On a spring evening in San Francisco’s now closed Candlestick Park, a 26-year-old named Hideo Nomo, in a new Los Angeles Dodgers jersey, walked on the mound. The handler grabbed the ball and started with his arms raised high, then he twisted his body so that his back was to the plate and wound up the monster track after pitch.
Nomo threw five pointless rounds against the Giants that night in 1995, which allowed one hit and knocked out seven in his Major League Baseball debut. It was a preview for the rest of the season, where Nomo was named All-Star and National League’s Rookie of the Year. His signature corkscrew windup was quickly immortalized in the minds of baseball fans.
But perhaps his greatest achievement was the effect Nomo, who was only the second Japanese-born player to play for an MLB team, had on the match.
Experts say that “The Tornado” ushered in a new wave of Japanese, and more generally, Asian talent, forever changing baseball in the United States to follow including Hideki Matsui, Ichiro Suzuki and Chan Ho Park, but despite their skill and legions of international fans they brought with them, not a single Asian player, including Nomo, has entered the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Before the inauguration ceremony in 2021 on Wednesday, which in turn will be absent from inducers of Asian descent, historians and sociologists say that a combination of MLB’s racist roots, contractual restrictions and ideas about language and belonging have contributed to the difference.
“The Hall of Fame is definitely symbolic of what we think and value as Americans and who belong to this country,” Christina Chin, an associate professor of sociology at California State University, Fullerton, told NBC Asian America. “If we had an Asian baseball player brought in, I think that would talk a lot about … the larger landscape of Asian American acceptance of America.”
“Because the Hall of Fame started in 1939, the rules that were originally designed were based on the reality of racial exclusion.”
To understand this racial difference in the Hall of Fame, Adrian Burgos Jr., a professor of history at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who studies minority participation in sports, said that it is important to remember that MLB was founded as an unofficially segregated league in 1869 and remained so for decades. Black players only participated in the sport through the Negro Leagues. It was not until Jackie Robinson debuted with the Dodgers in 1947 that the color barrier was broken; However, color players continued to experience racist attacks from white competitors and fans. Some teams refused to integrate for several years afterwards.
“The possibility of being elected to the Hall of Fame for individuals who came out of the Negro leagues, or who came from Asia to the MLB, is strongly influenced by the rules that had been established when the MLB was divorced,” said Burgos, who has served as an academic adviser at the Hall. of Fame’s museum exhibits, said. “Because the Hall of Fame started in 1939, the rules that were originally designed were based on the reality of racial exclusion.”
Burgos said that after Ted Williams, the white Boston Red Sox superhero, championed the induction of black players from the Negro Leagues into the Hall of Fame during his own inauguration in 1966, talks began on how to integrate the gallery itself. One special solution that came into play was to create a separate gallery to honor outstanding black players, essentially recreating a segregated system, Burgos said. Although the plan was eventually scrapped, he said it was representative of the league’s racialized and problematic past.
Today, differences persist in other forms. The Hall of Fame’s induction criteria are still strict, with little room to take into account the players’ unique circumstances in MLB, Burgos said. The rules stipulate that players must have retired for at least five seasons after playing in MLB for at least a decade. But Burgos said that it is often not enough to just play well for 10 years – the players must dominate.
For the Japanese athletes in the league, especially those who paved the way decades ago, this has been a major obstacle. “Because of the agreement between the Japanese league and MLB to acquire Japanese talent, the careers of Japanese players are often shorter, and they do not have enough time to show off their skills and set up statistics in the United States,” Burgos said. And unlike other sports, the Baseball Hall of Fame does not take into account a player’s dominance in international leagues. Many players like Matsui, who was put on the ballot in 2018 but was not elected, had long, phenomenal careers in Japan before signing with an American team.
MLB, the global brand, they are happy to see Ohtani globally, beyond the United States, be the face. Do they see Ohtani as the face that should be marketed here in the United States? That’s the flash point. That’s the point of tension. ”
Language policy also affects players’ opportunities for induction, experts say. Ryan Reft, historian at the Library of Congress, whose work is included in the anthology “Asian American Sporting Cultures,” said the ballot paper is mostly made up of sports writers.
“If many of these Asian players who came over simply did not speak good English, or did not have good relationships, or even significant relationships … with the sports writers, it affects the history of their careers, because the numbers only tell part of it. , ”Said Reft.
Experts note that because of this, the team’s willingness to invest in translators for its international players ultimately has a role to play in the way athletes are remembered. This is especially clear, they say, in the case of Ichiro, a former Mariners icon who many expect will hold the award for being the first Asian player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame when he qualifies in 2025. His sense of humor and mastery of the art of tasting talk has been well documented among writers, which has contributed to the story of his career.
