Jimmy Bonna: Uncovering Japan’s first Black ballplayer

 

Back around 2009, I became interested in Americans playing baseball in Japan. I knew that Japanese teams had imported American ballplayers as early as the 1950s, but I was wondering if there were any that appeared before the Second World War. After spending an afternoon in the Los Angeles Public Library elbow deep in newspaper microfilm and aided by Daniel E. Johnson’s Japanese Baseball: A Statistical Handbook, I found out there were no less than eight Americans playing in the Japanese Baseball League prior to 1941. My research attention quickly concentrated on Hawaiian-born Jimmy Horio, but I made sure to make a list of the other seven pre-war American ballplayers for future stories.

Among the seven other players in my notes was a pitcher/infielder named “Jimmy Bonna.” Compared to the other players on the list, Bonna had a very abbreviated career: 9 2/3 inning over 4 games in 1936. I didn’t think much about Bonna again until 2013 when I came across a post on Gary Ashwill’s Agate Type blog titled, “Early Black Ballplayers in Japan.” Gary’s story focused on Johnny Britton and Jimmie Newberry, two Black Americans who were recruited to play in Japan in 1952. Since 1952 it had been accepted that the pair were the first Black ballplayers to play on a professional Japanese baseball team. However, in the comments section, Japanese baseball historian and author Rob Fitts threw a game-ending curveball when he wrote:

The first African-American player to play professionally in Japan was actually Jimmy Bonna who played in 7 games for the 1936 Dai Tokyo team. Although he hit .458 he did not stay with the team and had little impact on the history of Japanese baseball.

And with that comment, a whirlwind of research began that brought together some of the best baseball historians and researchers around. Rod Nelson introduced a medium.com article by Dexter Thomas, Jr. called, “Japan’s First Black Baseball Player” that compiled the known details of Jimmy Bonna’s career. Then, the Official Historian of Major League Baseball, John Thorn, came up with the biographical low-down on Bonna using census records and passenger manifests. Author Bill Staples supplied a good record of the West Coast teams Bonna/Bonner played with before going to Japan. Thanks to this all-star group of baseball researchers, Gary Ashwill combined all the Bonna/Bonner information into a 2014 story titled, “Jimmy Bonner.”

The most important piece of research was the discovery of Jimmy Bonna’s real name: James Everett Bonner. Japan’s first Black ballplayer was born in Mansfield, Louisiana on September 18, 1906. The fourth of five children, Bonner’s parents split when he was about four, and his mother remarried. Before he turned 13, Bonner’s step-father passed away. Jimmy left school to work as a delivery boy for a pharmacy and later as a tailor. According to Ralph M. Pearce’s essay “Jimmy Bonner, Japan’s First African American Ballplayer” in Bill Staples’ book Gentle Black Giants, by 1932 Bonner was a utility player for the Shreveport Black Sports of the Texas-Louisiana League. Around this time Bonner married Lillian Victor, and the couple moved to West Oakland, California.

Before World War II, Northern California had a bustling semi-pro baseball scene, with many factories and athletic clubs sponsoring first-rate teams, most assembled along ethnic lines from the large Japanese, Chinese, Latin and Black populations. Jimmy Bonner’s first team on the coast was the San Francisco Giants, an independent club that played primarily against White semi-pro teams around the Bay Area. Bonner quickly made a name for himself when he pitched a no-hitter against the Polk Athletic Club on July 8, 1934. A July 26, 1934 story in the San Francisco Spokesman called Bonner, “the Giants speed ball pitcher” and later referred to him as “Sunny Jim.” An August 9 article in the Spokesman proclaimed Bonner, “…possesses a million dollar arm, and with proper schooling, should become a headline pitcher with his speed ball.”

Besides his dominance on the mound, Bonner was equally dangerous with his bat. His reputation as a double threat allowed him to advance to the Berkeley Grays in 1936. The Berkeley Grays played in the Berkeley International League, a high-level semi-pro loop whose players of a reported nine nationalities lived up to the “international” in their name: Golden Gate Buffet (White), Wa Sung Athletic Club (Chinese), Tijuana Grill (Mexican), Berkeley Cardinals (White), Athens Elks (Black) and Bonner’s all-Black Berkeley Grays.

Though this was semi-pro ball, Ralph Pearce’s essay on Bonner states that Berkeley Grays home games would reportedly draw crowds of 2,000. And “Satchel Jim” sure gave them their money’s worth; in April he set a new league record when he struck out 17 in a game against the Berkeley Cardinals and almost exactly a month later, he threw a 9-0 shutout against the Athens Elks, the league’s traditional powerhouse. Bonner’s pitching and heavy hitting elevated the Grays to a first place finish in the league’s first half. As Pearce writes in his essay on Bonner, the second half of the league’s season was shortened due to scheduling difficulties, and the Grays shared the league championship with the Athens Elks.

