Kenso Nushida

Larry Kwong, the first Asian Canadian to play in the NHL, died today.  That naturally got me thinking about the first Asian American to play in MLB.

The answer  is Ryan Kurosaki who pitched in seven games for the 1975 Cardinals, and not Lenny Sakata who came up with the Brewers in 1977 and is sometimes incorrectly given credit as being the first. I can see making a mistake with Sakata, since he had a long MLB career, but I was kind of annoyed when I googled the question to see that most of the top listed websites were about Masanori Murakami, who was not an American.

The good news is that I found about Kenso Nushida.  Nushida was a Nisei from Hawaii who was the first Asian American player to play in the Pacific Coast League, when he pitched for the Sacramento Senators (later the Solons) in 1932.  Here is a University of Hawaii article on Nushida, which was the most informative and likely most accurate article on the internet I was able to find.  I’m taking most of my facts from this article.

In 1932, it was unclear whether players of East Asian descent could play in the major leagues because of the color line.  Like most things involving bigotry, however, there wasn’t much rhyme or reason in how these unwritten rules worked in practice.

In 1932, the Sacramento team in Pacific Coast League was looking for a Japanese American pitcher to appeal to all the Japanese American baseball fans in the Central Valley.  Some background here: baseball was hugely popular in the large Nisei communities of Hawaii and California by the late 1920’s and produced strong semi-pro teams in both states.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to appeal to a local audience, particularly when it gives a player an opportunity he might not otherwise have had.  In 1932, at the worst of the Great Depression, teams had to do whatever they could to get the turnstiles clicking.

Nushida was already 31 in 1932 and past his prime by his own admission.  The University of Hawaii article says he was only 5’1″ and 110 lbs.  If those measurements were reasonably close to the truth, it’s safe to say that he wasn’t blowing fastballs past PCL hitters.  It’s instead virtually certain he was a junk ball pitcher who pitched to contact and had pin-point control.

The University of Hawaii article states: “News accounts say Nushida pitched good games but the Senators were weak in fielding and gave him poor support.”  That sure rings true: junk ballers who pitch to contact need good defense behind them to be successful, and every pitcher needs run support to win games.

Nushida went 2-4 for the 1932 Senators in eleven starts and recorded a 4.97 ERA, the highest of the ten Senators’ pitchers who pitched more than 11 innings that year.  He wasn’t invited back for 1933.  The PCL was country’s best league after the two majors, so performance was mandatory.  Still, Nushida stuck around long enough to prove he was more than just a novelty.

Nushida was also popular in the Senators’ clubhouse, playing the ukulele and singing Japanese and Hawaiian songs.  Anyone who saw the recent PBS series American Epic should know that Hawaiian music was surprisingly popular with a wide American audience in the early 1930’s.

One of the highlights of Nushida’s brief PCL career was pitching against Lee Gun (Gum?) Hong, a 21 year old Chinese American pitcher signed by the Oakland Oaks probably for the specific purpose of pitching against Nushida and bringing out even more paying Asian American baseball fans to the ballpark.

Hong made two starts for the Oaks that season and posted a 4.38 ERA in 12.1 innings pitched.  However, his other numbers weren’t impressive.  I do not know if Hong’s second start was also against Nushida.  Like Nushida, Hong didn’t pitch in minor leagues after 1932.

Here’s a SABR timeline on Asian American baseball.  A number of Japanese American players played in the then Class C (only Class D was lower) California League between 1946 and 1955, for the Central Valley’s Stockton Ports and Modesto Nuts.

Explore posts in the same categories: Baseball History, Minor Leagues

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