Since I wrote a few months ago about the earliest black American players in the Japanese league, I’m going to do a few pieces about early Japanese and Japanese-American players in the United States, all on black teams, or teams that had black players (the various “All Nations” clubs).
First up is Sanji Sakamoto, a second baseman for the Los Angeles White Sox in 1920. He was born in 1896 (or possibly 1899) in Kokubu, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan, and emigrated with his parents to Los Angeles in 1906. He began playing baseball in the sixth grade at Custer Intermediate School, then became one of the best high school pitchers in the area at L. A. High, where he also competed in gymnastics. At the age of 18 he measured five feet tall and 125 pounds, but the Los Angeles Times wrote that he “has as much zip on the ball as any of the big fellows and his control is perfect.” While in high school he also began playing for local Japanese teams.
Sanji Sakamoto, Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1915.
In 1920 Sanji Sakamoto was reported to have joined the Los Angeles White Sox, the local black professional team, which had in recent seasons featured the likes of George Carr, John Donaldson, José Méndez, and Edgar Washington.
(Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1920)
(“Hawkins” is Lemuel Hawkins, future Kansas City Monarch and former 25th Infantry teammate of Bullet Rogan and Dobie Moore. Hawkins would join the Negro National League in 1921.)
Unfortunately, we haven’t found any box scores showing that Sakamoto actually appeared for the Los Angeles White Sox, but the team was not particularly well-covered in the local press.
Sanji Sakamoto’s baseball career probably ended sometime in the early 1920s. He went on to a long career as a dentist, and passed away in Los Angeles in 1971. His sons were also avid gymnasts. (Here’s a photo of one of them, Isamu, competing on the rings.) In 1963 future Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, then a city councilman, introduced a resolution honoring the Sakamoto family for their contributions to gymnastics.
(California Eagle, June 20, 1963)
Sanji’s youngest son, Makoto, would achieve the fame in sports that eluded Sanji: he was the AAU all-around champion three times, and went to the Olympics twice. In 1968 Sports Illustrated called him “the finest American gymnast of all time.”
Thanks to Bill Staples, who first told me about Sanji Sakamoto and sent me the article linking him to the L. A. White Sox.