Bonner’s work with the Grays earned him a spot on the Berkeley International League All-Star Team, which participated in the Oakland Tribune State Championship Baseball Tourney. In the Internationals’ first game, Bonner gave up 5 runs in four innings in a 5-1 loss to the Chapel of the Oaks team. In the second round, the Internationals faced the San Jose Merchants. Internationals starter Wilbur Stout lasted only 1/3 of an inning, giving up a run on two hits before Paul Berndt was rushed in. Berndt gave up 6 runs before he was relieved by Bonner in the 7th. By this time, the score was 11-1 in San Jose’s favor. The Internationals staged a rally in the 8th but only managed to score a single run. The 11-2 loss eliminated the Berkeley Internationals from the tourney, but Bonner’s 1936 season wasn’t over yet.

Just days after the Oakland Tribune Tourney, Bonner was hired out to pitch in the Civilian Conservation Corps’ Championship Series. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a work program for unemployed and un-married men set up by President Roosevelt in 1933. The CCC had camps all over the country that provided labor for everything from road and bridge construction to conservation projects in National Parks to building airfields. Though he wasn’t enrolled in the CCC and was a married man, Bonner was surreptitiously recruited for the all-Black Company 2940 of the San Pablo Dam camp. In the series, Bonner was simply heroic, pitching three complete games in two days. In the championship game on September 5, Bonner again went the distance, allowing the Sacramento Headquarters team just five hits in the 3-1 win.

Now, this is where things get interesting.

“Satchel Jim” Bonner’s three complete games that won the CCC championship made the sports pages throughout California. One of the readers who took notice was a Japanese American florist in Alameda named Harry Kono. Besides his usual line of work, Kono was a baseball enthusiast who sponsored semi-pro teams, and according to the book Jewel of the Desert: Japanese American Internment at Topaz by Sandra C. Taylor, “he took a group of Japanese and Caucasian children to Japan each year to play baseball.”[is this where the quote ends?] In September of 1936, Kono was tapped by the Dai Tokyo team of the newly formed Japan Occupational Baseball League as their recruiting agent in the United States.

The Japan Occupational Baseball League (later changed to the Japanese Baseball League in 1939 and renamed Nippon Professional Baseball after 1949) had been formed early in 1936 as a seven team league playing in short spring, summer, and fall season tourneys. The Tokyo Giants, formed from the national all-star team that was assembled to play Babe Ruth’s big leaguers on their 1934 tour of Japan, was the dominant team. Several of the newly-formed teams employed Hawaiian and West Coast American players, and after finishing near the bottom in the spring and summer seasons, Dai Tokyo began to look abroad for talent.

Because most of the White talent was already playing in the major and minor leagues and the best Black talent were in the Negro Leagues, which were mostly based east of Kansas City, finding suitable unattached players was a tough order to fill. Fortunately, Harry Kono’s heavy involvement in California’s semi-pro baseball scene opened an untapped source of manpower. So, when Dai Tokyo wanted a big American star, Satchel Jim Bonner seemed to fit the bill.

On September 8, 1936, Jimmy Bonner signed a contract to play ball for Dai Tokyo through September 10, 1937. Besides picking up all the travel expenses, Dai Tokyo agreed to pay Bonner 400 yen a month. According to historical exchange rate charts, that would be about $808 US dollars in 1936 – that’s $16,991.02 today. To put this in perspective, Japan’s most famous ballplayer at this time was Tokyo Giants pitcher Eiji Sawamura. Sawamura became a national hero in Japan when he struck out Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, and Charlie Gehringer in succession during a 1934 exhibition game and had gone on to become the best pitcher on the island. In his medium.com on Jimmy Bonner, Dexter Thomas, Jr. writes that Sawamura “was making about 170 yen a month.” Clearly, Dai Tokyo was betting the bank on Jimmy Bonner turning around the fortunes of the franchise.

According to Ralph Pearce’s essay in Gentle Black Giants, on September 18, 1936, Jimmy Bonner boarded the S.S. President Pierce for Japan. Thanks to the Kokumin Shinbun newspaper, owners of Dai Tokyo, Bonner’s reputation had been inflated to Satchel Paige-like proportions.

Black Pitcher Rushes Onto the Scene Excellent Fielder, Holder of Amazing Strikout Record

The strikeout record alluded to was his having struck out 46 batters in three games over two days ­– obviously referring to the CCC championship series. While the 46 Ks in three games may have been a true statement, other stories such as his having played for the Oakland Oaks, were not. In fact, the Oaks were in the all-White Pacific Coast League, which would not be integrated until 1947. There’s a possibility that the true story was “lost in translation” as the Oakland Tribune Tourney and some of the Berkeley International League games were played in the Oakland Oaks ballpark.

