Friday, February 22, 2013

George Aratani: Japanese-American business leader, community icon, Pittsburgh Pirates prospect.

San Pedro Skippers
San Pedro Skippers.

A line in the obituary for George Aratani, the prominent Japanese-American businessman and community leader who died Tuesday at the age of 95, caught my eye. Los Angeles' Rafu Shinpo on Aratani's youth:
A handsome and talented athlete, he was even being scouted by the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team in high school, but a football injury derailed his aspirations for a possible professional sports career.
Unsurprisingly, Pirates scouting reports from 1933 are scarce, but Aratani's Pittsburgh connection turns up in a few other places. The Japanese American National Museum writes about baseball among second-generation Japanese-Americans (Nisei):
The 1920s and 1930s were the golden age of Nisei baseball. Teams could be found in practically every community. Semipro teams were formed. The San Pedro Skippers, a Southern California semipro Nisei team averaged 14 runs a game in the late 1930s. Stars emerged and sometimes even were invited to play with professional teams. Shortstop George Aratani was invited to practice with the visiting Pittsburg Pirates in Santa Maria in the 1930s where his coaches were Hall of Famers Honus Wagner, Paul and Lloyd Waner.
In spite of how good, and how underrated, some of these Japanese teams were, an article from 2003 about Pirates' spring training in Paso Robles, though, may make you wonder how much of a prospect Aratani was:
You've got to wonder what the Pirates and Cubs did for competition in those springs of the '20s. They were the only big league teams that came to California. The answer is the played a lot of intra-squad games that usually pitted the veterans against the rookies. But local players also got into the act according to Brian Milne, sports editor of the North County Tribune, Paso Robles' newspaper. The Chamber of Commerce put together teams that were only to happy to try their skills against the big leaguers. Semipro teams from around San Luis Obispo County and even high school teams got to try their luck. Pacific Coast minor league teams also provided competition for the Buccaneers.

Some of the better local players were even looked at seriously as prospects. But the talent bar was sometimes set pretty low. Milne writes of Bud Sheely, a student at Paso Robles High School, getting to play against his father, Pirate first baseman Earl Sheely. The older Sheely's only year with Pittsburgh was 1929, when Bud, who eventually made it to the majors himself, was 11 years old.
The Pirates wouldn't get their first Japanese player until they signed veteran pitcher Masumi Kuwata in 2007, and have never had an Asian-American on their roster.