Jimmy Horio: Relentless Pursuit of a Dream

 

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. It was in the filth and squalor of the steerage section, deep inside a forgotton steamship that the Horio family of Hiroshima came to Maui. Despite all the hardships, the month-long hellish journey was the price the Horio’s were willing to pay for their dream of a better life. Little could they have known that years later, their yet-to-be-born son would retrace their journey back to Japan, with his own dream of becoming the first Japanese-American to play in the major leagues.

But that would be decades later.

It was at the turn of the 19th century that the Horio’s left Hiroshima, 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 a ship packed in with hundreds of other immigrants. When the horrific crossing was over, the Horio’s found that life on a Hawaiian plantation was anything but easy. Guards armed with whips kept close watch while the whole Horio family labored from dawn to dusk under the brutal tropical sun. The family eventually grew to eight children, of which Fumito was the seventh and the fifth one born in Hawaii. By the time Fumito was six, the family decided to head back to Japan.

Upon returning to Hiroshima, Fumito, now known as “Jimmy,” entered school and learned to play baseball. However, times were still tough in Japan, so Mr. Horio packed up the whole family again and sailed back to Hawaii in 1919. Jimmy grew up to be quite tall for the time, 5′-11,” and he developed into a star athlete in his high school, playing football, basketball and track in addition to baseball. Outside of school, Horio made local headlines slugging his way through the semi-pro Maui plantation baseball league.

Once again, Horio’s father decided to head back to Hiroshima, but this time Jimmy stayed behind. He was an American now, and Jimmy had never been able to speak Japanese without a halting, heavy accent. He dropped out of 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. Two of his new teammates were Yoshio “Sam” Takahashi and Harris McGalliard, the team’s token Caucasian. In a few years the three would be among the pioneers of the pre-war Japanese Baseball League.

The Nippons visited Japan in 1931, and their tour 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.

It was during 1931 that Jimmy met and married Yoshiko Marita, a 21 year-old native of Los Angeles. Now with a wife to take care of, Horio began pursuing his dream of a professional baseball career in earnest. The Nippon’s catcher, Harris McGalliard, was a USC grad who had played a little minor league ball in the late 1920’s. Impressed with Horio’s power and outfield skills, McGalliard recommended his teammate to the owners of the Sioux Falls Canaries, an unaffiliated team in the Class D Nebraska State League.

IN FEBRUARY OF 1934, Horio was invited to spring training with Sioux Falls. When he arrived at camp, Horio discovered that over three hundred young players had hitchhiked, rode freight trains or walked from all corners of the country to try for one of the 25 spots on the team. Horio later told sportswriter Charles Nakata that his “first month at training camp was a nightmare.” Living in perpetual fear of being cut, Horio told Nakata, “Pro baseball is a business and tough; you may have ability, but it takes more than that.” The key, Horio said was “25 per cent ability, 25 percent confidence and 50 per cent luck.” While both mentally and physically exhausted, Horio found that the tough training camp had instilled in him a confidence he never had before. When the Canaries broke camp, Jimmy Horio was on their roster.

The 1934 Canaries were a mediocre club, and not one of Horio’s teammates would make it to the majors. Throughout the summer, Horio was performing highlight reel outfield plays almost every game and running the base paths with Gashouse Gang abandon. The press nicknamed him “The Yellow Peril,” and in August a news wire service ran a syndicated story under the headline “Nippon Slugger Really Hits’ Em” along with his picture. That same month Horio set a Sioux Falls record and made national sports columns when he clubbed a 425-foot, against-the-wind home run in an exhibition game. Another story lauded him as one of the main 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 Jimmy Horio – which really meant something as the Canaries had a lousy team that year.