In the days after his arrival, the Kokumin Shinbun and other newspapers were fascinated with Dai Tokyo’s newest player. One story was accompanied by a photo of Bonner sitting in what looks like a booth of a swanky art-deco lounge sporting a dapper Clark Gable mustache and wearing a stylish double-breasted suit. Another photo depicts Bonner in action with the headline:

Dashing Bonner Releases an Amazing Crossfire from his Iron Arm

An interview with the pitcher and his translator reprinted in a 1957 edition of Japan’s Baseball Magazine revealed his desire to “…win everything, and set a new strikeout record.”

One unexpected thing Bonner discovered after his arrival in Japan was that he was now “Jimmy Bonna.” The new moniker came from the translation of Bonner’s name into Japanese. Fellow American Harrison McGailliard, who was playing for Nagoya in that 1936 season, found his own name more radically altered to “Bucky Harris.”

Before the next round of tournaments commenced, “Jimmy Bonna” was given the opportunity to show his stuff in a pair of exhibition games against Nagoya. In the first game, Bonner went 2 for 5 in the 13-3 loss. In the second game three days later, Bonner hit a triple and scored two runs in Dai Tokyo’s 5-4 win. In both games Bonner played first base, prolonging the expectations of the fans eager to see the “Amazing Crossfire from his Iron Arm.”

On October 23, the Osaka Tournament, third of six tournaments that made up the Fall season of the Japan Occupational Baseball League, began. Bonner’s first game was against the Osaka Tigers. The Tigers boasted a foreign import of their own, Hawaiian born pitcher Henry “Bozo” Wakabayashi. Before the game, Bozo exchanged a little 1936-era trash talk:

BOZO: So, you’re going to play the Tigers now, and the Tigers are a little bit better than Hankyu. What do you think?

BONNER: Oh, so the Tigers are a little bit better than Hankyu. I can shut out the Tigers.

BOZO: Oh, that’s interesting. Please do it! I’ll see you at the plate.

In the game, Dai Tokyo scored a run in the top of the first. When Bonner took the mound he couldn’t find the plate. He walked the first two batters and then loaded them up when he gave up a hit. That brought up Jungo Igaue, who promptly hit a grand slam, his only home run of the 1936 season. Dai Tokyo steadily crawled back out of the hole and scored eight runs to lead 9-6 in the 7th. Then Bonner’s wildness returned, and he was pulled for a reliever. The Tigers tied it up in the eighth, and the game was eventually called because of darkness.

The rematch was played the next day, and Bonner was again tapped to start. After he walked the leadoff man, the crowd began to call for a new pitcher. Facing the number two batter, Bonner worked the count to two balls and no strikes before Dai Tokyo’s skipper sent him to second and waved in a reliever. Dai Tokyo took the game 7-4 with Bonner rapping out three hits and charged with two errors. This ended Dai Tokyo’s participation in the Osaka Tournament. Although they had tied and then beaten the Osaka Tigers, the eventual winners of the Fall season, so far Dai Tokyo’s hired gun wasn’t paying the dividends they were expecting.

Dai Tokyo next played a non-league exhibition game against Nagoya, and Bonner played an error-free second base in the 3-1 win.

The fourth of the six tournaments was the Tokyo League Tournament. Bonner was selected to start against the Tokyo Senators in the November 3 game. After getting out of the first inning unharmed, Bonner gave up three walks, which were then plated by Akira Noguchi’s bases clearing triple. Dai Tokyo’s manager made a call to the bullpen and sent Bonner to shortstop. Bonner hit a double and a single and scored twice, but that wasn’t enough as Dai Tokyo lost 13-9.

The next afternoon Dai Tokyo faced the Tokyo Giants, the premier team on the island. Tokyo’s pitcher that day was Russian-born Victor Starffin, and a healthy crowd turned out to see him face the American import “Jimmy Bonna.” In their first meeting, Starffin played to the crowd by tilting his head towards Bonner. The American reciprocated by smiling and shaking his hips back.

Playing second base, Bonner put on a good show that included hitting a single in the fourth and then stealing home. Going into the ninth, Dai Tokyo was up 3-0 and on the verge of dealing a devastating blow to the heavily favored Giants. Dai Tokyo was two outs away from victory when a runner got on first. The next batter hit a grounder to third, setting in motion what should have been a game-ending double play. For some reason, Bonner failed to cover second and both runners were safe. The Giants’ bats came alive, and before the inning was over those two runners and two more scored to give the Giants the win. 

