CHICAGO – Although Japan and South Korea are well represented in the Major League Baseball, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn III reminded Asian Americans and friends that it was a Filipino baseball player, who paved the way for Asians to play in America’s pastime.
[box type=”default” size=”large”] Bobby Balcena is Jackie Robinson of Asians, Quinn says [/box]The occasion was the opening last May 20 of a week-long Governor’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month photo exhibit at the James R. Thompson Center here.
In brief remarks delivered shortly before the ribbon-cutting ceremonies, Quinn said, “I have a younger brother, who teaches history, but I had no idea that Robert Rudolph “Bobby” Balcena was the first Asian American baseball player to play baseball 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 that Bobby Balcena was born on Aug. 1, 1925 in San Pedro, California. “I understand – but have not verified yet – that both his parents were Philippineborn.”
After his illustrious minor league career, Balcena went back to being a longshoreman, and coached baseball at a Catholic high school. He died in his sleep in front of a TV set in 1990.
With a height of five feet and seven inches and weight of 160 pounds, Balcena, an outfielder, batted right-handed but threw the ball with his left hand.
He played in his last season with Cincinnati Reds after two successful seasons with Seattle, where he played in 160 games and batted .295.
There had been other Filipino-Americans who followed in the footsteps of Balcena. Among them were Bobby Chouinard (1996 Oakland Athletics; and 1998, Milwaukee Brewers); Benny Agbayani (1998, New York Mets; and 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 of the New York Yankees.
But the Japanese-born players who shined in the majors, starting in 1964 with 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 of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Among the Japanese star players is Ichiro Suzuki, who is formerly the of Seattle Mariners and now of the New York Yankees. South Koreans followed suit. Chicago Cubs currently have two players with Asian-American descent Scott Feldman who 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 captions of the photos in the exhibit.
The photo 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 was designed to showcase the history, diversity and accomplishments of the Asian American community during the celebration of the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
Among the guests at the opening of the exhibit were Philippine Consul General Leo M. Herrera-Lim and Vice Consuls Alena Grace S. Borra and Ricarte B. Abejuella III.