“Mariners invested in the idea that” our star player from Japan should express himself in the language he is most eloquent, most thoughtful in, and we let someone else do the interview with the team and the translation, “said Burgos.” But not all major league – teams did it. “
In the midst of these challenges, a question arises, especially when discussing Nomo: Shouldn’t impact, or the player’s role in tracking others, play a role in Hall of Fame discussions? Burgos said that in order to enter, there are three paths individuals can take: as a player, as a manager or executive, or as a contributor to the game – and a person can only be evaluated on one of the three courses. This limitation has affected color pioneers in the past, said Burgos, such as Buck O’Neil, a first baseman and manager of the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues, who made history as the first black coach in MLB with the Chicago Kids.
“He was a very talented player, a very important figure … and a major contributor to how so many Americans became acquainted with the history of the Negro league,” Burgos said of O’Neil. “But you can not combine the three things to say, therefore he is a Hall of Famer.”
“The rules that were put in place created a disadvantage for those who transformed the game,” said Burgos, who advocates using the individual’s influence on the game as a basis for choice.
“Asian players have a different version of ‘shut up and play’ … It’s about ‘Be quiet and be grateful.'”
Despite the current demographics in the Hall of Fame gallery, experts say it is misleading to throw the sport as a strictly white or American institution, since baseball has taken its own form in Asia, especially Japan. Since its inception, the United States has in many cases used the game as a means of advancing its imperialist ambitions in the region, Reft said.
“When America occupies the Philippines and elsewhere, it pushes for baseball in particular, which is seen as a sign of individualism, teamwork and the kind of ideals you need to succeed in a capitalist democratic society,” he explained.
But in Japan, where the baseball boom in Asia is concentrated, the sport was used for a different political purpose. In the late 1800s, during the restoration of Meiji, a revolution that “restored” the emperor to power and turned the country toward industrialization and urbanization, baseball was adopted to “express Japan’s place in international status,” Reft said. Referring to scholar Edward Saïd’s idea of ”Orientalism” and the assumption of Western superiority, Reft said at the time that the East was seen as feminine and sensual, while the West was considered “rational and masculine, scientific.”
“Baseball was seen as a way for Japan as a country and its people to convey its masculinity,” Reft said.
Even with strong traditions in Asia, Burgos said it is still difficult for many in the United States to accept the idea of an Asian player representing MLB. EPSN commentator Stephen A. Smith’s controversial comments this summer that Angel’s superstar Shohei Ohtani should not be the sport’s face because he uses an interpreter reflect somewhat more pervasive attitudes in the league, Burgos said.
“MLB, the global brand, they are happy to see Ohtani globally, outside the United States, be the face,” Burgos said. “Do they see Ohtani as the face that should be marketed here in the United States? That’s the focal point. That’s the point of tension.”
Much of this mentality is also observed in the way assimilation through English is enforced, Burgos said. Although Latino professionals have advocated for more interpreters throughout the league, MLB has encouraged them to learn English. The opportunity for Asians to represent the league in American culture, Burgos said, is almost “blocked.”
“Latinos should assimilate into an American English-speaking culture, as people see it. But Japanese and then Korean players do not necessarily have to assimilate. They can remain ‘foreign’, ‘Burgos said. “These things play on … the reality of issues of citizenship and belonging, of how people view Japanese and other Asian people who … are almost impossible for them to be American if they keep the culture.”
International players from all regions face a unique set of racial barriers, Burgos said, and “Asian players have a different version of” shut up and play. “… It’s about ‘Be quiet and be grateful.’ »
Reft said he is cautiously optimistic about the future of the Hall of Fame, as the demographics of sports writers have changed so that, based on these highly marginalized societies, they can play a role in induction.
“We have seen the emergence of many more sports writers from non-white backgrounds – such as Bomani Jones and others who have really risen,” said Reft. “These writers have a greater sense of such questions, and perhaps a different perspective on what makes a player good for a variety of reasons, both institutionally and culturally.”
For now, Asian Americans and baseball fans are waiting for Ichiro’s likely introduction to the gallery. But Chin was quick to point out that if that happens, it’s a story not to be forgotten.
“If it’s Ichiro, it would be amazing. But the name of Ichiro would not even have been considered without the basis of these other players who came before him. In Chin. “They had to go out and prove themselves, to defy so many of the stereotypes we have when it comes to Asian male bodies.”