History of Baseball on Saipan, Guam and Micronesia
History of Baseball on Saipan, Guam and Micronesia
By Bob Coldeen - CNMI & GUAM
Chalan Kanoa, Saipan, c. 1930’s
Before the Japanese started playing baseball on Saipan, one hundred and twenty miles to the south, U.S. military played on Guam which was the first baseball played in Micronesia. Following the signing of Treaty of Paris in 1898, the United States sent Marines to Guam where they imported the sport. Baseball immediately captured the interest of the indigenous Chamorro population. Local players were talented enough for a team named the Natives to win the 1908 league championship.
In February of 1910 Japanese students on the ship Unyo Maru visited Saipan before sailing to Guam where they played a Sunday afternoon exhibition baseball game against the U.S. Marine Corps.
In 1911 there were only four teams in the league but by 1913 the Guam Mid-Winter League had expanded to eight teams, including the Natives I & II. The Natives II, also called the Carabaos, won the championship over the Marines 5-4 on Taijeron’s triple off the wall in the bottom of the 8th inning. The Guam News Letter selected the “Bamboo” league all-stars including four indigenous players: ace pitcher F. Calvo, slick fielding shortstop Guzman, and outfielders Munoz and Munoz. First names were apparently not relevant then as they were not noted in the Guam News Letter, the only newspaper on the island at that time. Calvo was noted for mastering the “wet ball” which was legal at that time.
Guam League, Sumay Marines, 1918
The first Japanese residents on Saipan were a small military contingent in 1914 after a takeover from Germany. Five years later, the League of Nations mandated the Northern Marianas to Japan whose expatriate population swelled to forty-two thousand people by 1937 following an agricultural boom as Rota, Tinian and Saipan developed into a major food basket for Japan.
Although Germany had administered Saipan, their expatriate colony topped out at only eighteen people in 1906. Germans did not play baseball. Neither did the Spanish who administered the islands before the Germans, which meant that the people on Saipan never saw a baseball game until the Japanese presence, most likely in the in the 1920’s similar to Palau. Motoji Kono, who in 1922 went to Palau for the Japanese South Seas government and played baseball, is credited with being the founder of baseball there.
One of the first Chamorro pitchers from Saipan was Jose Salas Sablan (Consuelo) who did not learn how to pitch on Saipan or Guam, but in Palau where he worked as a train conductor. Born in 1907, he developed into an effective pitcher who in a 1927 game struck out a Japanese batter who told him that it was first time anyone from Palau had struck him out. The Japanese batter was so impressed, he saved that ball, and took it with him when he later returned to Japan.
Years after the war, in the 1970’s when both men had grown old, he wanted to meet the person who had struck him out in Palau in those years gone by. He found out that Sablan was on Saipan and traveled there as a tourist to present him with the ball. Consuelo was so overwhelmed by the gesture, he cried. Before he passed away, the father gave the ball to his son, Frank M. Sablan.
Jose Salas Sablan and 1927 baseball given to his son, Frank M. Sablan
As families came from Japan to the Northern Marianas, built homes, established businesses and opened schools. As baseball was Japan’s national pastime, the Japanese naturally brought baseballs, bats and gloves with them to play the sport they called yakyu. Chamorros and Carolinians, not having another word for baseball, called it the same.
On Saipan the Japanese organized military and civilian teams which did not include local Chamorros or Carolinians who had their own teams. One exception was Juan Blas Blanco who had learned how to pitch and throw a curveball while attending school in Japan. After returning to Saipan he was invited to play for the sugar company team NKK as a pitcher.
Juan Blas Blanco in a Tokyo school, 1934
During the Japanese times, games with cheering crowds were played on Sunday afternoons in Chalan Kanoa (one field was the Mount Carmel Cemetery is now and another where the elementary school was built in 1947). Games were also played in Puntan Muchot (American Memorial Park today). In 1939 a ten year old boy named Francisco Muna Palacios walked four miles from Chalan Kanoa to Puntan Muchot to watch the local teams play.
Pictures are rare from that era because Chamorro and Carolinians didn’t have cameras. And the Japanese government did not allow civilians to take pictures from 1938 to the American invasion due to the military build-up.
The war came and that was the end of fun and games.
Major Leaguer Harry O’Neill fought on Saipan before going to Iwo Jima where he died, one of only two major leaguers killed in World War II.
Bob Feller, Hall of Fame Major League pitcher, went to Saipan as a gunner aboard the USS Alabama. Feller claimed in his autobiography that he befriended future president Richard Nixon while fighting in the Marianas. Frank Deford repeated the claim in Sports Illustrated magazine. Baseball Almanac includes the following quote:
"I'm retired, so I got a call one day fromRobin Roberts. He wanted me to introduce him andBob Friend and the others to Richard Nixon, who was a lawyer in New York. When I consented to do, and I called Nixon, who I knew from Navy days in the Marianas.”
However, there is no record of Nixon ever serving in the Marianas, or engaging in combat or even being in the North Pacific.
Movie star, the “singing cowboy” Gene Autry toured the Pacific with the USO and visited Saipan where he played catcher in a fastpitch softball exhibition game. He later owned the baseball team California Angels. Jack Dempsey also visited Saipan with the USO.
In 1946 people settled into villages and baseball returned as the local’s favorite sport, and the only sport played other than races. U.S. servicemen helped promote the game by providing baseball equipment and competition.
The first “local” team after the war was the Police Team with Manny Villagomez (Kiyu) and Manny Sablan which fared well against three military teams
Major league baseball games on the radio were broadcast from California to the Far East and Saipan on the Armed Forces Network. Kiyu was up at two o’clock in the morning to listen to games that started at noon on the east coast of the United States. Blanco became a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, and Stan Musial and Enos “Country” Slaughter.
So many boys and young men played that every village district had its own team. The game became popular enough, for example for the small village of Chalan Kanoa to field five teams. Rivalries soon developed.