On July 20, 2015, the Orioles made history by signing the first Chinese baseball player, Xu Guiyan, from MLB's China Development Center. Nicknamed "Itchy," Xu will be evaluated by Orioles scouts this spring, and then assigned to a minor league affiliate. Baseball is a growing sport in China, and Xu is likely only the beginning. Not only are players being developed, but there is legitimate fan interest. According to Newsweek, professional baseball already has rabid fans:
"And the strategy [of bringing baseball to China] has worked, building to the point where baseball is once again played and followed in China, sometimes with a passion that rivals the American original. The sport is on 10 government-owned television channels, reaching hundreds of millions of people, while ad campaigns, retail stores, carnival-like traveling events, and state partnerships reach millions more. Every rush hour in Beijing, commuters are fed a Mandarin-language version of the TV show This Week in Baseball on 12,000 screens aboard the city’s public buses."
Not too long ago, the idea of baseball coming to China was a remote possibility. There was only one record of a major league player born in China, and he was a Westerner (and a Yankee).
Harry Kingman was born on April 3, 1892 in Tientsin, China as the son of Henry Kingman, a Congregationalist missionary, and Anna Lees, the daughter of a Methodist missionary. His mother was also born in China, and they were all uprooted to California when Henry developed asthma and accepted a job as a chaplain at Ponoma College.
Harry, with few prospects elsewhere, excelled at five different sport at Ponoma, including baseball. He played in the Southern California League in 1913, took a detour to earn a degree in physical education at Springfield College, and then went back to Ponoma where he earned a bachelor's degree while coaching the baseball team. By 1914, he already had drawn interest from scouts, and he was thrust back into a baseball career track.
Unfortunately, his career didn't last very long. After Kingman thought he had been signed by the Washington Senators, he in fact was traded to the Yankees. Manager Frank Chance may have received a first baseman, but he thought he really had a pitcher. He fell flat on his face at pitching, and he appeared just four times with the team, either as a first baseman or pinch hitter. And that was the end of his career.
But the most interesting part of his life, actually, happened after he left the Yankees. He took a job as a counselor at the University of California YMCA, and then served in the Army from 1917 to 1919. In 1921, the YMCA sent Kingman to China to work, like his father, as a missionary and teacher in Shanghai; he lived in China until 1927.
With the YMCA, he coached baseball, and he would often organize games with the sailors in port at Shanghai. When he saw a conflict break out between the local Chinese and Sikhs that left 70 death, he petitioned the likes of Gandhi to address the violence. It led him into a long career of public service, putting him years ahead of many in the area.
He protested the relocation of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and he remained concerned about Civil Rights in America. In a 1957 feature with the New Yorker called "Citizens," they detail his public service, albeit with some inaccuracies about his playing career:
"It isn't every day that a couple of people who make a lifework of being American citizens drop into our office for a talk... Mrs. Kingman has been president of the Berkeley League of Women Voters, executive-board member of he northern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union... John Shelley, one of the assistant Democratic whips in the House, and... Clarence Mitchell, the Washington legislative representative for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [credits Mr. Kingman with swaying votes for civil rights legislation]."
So not only was Harry Kingman the first major league player born in China, a teacher, and a coach, but he was just an average citizen who worked, alongside his wife, to accomplish a heck of a lot for the greater good. Always, though, was a love for a baseball. Once again, from the New Yorker, on Kingman going to a Senators game:
"The Senators were out of town and the park was empty. I went down to home plate and stood there remembering what it had been like when I batted there forty-three years ago. Then I walked over to the dugout, just as I had done that day. It seemed just as long and grim a walk as it ever had. The thought that I had struck out made me feel just as lousy at the age of sixty-five as it had when I was a kid."
Kingman died in 1982 at the age of 90, and over 30 years after his death, there has not been another player from China to play in the big leagues. Xu Guiyan, though, could be the next. Even if he's not, the chances of seeing the next Chinese-born player in MLB is improving drastically these days. Kingman will always be the first, though, and he'll not only be remembered as a Yankee, but as a force for good in his time.