History of Baseball: First Major League Player Born in China
One of my brother’s friends in New York recently asked him if he knew of any Major League baseball players that were born in China. As it turns out, there is one, and his story is indeed stranger than fiction.
Henry Lees “Harry” Kingman played for the New York Yankees in 1914. Only a “cup of coffee,” to be sure, but he was a multi-tool athlete who might have become a good player with strong minor league instruction.
Harry Kingman was born in 1892 in Tientsin, China, an important “inland” port, southeast of Beijing. His father was a Congregational missionary from New York, his mother a China-born daughter of English Methodist missionaries. The Kingman family left China in 1899 due to the father’s asthma. The elder Kingman took a job in Claremont, California, as the Chaplain and trustee of Pomona College.
It was here in Claremont, a few miles east of Los Angeles, that young Harry grew up playing baseball, tennis, track, basketball and swimming. He later became a multi-sport star athlete at Pomona College and, upon graduation in 1913, signed with the Washington Senators as a left-handed pitcher.
At the same time, the Yankees’ manager, Frank Chance (later, a Hall of Fame member due to his exploits as a Chicago Cubs first baseman and team leader) traded for Kingman. Remember, the Yankees were not then the juggernaut they became in the 1920s, and they were looking for help. In fact, the only star on the team was the fine shortstop, Roger Peckinpaugh. Chance, who owned a large orange grove near Claremont, probably had heard about Kingman’s baseball talent through his local Southern California contacts.
“I put on a Washington uniform and was introduced in the clubhouse to the other players by a big friendly good-looking Senator. I asked who he was. I was told ‘That’s just Walter Johnson, the fastest and best pitcher you’ll ever know.'” – Harry Kingman
Chance tried to turn Kingman, who batted and threw left-handed, into a pitcher, but to no avail. Then Kingman, with virtually no instruction, was placed on the roster as a first baseman. Kingman drew a walk, but got no hits in limited, spot duty.
At the beginning of the 1915 season, Chance was no longer the skipper, and the Yankees, believing that Kingman’s talents could be honed in the minor leagues, wanted to send him to one of their minor league locations, Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Kingman thought about it, and opted out, knowing that Wally Pipp, a highly-touted rookie, was already being penciled in as the starting first baseman. (Pipp, you’ll remember, played well until 1925, when he was replaced by another rookie, a fellow named Lou Gehrig.)
Kingman volunteered and served 2 years in the Army. Then, the YMCA offered him an appointment as a missionary to Shanghai, China. He married his fiancee, Ruth, and they moved to Shanghai in 1922. He busied himself by teaching baseball to American ex-pats, other foreigners and locals alike, and organized baseball games between local teams in the Shanghai area and American sailors from visiting ships.
“I learned that Frank Chance had taken over my contract from Washington. So for the next two seasons as a rookie pitcher with the Yankees I was learning the trade of pitching and never did get a chance to prove that I could hit–my mainstay in college ball.” – Harry Kingman
At this time, various foreign nations, particularly the British, had “concessions” in China, which gave them very favorable trade agreements as well as “sovereign” territory in China. In 1925, an altercation between local Chinese and the British-authorized Sikh police escalated into a melee during which multiple citizens, almost all Chinese, died and many more were wounded.
Kingman was distraught. He felt that the altercation was avoidable on both sides, and immediately acted, with some success, as a peacemaker. Mahatma Gandhi was just one of the impressive group of luminaries he wrote, asking internationally-recognized figures including former Senator William Borah, philosopher Bertrand Russell and novelist H.G. Wells to use their influence in establishing peaceful co-existence throughout the area.
The YMCA felt that Kingman, though a moderate and well-liked by all, was a little too much an activist for their taste, and tried to transfer him to Tientsin. However, Kingman and his wife (and now, their daughter), instead took time off and travelled to Japan in 1927, where he continued to teach baseball to YMCA attendees. He even coached the fabled Waseda University baseball team for a brief period.
“Very thankful for your letter. If you can give me further information from time to time I shall be still more grateful. Your outlook on Chinese affairs seems to be very much the same as mine.” – Bertrand Russell’s written response to one of Kingman’s many letters regarding China, c. 1925-1926
Kingman then accepted a YMCA appointment to run their operations at the University of California-Berkeley, where he stayed for 20 years. During this time, Kingman was also recruited to coach the university’s JV baseball program. While at the campus Kingman developed a program that allowed poor students to receive housing in exchange for them performing maintenance on those co-op buildings. The program is still in use at the campus to this day. In 1977, one of the co-op buildings was named after Kingman.
During WWII, Kingman worked with the U. S. Government to try and dissuade them from interning Japanese-Americans at prison camps. He felt, for a variety of reasons, that they were committed to helping the U. S. fight tyranny.
For a while, the Kingmans spent time in Washington, D. C., lobbying for various causes that would help the underprivileged. For the rest of his life, he worked to help those less fortunate than himself. He was considered a person of reasonable attitude, with great leadership skills who tirelessly performed his responsibilities. Harry Kingman died in 1982. He was 90 years of age.
He is still the only Major League player to have ever been born in China. He was always known as a gentleman. His greatest legacy is that he was a wonderful human being.
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