Of the twenty-five players who began the season with Sioux Falls, only Jimmy Horio and the team’s catcher remained at the end. Canaries skipper Rex Stucker inserted and discarded players at a rapid pace, trying to stem his team’s rising number of losses. Horio played in every inning of the team’s 140-game schedule that consisted of nine games a week, almost all played under primitive arc lights. In the first half of the season, Cardinals scout Charlie Barrett came to take a first-hand look at “The Yellow Peril.” Horio was batting well above .300 at the time and Barrett left impressed, however the endless night games and double headers took their toll on Horio. A second-half slump reduced his final batting line to .264.

Horio asked for his release from the Canaries, and even though manager Rex Stucker tried to talk him out of it, Jimmy believed that his destiny lay on the west coast, specifically in the Pacific Coast League.

HORIO WAS DESPERATE to become the first Japanese-American to make the majors. Although he told reporters in Nebraska he was 21, in actuality he was 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 team of Major League stars that Connie Mack was taking to Japan, China and the Philippines that winter. By chance, Horio had run into Al Simmons, one of the big league stars picked to go on the tour. The brash bush leaguer asked Simmons if he could join their team, but the future Hall of Famer told him that he had no say in who was invited to come. Undaunted, Horio then learned that a Japanese national team was being formed to oppose the Major Leaguers. Drawing on his previous experience touring the island with the L.A. Nippons, Horio reasoned that the Japanese would surely value his American expertise, and they’d have to let him join the team. Like his father before him, Jimmy packed up his wife, boarded a ship and sailed off into an unknown future.

When he and Yoshiko’s ship reached Hawaii, Horio used his baseball connections there to obtain a recommendation to Tadao Ichioka, sportswriter for the Yomiuri Shinbum newspaper that was sponsoring the Japanese leg of the tour. When Horio’s ship docked in Yokohama, Ichioka was waiting on the dock with a contract.

Showing the fast, aggressive way of playing he learned as an American, Horio easily earned himself a place on the Dai Nippon (meaning “All-Japan”) club. Manager Daisuke Miyake made Horio his starting centerfielder. Though elated that he had made the team, Horio was disappointed to learn there was no salary paid to any of the ballplayers. However, Horio knew both American and Japanese press was covering the lead-up to the tour with considerable enthusiasm, and this would be a once in a lifetime chance to showcase his ability on an international stage. Miyake also told Horio that after the exhibition games against the Americans concluded, a new professional Japanese league would be formed. When league play began, Miyake reassured Horio that the Yomiuri Shinbum newspaper, sponsors of the Dai Nippon team, would pay him retroactively.

As expected, the games were a wild success. At first, Horio performed well; his daring base running made him stand out from the other Japanese players and his play in the outfield impressed the American players. However, as the tour wore on, Horio was hampered by sickness and became more and more ineffectual. Horio finished the 15 game series with a disappointing .195 average. His one highlight was a dramatic 3-run homer 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 on how to improve. But when the Americans sailed away in the beginning of December, the contract he was seeking 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 that was departing in February. At least he would get free passage back to America.

The team was called “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 exhibition schedule. As a side note, a May 9, 1935 feature in Seattle’s Great Northern Daily News claims that the Giants name came from the large size of the team’s players, which were in contrast to the average Japanese male at the time.

Whatever the source of the name, the Tokyo Giants toured extensively, playing all-levels of ball clubs from small town factory teams to Pacific Coast 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. Nonetheless, 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, often featured in the cleanup slot. According to Rob Fitts in his book Banzai Babe Ruth, Horio hit .275 with 40 stolen bases on the tour. In addition to his bat, Horio’s fluency in Japanese and English made it much easier for the tour to navigate its 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.

Most important to Jimmy Horio was the press attention he received. As the lone American citizen and English speaker on the team, he was naturally the main focus of the sportswriters. His fame was such that Hillerich & Bradsby, the makers of the Louisville Slugger, announced they would be producing a special 35-inch model bat built to Jimmy Horio’s specifications. Created for the West Coast and Japanese markets, the bat was slated to hit the shelves in the spring of 1935. While having his own Louisville Slugger model bat was certainly a heady accomplishment, it was a Pacific Coast League contract that Horio really desired. He didn’t have to wait long.

