In the comments to this post Rob Fitts mentioned that “Jimmy Bonna” (right) was the first African American to play professionally for a Japanese baseball team, at the very dawn of the Japanese league, in 1936. At that point, according to Rob, the expert on pre-WWII gaijin (foreign players in Japan), Ralph Pearce, didn’t know anything about “Bonna” other than his brief record in Japan. Ever since then I’ve been curious about this Bonna, not least because he didn’t seem to correspond to any known Negro leaguer. Who was he? Where did he come from, and how did he get to Japan? Why was he signed by a Japanese club, and not one of the several Negro leaguers who had toured Japan dating back to 1927?
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.
Dexter’s post sparked a little impromptu research hangout on Rod’s Facebook page, wherein John Thorn turned up the basic biographical information on Bonner, via passenger lists and census records: James Everett Bonner, born September 18, 1906, in Mansfield, Louisiana. (In 1936, when he signed for Dai Tokyo, he evidently used a baseball age; he appears as 24 years old in Japanese baseball records and as 25 on the passenger list returning from Japan. Given his real age at the time of 29, he was actually the oldest player on the Dai Tokyo roster.) He can be found in the 1920 and 1930 census still living in Louisiana, and in the 1940 census living in Oakland, California. He was still living in Oakland in 1943, when he enlisted in the United States Army. Bonner passed away in Alameda County on May 10, 1963.
(By the way: I’m assuming that “Bonner” became “Bonna” as a result of being written in Japanese, ボンナ, and then rendered back into English—but I don’t speak Japanese, so don’t take my word for it!)
When Rod was asking me about Negro league researchers specializing in the Bay Area, I thought of Ryan Whirty, who had just published an article in the SF Weekly on the Berkeley International League, a racially integrated semipro circuit that operated in the 1930s. (Ryan has also written about the league on his blog.) The promoter/journalist/radio host Byron “Speed” Reilly had founded the Berkeley Colored League in the 1920s; at some point it mutated into the Berkeley International League, which featured teams of various ethnic origins (Latino, white, African American, Chinese American).
I checked in Oakland and Berkeley newspapers for 1936, and sure enough, here was “Satchel Jim Bonner” pitching for one of the black teams in the BIL, the Berkeley Grays. On May 18, 1936, he beat Negro League veteran Harold “Yellowhorse” Morris and the Athens Elks 9 to 0.
On April 19 Bonner struck out 17 batters in a game against the (white) Berkeley Cardinals, breaking the old BIL record of 14. Bonner’s Grays, for years the doormat of the BIL, were co-champions (with the Athens Elks) in 1936. Bonner was named to the BIL all-star team, which was entered in the Oakland Tribune’s annual California Semi-Pro Baseball Tournament. The International All-Stars were knocked out in the second round on September 2, after which Bonner pitched the San Pablo Dam team to victory in a local Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) tournament. During this tournament Bonner pitched three complete games in two days.
(Berkeley Daily Gazette, October 1, 1936, p. 12)
Bonner left for Japan on September 18, 1936 (his 29th birthday). (Incidentally, though Bonner never played for the Oaks as it was claimed in Japan, both the BIL and the Tribune tournament played games in the Oaks’ stadium.)
After returning from Japan, Bonner hooked up with the Berkeley Grays again the following spring; but I couldn’t find anything beyond that.
