Japanese Pitcher Could Have Been a U.S. Baseball Star—But Fought America Instead
Eiji Sawamura was one of the greatest players of his day
American baseball integrated its first black player, Jackie Robinson, in 1947. But if it had been up to one general manager, the sport would’ve added non-whites much earlier.
In the mid-1930s, the Philadelphia Athletics’ Connie Mack tried to recruit Japanese pitcher Eiji Sawamura. But World War II intervened. And instead of becoming an icon of racial integration in America, Sawamura joined the Japanese army and fought the Americans.
In 1934, Japanese newspaperman Matsutara Shoriki approached Mack in the hope of organizing an exhibition game between American All-Stars and Japan baseballers.
There was already a long tradition of U.S.-Japanese competition in the sport. Trans-Pacific exhibitions dated back to 1908, some 40 years after an American teacher working in Japan introduced baseball to the island nation.
Mack agreed to Shoriki’s proposition. He assembled an all-star team including the Yankees’ Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The team played several exhibitions in Japan as part of the so-called “Barnstorming Tour.”
The Barnstorming Tour introduced Americans to some skilled Japanese players—none more so than pitcher Sawamura. The 17-year-old from Ise was the first pitcher in the Japanese pros to pitch a no-hitter. He also led his league in strikeouts.
On the eighth game of the Barnstorming Tour, Sawamura struck out four future Hall of Famers in a row—Babe Ruth, Lou Gherig, Charlie Gehringer and Jimmie Foxx. It was a feat that even the greatest American pitchers couldn’t match.
Impressed, the almost 40-year-old Ruth asked to pose for a photo with Sawamura. Equally awed, Mack offered to sign Sawamura after the exhibition … but the pitcher turned him down. The tensions that would lead to World War II already strained U.S.-Japanese relations. Sawamura took the nations’ rivalry personally.
“What I am concerned about is that I hate America and I cannot possibly like American people, so I cannot live in America,” Sawamura wrote in a piece for the Shinnseinen newspaper. “Firstly, I would have a language problem. Secondly, American food does not include much rice so it does not satisfy me, so I cannot pitch as powerfully as I do in Japan.”
“I cannot stand to be where formal customs exist, such as a man is not allowed to tie a shoelace when a woman is around,” Sawamura continued. “American women are arrogant.”
Sawamura joined the Japanese army in 1939. He was said to toss a hand grenade better than anyone in his company. In the young athlete’s 1943 autobiography Memoirs of a Fighting Baseball Player, he reflected on what he saw as American cowardice.
“They surrendered immediately even if they had enough bullets and guns,” Sawamura wrote. “While Japanese put their hands up in the sky in a banzai cheer at victory, Americans put their hands up in a halfway manner shamelessly as soon as they realized that they could not win and there was no way out.”
By 1944, Sawamura was out of the military and attempting to get back into baseball. But his skills had faded. When his contract expired, his team declined to renew. Sawamura rejoined the army.
On Dec. 2, 1944, an American submarine torpedoed his transport ship near Yakushima Island. Sawamura perished along with many of the vessel’s passengers. The pitcher was 27 years old. He left behind a record of 63 wins, 22 losses, 554 strikeouts and a 1.74 earned run average.
The Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Sawamura in 1959.