BECAUSE OF THE PUBLICITY generated by the tour, several PCL teams expressed interest in signing some of Tokyo Giants. Unfortunately, every player was a Japanese national and spoke no English – all except Jimmy Horio. In March, Gabby Street, manager of the Mission Reds, offered Horio a contract, as did Oakland’s skipper, Ossie Vitt. But it was the Sacramento Senators that eventually secured Horio’s services. The way it came about was that the Senators’ manager, Earl McNeely, invited Horio to his office to discuss a potential contract. When Horio arrived, he was met by several photographers and sports writers who were under the impression that he had already signed with Sacramento. McNeely produced a contract to Horio and told the flattered outfielder “Well, Jimmy, looks like you have to sign now.” And he did.

As Horio began playing in the highest rung of minor league baseball, news wire services picked up Horio’s story and made him a minor news item across the country. The Senators had a working agreement with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and more than half of his teammates on the 1935 roster would go on to play in the majors. With Brooklyn perpetually mired in the second-division, coupled with their weak farm system, it was not far-fetched to think 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 she was rushed to a Los Angeles hospital. Yoshiko underwent an emergency appendectomy, but peritonitis set in and she passed away on August 3, 1935. Two weeks later Jimmy returned to the Senators, but understandably distracted by his loss, 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 being of Japanese descent that day, Jimmy reciprocated by smashing a single and scoring two runs as the Senators beat the Angels.

“Jimmy Horio Day” in Los Angeles was the high watermark of his season. In the 10 games he played after returning from his wife’s death 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 crossroads. Financially, he was in the red. On top of the bills stemming from his wife’s illness and death, the promised retroactive paycheck from the Yomiuri Shimbun failed to materialize when a Japanese League did not emerge in 1935.

In October he sailed for Japan, taking his wife’s ashes back to her parents in Hiroshima-ken. He returned two months later to find that the expected 1936 contract from Sacramento failed to arrive and that he had been released from the team. Horio desperately cast around for a new team to play for until 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 season of the Japan Baseball League.

Still sore about his money, Horio begged Seattle manager Dutch Reuther to play him against his former team. The Giants’ former center fielder turned his financial angst into a two-run single that led the way to a 9-0 route of his old team. Despite his good showing against the Giants, Seattle declined to give him a contract when they broke camp and started their season.

In the meantime, Jimmy had patched things up with the Giants, and a month after the exhibition game in Santa Monica he was back with the team. The outfielder was given his own paragraph in a syndicated feature article on the Tokyo Giants, calling him the team’s “heaviest hitter.” After the Giants’ spring training, Jimmy returned to Japan to play in the inaugural season of the Japan Baseball League.

THE LEAGUE’S first three seasons were split into Spring/Summer and Fall seasons. Originally, there were seven teams competing, three from Tokyo and two each from Osaka and Nagoya. The Tokyo Giants, who entered the league with their 1936 North American tour roster almost intact, declined to sign Horio. Instead, the outfielder joined former Dai-Nippon and Giants manager Daisuke Miyake on the Hankyu Baseball Club, later nicknamed the “Braves.”

For 1936, the schedule was set up in a tournament fashion, with each team competing for the most tourney wins. Teams played between 7 and 18 games, depending on how far they progressed in the tournament. In the Spring/Summer Season, Hankyu finished second while the heavily favored Tokyo Giants finished in sixth place. The Giants took the Fall Season while Hankyu finished third. Although Horio’s averages were low, .233 for the first half 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 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, most of whom had attended the finest universities in Japan. In contrast, Horio had dropped out of high school and lived a life far from anything his teammates could relate to. On the field, he was stoic and unemotional. His face was described as fearless with a perpetually stubbly chin. Horio’s height, combined with strength the press called “superhuman,” made him the most imposing player in the league. At bat, Horio swung-away like modern sluggers Babe Ruth or Jimmie Foxx, a contrast to the other Japanese players who played the game in the old-time “hit and run” style made popular by John McGraw. Horio became famous (or infamous) for his line drives, hit with a furious velocity that no other player on the island could match. And, while most players owned only a single bat, Horio travelled with several dozen, an affectation the conservative Japanese must have viewed as frivolous.