Of course, there have been researchers working on Bonner all along. Bill Staples wrote to help flesh out Bonner’s U. S. career. Including what I found with the Berkeley International League, here’s what his career looks like so far:
1935 Oakland Black Sox (black independent)
1936 Berkeley Grays (black; Berkeley International League)
1936 Dai Tokyo (Japanese Baseball League)
1937 Berkeley Grays (black; Berkeley International League)
1937 California Yellow Jackets (black independent)
1939 California Negro Giants (black independent)
Bill notes that the 1940 census has Bonner completing an 8th grade education, which is not inconsistent with a claim in the Japanese press that he started playing professional baseball immediately upon graduating from middle school. (He’s listed in the 1920 census as a delivery boy for a drug store in Mansfield; in 1930 he’s listed as a tailor.) If he started playing professionally (or semi-professionally) that young, we might be able to pick him up with Louisiana or Texas teams from the 1920s into the early 1930s. Bill has also located a Bonner playing off and on in the Oakland industrial leagues (though not for any all-black teams, as far as I can tell) from 1928 to 1934, mostly pitching and playing right field; it wouldn’t be particularly unusual for him to be listed on the census in Louisiana, living with his mother, while actually living in California.
While we’re still working on reconstructing Bonner’s baseball career in the U.S., it does look like he played at a largely local, semipro level, and never progressed to the black big leagues. How good was the Berkeley International League? Well, as mentioned, it featured Yellowhorse Morris, a journeyman pitcher at the very end of his career. Wilson “Stack” Martin, a journeyman utility player in the Negro leagues in the 1920s and early 1930s, also at the end of his career, was in the league. Another BIL star was a pitcher for the Wa Sung Athletic Club named Al Bowen, a Chinese American who had performed briefly for the Oakland Oaks in 1932 under the name “Lee Gum Hong.” He was signed specifically to pitch against the Japanese American Kenso Nushida of the Sacramento Senators, in a weird sort of publicity stunt pegged to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.
So the Berkeley International League was not at the level of the black big leagues back east or the winter season black teams on the west such as the Philadelphia Royal Giants (actually based in Los Angeles), made up of Negro league stars. Even though Jimmy Bonner was one of the league’s best players in 1936, clearly there were plenty of better black players in the United States. Why didn’t any of them make their way to the Japanese league?
They had, after all, made their way to Japan. The Philadelphia Royal Giants travelled to Japan in 1927, 1932, and the winter of 1933-34. Those trips were organized by Lonnie Goodwin of the Royal Giants and Kenichi Zenimura. But none of the stars on those teams—Biz Mackey, Andy Cooper, Bullet Rogan, Chet Brewer, Rap Dixon—were enticed to play in Japan in the late 1930s. And when Dai Tokyo was desperate for reinforcement, they didn’t go to Goodwin or Zenimura, who had contacts with those players. Instead they went to Harry Kono, a promoter of Nisei (Japanese-American) baseball on the west coast. It’s Kono who appears on Bonner’s contract as the agent for Dai Tokyo.
My feeling is that geography and money both played a role in giving Jimmy Bonner, rather than, say, Chet Brewer, the chance to join the Japanese league. The west coast was obviously a closer and more convenient place for a Japanese team to try to recruit baseball talent on relatively short notice in September, 1936; the best black players in the United States were all well east of the Rocky Mountains at that point.
Moreover: if this exchange-rate chart is accurate, then Bonner’s pay, at 400 yen a month, a princely sum for ballplayers in Japan (Dexter Thomas says Eiji Sawamura, the biggest star in Japan, was only getting 170 yen a month at the time), amounted to about $116 a month ($1,959 in 2014 dollars). According to Neil Lanctot, the average salary for Negro National League players from 1936 to 1941 was “roughly $100 to $150 per month” (Negro League Baseball, p. 163), with scrubs and bench players getting as little as $50 or $60 a month, and superstars like Gibson and Paige earning up to $500. Dai Tokyo was in effect offering average or below average Negro league wages. For Bonner this might have been great pay, but for Negro league stars this seems unlikely to have been particularly tempting, considering the geographical and cultural distance.
Japanese baseball would eventually become much more competitive financially; but, given the small matter of World War II, it would be sixteen years before African American players returned to Japanese professional baseball.
So that’s the story of the first African American player to sign for a Japanese professional team. We will eventually get much more on Jimmy Bonner when Ralph Pearce publishes his upcoming book on Harris McGalliard (known in Japan as “Bucky Harris”), an American star in the pre-war Japanese league.