Bill Staples, Jr. talks “Gentle Black Giants” on Chatter Up!
Although it received less attention than deserved due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was the official celebrated centennial of the Negro Leagues, a group of professional baseball leagues that hosted the greatest Black ballplayers in America before Major League Baseball’s integration in 1947. While the celebrations were put on-hold, much discussion has still taken place this year about the Negro Leagues, and their role as a whole in professional baseball, even across the seas in Japan.
One of those discussions was held on JapanBall’s own “Chatter Up!” on Nov. 19 with Bill Staples, Jr., baseball historian and one of the authors of “Gentle Black Giants: a History of Negro Leaguers in Japan.” Staples joined the call to discuss his work on the project, including how Kazuo Sayama, his co-author, originally discovered a story of Negro League All-Stars touring Japan in 1927 at a Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) conference in 1983, and why he was so compelled to research and write the piece in the first place:
“Years later, Kaz tells me as we’re finishing the story the true inspiration as to why he really wanted to write it,” Staples explained. “He said, ‘When World War Two ended, I was a third grader in Wakayama City. American soldiers soon arrived, and they were especially kind to us kids. I later learned that they were members of the all-Black 93rd Infantry Division of the US Army, and like us, they loved baseball, and some even coached and umpired at our games. And one day, one of the soldiers said to me, ‘someday you’ll be a great pitcher.’ Sadly, I never did fulfill his prophecy, but his encouragement fueled my love for the game, and I became a baseball writer instead. So “Gentle Black Giants” is my thank you letter to that soldier.’ So it came from the heart, Kaz, in why he wrote this.”
“Gentle Black Giants” tells the story of the Philadelphia Royal Giants, a team of Negro League All Stars from several different leagues on the West Coast, like the California Winter League and the dominant Los Angeles White Sox. With Hall of Fame players like Biz Mackey and Andy Cooper, the team toured Japan seven years before Babe Ruth’s well-known All-American team, and helped encourage the growth of the sport in the region. In his presentation, Staples highlighted the difference between the two All-Star teams:
“Everybody knows about Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and the All-Americans: they played 34 games… Kaz recognized that the Royal Giants played 48 games,” Staples said. “They were well-known white players, compared to the unknown Black players. They were sponsored by the newspaper there in Japan, whereas the Royal Giants, they were self-funded. The All-Americans arrived with this attitude of ‘Hey, we’re the experts. We’re going to show you how to play,’ whereas the Gentle Black Giants, they said ‘We are friends, let’s play ball together’… Then Kaz’s final point is that we’ve heard so much about the All-Americans, and from his perspective, and he was the first one to basically unearth this, nothing has been said about them for half a century… And again, this is 1985 when he first found this. So a really interesting and insightful compare and contrast between the two tours.”
With this in mind, Staples told the audience that while the Royal Giants did have an influence on the development of professional baseball in Japan, he and Sayama did not make the argument of the team being directly responsible for it. Instead, he offered a unique, economic perspective of the team’s role:
“This is kind of my reconciliation with all of that, thinking about baseball as a business,” Staples said. “For any business to succeed, there’s a certain supply and demand in economics. And there’s no denying that the influence that the All-Americans had in building that excitement around professional baseball and the hunger for it, I think that’s where the All-American tours get a lot of credit for: their influence. But from the supply side, helping the players develop and encouraging them, so that they were in the right mindset and the right skillset to then start professionally. I think some credit needs to be given to the influence of the Royal Giants as well.”
Staples also discussed his role in creating the new edition of the book, which now features Sayama’s original story in addition to several appendices that chronicle the history of Black players in Japan, including the story of Jimmy Bonner, the first Black baseball player to play professionally in Japan, and different profiles and statistics behind the Negro Leaguers’ tours. In doing so, Staples also took the time to recognize his role in telling the story, and that he needed to recognize what his intention was in doing so:
“It’s important that all voices are heard when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion,” Staples said. “It’s basically the perfect example of history in general, that it’s always been kind of the white male perspective, and I can say that as a white male… this is the quote I go back to, it’s actually Alice Walker, African-American author. She may write about the African-American experience, but she’s really talking about the shared human experience as well. And so that’s what I feel like I’m relating to when I find these stories, and I think it’s important to preserve them, make them more accurate for history, and to kind of dedicate my time to them.”
Among other moments, Staples told the audience about his favorite highlights from the tour, interesting names he picked up along the way (like Bozo Wakabayashi and Negro League All-Star Charley Pride, who would later become a country music icon) and traded historical trivia with fellow “Chatter Up!” star Rob Fitts. For these moments and more, check out the full transcript of the discussion, or the full video on our YouTube channel! If you’d like to read Staples’s book for yourself, please purchase it on Amazon via our affiliate link.
As 2020 comes to a close, it’s important to remember the influence the Negro Leagues had on the professional game, on both sides of the ocean. Thanks to the work of Bill Staples, Jr. and Kazuo Sayama, we now know just how much they did.