CHICAGO (FAXX/jGLi) – Although Japan and South Korea are well-represented in the Major League Baseball, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn III reminded Asian Americans and friends who attended the opening Monday (May 20) of the week-long Governor’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month photo exhibit at the James R. Thompson Center, the governor’s office in Chicago, that it was a Filipino baseball player, who paved the way for Asians to play in America’s pastime.
In brief remarks before the ribbon-cutting ceremonies, Quinn said, “I have a younger brother, who teaches history, (but) I had no idea Robert Rudolph “Bobby” Balcena was the first Asian American baseball player to play in 1956 with Cincinnati Reds. Bobby is not well known in history. Only Jackie Robinson is known as the first African American to play in Major League Baseball. And Bobby Balcena is the “Jackie Robinson” of Asians in the Major League.”
Claude Walker, Quinn’s Senior Policy Advisor, told this reporter Bobby Balcena was born on Aug. 1, 1925 in San Pedro, California. “I understand – but cannot verify – that both parents were Philippine-born.”
After his illustrious minor league career, Balcena went back to being longshoreman, and coached baseball at a Catholic high school. He died in his sleep in front of a TV set in 1990, two days after his body was discovered.
A 5’7” tall, weighing 160 pounds, Balcena, an outfielder, bats right-handed but throws left-handed. He spent his last season with Cincinnati Reds after two successful seasons with Seattle, where he played in 160 games and batted .295.
There have been other Filipino Americans who followed in the footsteps of Balcena. Among them are Bobby Chouinard (1996 Oakland Athletics, 1998, Milwaukee Brewers); Benny Agbayani (1998, New York Mets, 2002, Boston Red Sox); Chris Aguila (2004-2006 Florida Marlins); Tim Lincecum (2007- present San Francisco Giants), Geno Espinelli (2008-present San Francisco Giants) and relief pitcher Clay Rapada currently with the New York Yankees.
But it was the Japanese-born players who shined in the majors, starting in 1964 with its first pitcher Masanori Murakami, who was named the California League Rookie of the Year while playing for the Fresno Giants (the San Francisco Giants’ Class-A team) and was later promoted to play in MLB. He was followed by pitcher Hideo Nomo with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Among its star players is Ichiro Suzuki of Seattle Mariners and now with the New York Yankees. South Koreans followed suit.
Chicago Cubs currently have two players with Asian American background. Scott Feldman has been called the “greatest Jewish Hawaiian athlete” and infielder/second baseman Darwin Barney, who earned a Gold Glove in 2012, who is of Korean, Japanese and Hawaiian origin, according to the photo exhibit.
The Cubs have a Japanese relief pitcher in Kyuji Fujikawa.
After thanking the exhibit organizers led by Dr. Theresa Mah, Senior Policy Advisor & Director of Asian American Outreach of the Governor, Mr. Quinn said, as a “welcoming society, Illinois is a legacy of Abraham Lincoln, the land of Lincoln, the best known U.S. president throughout the world. We want people, who come to Illinois, to feel at home. It is important that we learn about the culture and heritage of our fellow citizens.”
150 YEARS OF ASIAN PRESENCE IN ILLINOIS
“One hundred fifty years after the first Asian arrived in the United States in 1863 when Lincoln signed the building of the transcontinental railroad after the Civil War, many from Asia came to help build the railroad. Know history, culture and contribution as Asian Americans by paying attention to the exhibit.”
The exhibit features events culled from Chinese American Museum of Chicago, Korean Cultural Center, South Asian American Policy and Research Institute, Japanese American Service Committee, Japanese American Citizens League, Cambodian American Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memoriam, Alliance of Filipinos for Immigration Rights and Empowerment, Lao American Organization of Elgin and others.
The exhibit is designed to showcase the history, diversity, and accomplishments of the Asian American community during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
Among the guests at the opening exhibit were Philippine Consul General Leo M. Herrera-Lim, Vice Consuls Alena Grace S. Borra and Ricarte B. Abejuella, III, Cristina Madridejos Mancini, Public Affairs Manager, representing State Illinois Comptroller Judy Barr Topinka; representative of Rep. Bobby Rush [D-1], Clarita G. Santos of the Blue Cross Blue Shield and Ranjit Ganuly, retired assistant commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Transportation.
Also part of the exhibit was the story of Mitsuye Endo, a Japanese American who was born in Sacramento, California and fought off her incarceration along with hundreds interred in concentration camps all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the government could not detain an admittedly loyal citizen without charges, revoking her Exclusion Order and permitting her to leave the concentration camps and return to the West Coast. She later moved to Chicago and raised a family, leading a quiet life.
People of Asian heritage have been residents of Illinois for 150 years. The first sign of Illinois Asian American residents appears in the 1870 Census, though Chinese reportedly lived in Cook, McHenry and Morgan Counties earlier. Japanese immigrants came in the 1890s, followed by Filipinos, Koreans and Indians. Illinois is now home to people with roots in Pakistan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Tibet, Nepal, Burma (Myanmar), Indonesia and Malaysia.