must have been his consistently low average. He was a run scorer, a league leader, and a great fielding second baseman- for instance, in 1958 he had almost twice as many putouts, assists and double plays turned than any other second baseman. It was not a fluke- he did it every year. But his play was never enough to help the hapless Braves to a pennant, despite their two stellar pitchers: Testuya Yoneda and Takao Kajimoto. But his dedication and consistancy laid the foundation for the Braves Pacific League dynasty of the late 60's and 70's.

After sharing the infield with Raines in 1962, Chico spent only two more seasons with Hankyu. His final season was spent with last place Kinetetsu, scoring 50 runs and imparting some of his fielding and base stealing knowledge with all of the young players on the team. Then, unlike a lot of his contemporaries, he decided that his career was over, and that the place which had accepted him so openly as a fresh faced Cuban (a face that would have brought him adversity had he gone to find stardom in the States) was his real home. Of course, his birthplace was in the midst of a revolution, a fact that may have persuaded him that he had no choice. Whatever the reason, he continued the association with Hankyu fostered a decade before by Abe Saperstein, and worked (according to Japan Baseball Daily) as an interpreter for the Braves. He married, settled down and remains there to this day.

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