Excerpt: Transpacific Field of Dreams, by Sayuri Guthrie-Shimizu

Baseball has connected America and Japan, even in times of strife, for over 150 years. After the “opening” of Japan by Commodore Matthew C. Perry, Sayuri Guthrie-Shimizu explains, baseball was introduced there by American employees of the Japanese government tasked with bringing Western knowledge and technology to the country, and Japanese students in the United States soon became avid players. In the early twentieth century, visiting Japanese warships fielded teams that played against American teams, and a Negro League team arranged tours to Japan. By the 1930s, professional baseball was organized in Japan, where it continued to be played during and after World War II; it was even played in Japanese American internment camps in the United States during the war. The following is an excerpt from Guthrie-Shimizu’s book Transpacific Field of Dreams: How Baseball Linked the United States and Japan in Peace and War (pp. 11-12).

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On December 30, 1907, Abraham G. Mills, the fourth president of the National League of Base Ball Clubs (NL), issued the final report of a special seven-member panel appointed by Albert G. Spalding, a kingpin of American professional baseball’s founding brothers, to determine “the true origins of America’s national pastime.” The commission, which included two U.S. senators, was charged to “weigh all available evidence” against the claim made by English-born baseball writer and statistician Henry Chadwick that the game had evolved from the British folk game of rounders. After three years of intermittent investigation, the Mills Commission definitively dismissed Chadwick’s thesis, reporting that baseball was solely of American origins. The singular basis of this unequivocal conclusion was written testimony sent to Spalding by Abner Graves, a former resident of Cooperstown, New York.  Sixty-eight years after the alleged event took place, the informant recalled that his childhood friend Abner Doubleday, a West Point graduate and a Civil War hero (who also happened to be Mills’s commander in the Civil War), had single-handedly invented the game of baseball in 1839 on a playing field in the pastoral upstate New York village. Baseball scholars, such as Robert W. Henderson and Harold Seymour, have long since debunked this Doubleday-Cooperstown foundational myth. The current scholarly consensus holds that no single individual created baseball; rather, it evolved incrementally from various forms of bat-and-ball folk games, including British rounders. This cultural form of transatlantic hybrid pedigree grew into a modern team sport in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York in the early nineteenth century, with each of these burgeoning northeastern American cities developing its distinctive formats of the game. These regional archetypes competed for dominance in midcentury America, but by the eve of the Civil War, New York’s variant became ascendant. It spread far and wide across the reunited nation after the war, claiming the moniker “America’s national pastime” along the way.[1]

Unlike the contested hagiology of baseball in the United States, the genesis of baseball in Japan has been free of the polemical debate and manipulation of historical evidence that surrounded the mythologizing of the game’s “immaculate conception” in Cooperstown. Not surprisingly, Japanese baseball historiography has been unburdened by vested interests in either affirming or disputing the quintessentially “American”—as opposed to British—origin of the sport. Nor was there and compelling need or organized attempt, as there was in turn-of-the-century America, to make baseball serviceable to the narrative of post-Civil War intersectional reconciliation and link its “purely American origins” to overarching American nationalism.[2] Both Scholars and popular chroniclers of Japanese baseball, introduced in the early 1870s, had multiple known roots. One pointed to a cohort of young American men who came to Japan as oyatoi (meaning “hired hands”) employed by the Japanese government, provincial political leaders, and private patrons to participate in the nation’s modernization project. Minor quibbles over particular “firsts” have existed among devoted aficionados and custodians of baseball trivia, but they never assumed divisive proportions, certainly not to the degree necessitating the creation of an investigative commission.[3] Scholars of Japanese baseball also widely acknowledge that disseminators of the American cultural form were not Americans alone. The game made its way to Meiji Japan, embraced by Japanese adolescents who, through various types of study-abroad opportunities, received education in Gilded Age America. By the end of the nineteenth century, baseball blossomed into a transocenanic pastime fostered in multiple networks built and sustained by aspiring Americans and Japanese who chose to cross the Pacific with a variety of aspirations in their hearts.

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From Transpacific Field of Dreams: How Baseball Linked the United States and Japan in Peace and War by Sayuri Guthrie-Shimizu. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Sayuri Guthrie-Shimizu is professor of history at Michigan State University.

  1. [1]George Kirsch, The Creation of American Team Sports: Baseball and Cricket, 1838-72 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 50-53; “A.G. Spalding Requests Formation of a Special Committee to Investigate the Origins of Baseball (1905),” in Early Innings: A Documentary of History of Baseball, 1825-1908, ed. Dean Sullivan (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 281; James A. Vlasich, A Legend for the Legendary: The Origin of the Baseball Hall of Fame (Bowling Green, OH:  Bowling Green State University Press, 1990), 18-23; Peter Levine, A. G. Spalding and the Rise of Baseball (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 112-15.
  2. [2]For the Mills Commission’s “invention” of baseball’s foundational myth featuring Abner Doubleday and Cooperstown, see Robert W. Henderson, “How Baseball Began,” New York Public Library Bulletin 41 (April 1937): 287-91; George Kirsch, Baseball in Blue and Gray:  The National Pastime during the Civil War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), ix-xiv; Warren Goldstein, Playing for Keeps: A History of Early Baseball (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), 10-14; and Ian Tyrrell, “The Emergence of Modern American Baseball, c.1850-1880,” in Sport in History: The Making of Modern Sport History, ed. Richard Cashman and Michael McKernan (St. Lucia: Queensland University Press, 1979), 205-26.
  3. [3]Kanda Junji, Yakyu Dendo Monogatari (Tokyo: Besuboru Magajinsha, 1992), 42-58; Ikei, Hakkyu Taiheiyo wo Wataru; Simada Akira, Meiji Ishin to Nichibei Yakyushi (Tokyo: Bungeisha, 2001), 32-61; Sakaue, Nippon Yakyu no Keifugaku, 7-52; Allen Guttman and Lee Thompson, Japanese sports: A History (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000), 81-89. Quibbles over “firsts” included the question of what constituted the first baseball played in Japan; whether it was first played by Japanese nationals; and evidence of first play by Americans living in Japan. See, for example, Nakamura Satoshi, Yokohama Supotsu Gaiden (Yokohama: Yokohama Shinbunsha, 1998), 2-4.