This loss to the Giants on an error must have been especially galling to the Dai Tokyo management. In 1936, just as today, Japanese baseball stresses the flawless execution of the fundamental elements of the game, and a mistake as careless as neglecting to cover his position did not make Dai Tokyo’s high-priced import look good, no matter how many hits he made.

In the next round of the tourney, Dai Tokyo faced the Osaka Tigers again. Bonner spent most of the game on the bench, but a group of kids in the stands complete with a banner reading “Bonna-chan!” convinced Dai Tokyo’s skipper to send him in to pinch hit in the seventh. Bonner hit a single to center and finished out the game at shortstop.

Dai Tokyo faced the Nagoya Golden Dolphins on November 9. Bonner spent the first seven innings on the bench before being sent in to pinch hit. Bonner struck out but remained in the game at second.

The following afternoon, Bonner played first base and pitched briefly against Hankyu. At the plate he went 3 for 4 – unfortunately, his performance was tainted when he hit what looked to be a sure triple in the ninth, only to overrun the base and be tagged out to end the game.

To date, Jimmy Bonner had batted a gaudy .458, but his pitching had been nothing short of a letdown. In 9 2/3 innings Bonner gave up 12 hits and walked 13 and took the loss in his lone decision. His ERA was a bloated 10.14, and his strikeout total was a meager 2. Obviously, this was not the speed ball strikeout artist Dai Tokyo expected.

While Jimmy Bonner was no Satchel Paige, he was an experienced ballplayer who played with and against top tier semi-pros back in America. In theory, he should have fared better in Japan. There are several reasons given for Bonner’s lack of success. The first would be that the style of play in Japan was different than in America. Japanese batters were taught to show more discipline at the plate than the free-swinging American style. This meant the margin of error for a pitcher was much narrower, leading to a high level of bases on balls. Also, the height of a Japanese male in 1936 was about 5’-3 1/2” compared to 5’-7” for an American. That makes for a smaller strike zone, which Bonner had to adjust to.

Another factor could have been the baseball used by the Japan Occupational Baseball League. The Mizuno ball used in 1936 was slightly smaller than the standard American professional baseball. The same is still true today with Nippon Professional Baseball using a ball that is 141.7g and 22.9cm compared to Major League Baseball’s 148.8g/23.5cm ball. And according to Ralph Pearce’s essay in Gentle Black Giants, American ballplayer Henry “Jiggs” Yamada toured Japan in 1925 and complained the leather on Japanese baseballs was “slick.” As it has been demonstrated time and time again, even the slightest difference in the composition, height, tightness of the stitches and size can alter the way a ball is thrown.

Whatever the cause for his poor showing, “Jimmy Bonna” was finished in Japan. Dai Tokyo released a statement in the Yomiuri Shimbun stating, “…he wasn’t feeling well, so we sent him home.” Six days after his last game, Jimmy Bonner was on a ship back to the States. Dai Tokyo would go on to finish last in the Fall Season with a 5-21-2 record.

Jimmy Bonner returned to the Bay Area and played semi-pro ball up until WWII. He worked as a Pullman sleeping car porter until Pearl Harbor when he went to Hawaii as a construction worker, followed by a stint in the army beginning in 1943. After the war, Bonner resumed working the rails as a Pullman porter. Bonner and his wife Lillian were living in Oakland when he passed away in 1963 at the age of 52.

In 1952, eleven years before Jimmy Bonner’s death, Jimmie Newberry and Johnny Britton made news when they took the field for the Hankyu Braves. For many years it was believed they were the first Black players to play for a professional Japanese baseball team, a mistake that wasn’t corrected until the 2010s when an all-star team of baseball researchers came together to re-discover the mysterious “Jimmy Bonna” and return him to his rightful place as the first Black ballplayer in Nippon Professional Baseball.

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The story of Jimmy Bonner could never have been told without the intrepid research of historians Dexter Thomas, Jr., John Thorn, Gary Ashwill, Rob Fitts, Rod Nelson, Bill Staples, and Ralph Pearce. Pearce’s work has been especially helpful in writing this piece. I highly recommend Bill Staples’ book Gentle Black Giants in which Pearce’s essay on Bonner appears.

Special thanks to Amy C. Franks for her translation of several Japanese texts for this piece.

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This week’s story is Number 46 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. You can order a Subscription to Season 4 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 042 and will be active through December of 2022. Booklets 1-41 can be purchased as a group, too.

One thought on “Jimmy Bonna: Uncovering Japan’s first Black ballplayer

  1. This is great! I had never heard of Jimmy Bonna (or Bonner), and I always love getting an introduction to a guy from your posts.

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