That first season in Japan, Horio was visiting his family in Hiroshima when he happened upon a photograph of a beautiful woman displayed in a photographer’s window. Inquiring inside, Horio found that the subject was Sakeye “Eileen” Saseki, a 21 year-old native of Berkley, California now living in Shiroshima. The ballplayer sought out the beautiful woman, and after two years of dating, married in 1938.

On the field, Horio steadily increased his average, batting over or close to .300 for the 1937-41 seasons. He stirred up Japanese fans when he was traded from Hankyu to their bitter rivals, the Hanshin Tigers. He starred for the Tigers until 1941 when he and Tadashi “Ted” Kameda, another American player in Japan, left the island due to the deteriorating political situation between the two countries. Although Horio was an American citizen, he was eligible to be drafted into the Japanese Army. Sam Takahashi, Horio’s teammate on the L.A. Nippons who had also come to play in Japan, had been drafted in 1938 and spent two years fighting in China. Now with the threat of war between the US and Japan, Horio and Eileen sailed to Hawaii.

Upon his return, Jimmy found he was still a popular figure among Hawaiian baseball fans. He played semi-pro ball until well into his late thirties and managed several Army baseball teams during the war. Back in Hiroshima, his father passed away in 1943 and he lost his brother when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city in August of 1945. After the war, one of the first things the United States did in occupied Japan was to re-start professional baseball. Ballplayers who had toured the island before the war, such as Lefty O’Doul, returned to help rekindle pro baseball on the island. Jimmy Horio would have been the perfect man to help Japanese baseball recover, but Jimmy was a sick man, eventually succumbing to bone cancer in 1949.

ALTHOUGH JIMMY HORIO never reached his goal of becoming the first Japanese-American in the majors, you can’t help but admire his sheer determination. From Maui to Hiroshima, Los Angeles to Sioux Fall and Sacramento to Osaka, Jimmy Horio stopped at nothing in a relentless pursuit of his dream. In the end, he may not have achieved it, but on the other side of the world, his influence on the game is still felt, forever remembered as “The Ty Cobb of Japan.”

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NOTE: Jimmy Horio’s unique place in outsider baseball history has led me to write about him several times over the years, each time expanding on his story as new sources came to my attention. In this final piece, I found many contemporary newspaper sources, including several outstanding interviews with Jimmy, which allowed me to add the ballplayer’s own personality and voice to the story.
Though focusing primarily on the 1934 Major League tour of Japan, Banzai Babe Ruth by Rob Fitts is the best English language source I’ve found on 1930’s baseball in Japan. Nagata Yoichi has published a book on the 1935 Tokyo Giants tour and a biography of Jimmy Horio, but regrettably these have yet to be translated into English. When they do, I will be the first in line to purchase them.

One of the most fascinating discoveries I made while researching this story was the Jimmy Horio Louisville Slugger bat that was to be available in stores in 1935. I spoke with Chris Meiman, curator of the Louisville Slugger Museum, who went deep into the company’s archives for me. Records show that Horio did indeed have his own signature model bat, and several dozen 35” bats of various specifications were shipped to Jimmy at both Sioux Falls and Japan. However, the company did not mass-produce a Horio bat for the retail market.

Oh well…

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This week’s story is Number 11 in a series of collectible booklets.

 

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. I will also start a Subscription to the series as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 006 and will be active through July of 2019. Booklets 1-5 can be purchased as a group, too.

2 thoughts on “Jimmy Horio: Relentless Pursuit of a Dream

  1. Thank you so much for your latest piece on Jimmy Horio. We would like to get a copy of the book for the Sioux Falls Baseball History collection. We tried hard to get Mr. Nagata’s biography translated. It was just too expensive.

    Dave Kemp

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