Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Browns Send 2 Players to Japan As an 'Independence Day' Gesture April 28, 1952

On This Day in Baseball History April 28, 1952: In an interesting (and possibly) first time event between Major League Baseball and the Nippon Professional Baseball League, the St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck sends John Britton Jr., a third baseman and James Newberry a right-handed pitcher to the Hankyu Braves of the Pacific League of the Nippon Professional Baseball League. 

The article Browns Send 2 Players to Japan As an 'Independence Day' Gesture from the New York Times dated April 29, 1952 quotes Browns owner Bill Veeck:
"As Japan gains its independence, as the world's newest Democracy, we of the St. Louis Browns are happy to aid the mutual relations between the United States and Japan by sending two of our American ball players to the Japanese pro leagues. In Japan, as well as in America, baseball is the national game, and we feel this gesture of the part of American baseball will go a long way towards cementing good relations with the Japanese."    
Veeck was always one prone to hyperbole as part of the entertainment side of the game, Perhaps he was sincere in his statement.

What I found curious is why was Abe Saperstein involved in the negotiations. Now I already knew that Saperstein was the owner and coach of the world famous Harlem Globetrotters but the article stated that he was also a stockholder in the St. Louis Browns. After a little research online, I found out something else. Saperstein was the owner of the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues. The article Birmingham Black Barons from the Black Past website states:
Photo Courtesy of Agate Type
The Black Barons played in three different Negro Leagues throughout their 40-year baseball career, including the Negro Southern League (1920-1923, 1931-1940), the Negro National League (1924-1930, 1941-1955), and the Negro American League (1956-1960).  In the 1930s, the team was bought by Tom Hayes in Memphis, Tennessee which forced the Black Barons to move back to the Negro Southern League.  However, in 1940, the ownership switched again to Abraham Saperstein, who moved the Black Barons back up to the Negro National League.  Under Saperstein's ownership, the team flourished in the Negro National League, winning three Negro National League pennants.  Much of the credit of the Black Barons' success can be given to all-star pitcher Satchel Paige and rookie outfielder Willie Mays.
Both Britton and Newberry were Negro League veterans who played for the Black Barons. The Baseball Reference Bullpen listings for Jimmy Newberry states:
Jimmy Newberry pitched in the Negro Leagues for 9 seasons, the Manitoba-Dakota League for 3 and the minor leagues for three. He made history, though, as the first black pitcher in Nippon Pro Baseball after World War II. He was briefly the staff ace of the Birmingham Black Barons and was one of the favorite players of owner Abe Saperstein, who often gave him advances on his salary.
In terms of John Britton, his listing on the Baseball Reference Bullpen states:
John Britton was a Negro League infielder for 11 years and played two years in Japan, where he made several notable firsts. He was a third baseman.
There was a mention of both players in September 11, 1952 issue of Jet Magazine under the headline Negros in Japanese League To Return Home stated:
Infielder John Britton and pitcher Jim Newberry, first American Negro players in Japanese professional ball, are slated to return home. Britton, playing third for the Hankyu Braves of the Pacific League, was hitting .320 while Newberry had won 10 and lost 7 games for the same club. Both are St. Louis Browns property.
So how did they do in the Land of the Rising Sun? According to the aforementioned Baseball Reference Bullpen listing for Britton:
Britton went to Nippon Pro Baseball in 1952 along with Jimmy Newberry. He was sent by the St. Louis Browns to the Hankyu Braves, making it the first deal of a MLB team sending players to a team outside of the US or Canada. Britton was the first gaijin in Hankyu club history. He hit .316/.338/.416 in 1952, not almost entirely as a contact hitter. He was the first foreign player ever picked for an All-Star team when he was on the Pacific League squad that year. He finished 5th in the PL in batting average.
Britton slipped in 1953, batting .276/.286/.331 with only 3 walks in 448 plate appearances; he only struck out 13 times, though. That was Britton's final season in professional baseball.
Baseball Reference Bullpen listing for Newberry states:
In 1952, Jimmy was signed by the St. Louis Browns and sold with John Britton to the Hankyu Braves. The first black pitcher in Nippon Pro Baseball since World War II (Jimmy Bonner had played briefly in 1936), he went 11-10 with a 3.22 ERA. He was 9th in the Pacific League in ERA and made the PL All-Star team.
While Britton retired after the 1953 season, Newberry would play for a number of of teams in the Texas minor league system. He would stop playing professional baseball after 1956.

On a side note, the listing for Newberry makes a mention of a ballplayer of the name of Jimmy Bonner who briefly played in Japan in 1936. Bonner played for Dai Tokyo of the JPBL. According to the informative post Jimmy Bonner from the Agate Type blogpage dated October 12, 2014:
Thanks to Rod Nelson, the other day I read this piece by Dexter Thomas, Jr., part of his “Negroes in Tokyo” series.  As it turns out, Jimmy Bonna was really James E. Bonner, a 5’10”, right-handed submarine pitcher who was signed by the Dai Tokyo club of the new Japanese professional league with a great deal of fanfare. He was said in the Japanese press to have gone pro immediately after graduating from middle school, and to have played for the Oakland Oaks of the PCL (though this couldn’t be correct—the Oaks certainly weren’t hiring black players in the 1930s). He had supposedly once struck out 46 batters in three games played over two days, whiffing 22 in one game. 
Unfortunately, Bonner didn’t live up to the hype. He was wild, walking 13 batters in four games, while striking out only two. His final record was 0-1, with a 10.24 ERA—although he did bat .458, 11 for 24 (as a left-handed hitter). Dai Tokyo finished in the cellar, 5-21. He last time up in Japan he tripled but got thrown out at home. He was released on November 18, and left for the United States on the same day. Bonner would never appear in Japan again. The next black American players to join the Japanese league were Johnny Britton and Jimmie Newberry in 1952.
It is amazing to read that a black ballplayer played in the Japanese Leagues a decade before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in MLB.

I'm going to post this on the Pro Yakyu community page on Google+ to see if the gals and gents of that community can add anything else to this post.

Until Then Keep Playing Ball,
Baseball Sisco

For Further Reading:
- EARLY BLACK BALLPLAYERS IN JAPAN from the Agate Type blogpage dated February 20, 2013
Japan’s First Black Baseball Player by Dex Digital from the Negros in Tokyo dated October 7, 2014
- John Britton career statistics from Baseball Reference
- James Newberry career statistics from Baseball Reference
- Jimmy Bonner Bullpen page from Baseball Reference