Robert Fitts is the author of Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major Leaguer (Nebraska, 2015), Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Baseball (Nebraska, 2008), and Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan (Nebraska, 2012), winner of the Society of American Baseball Research’s Seymour Medal. His newest book is Issei Baseball: The Story of the First Japanese American Baseball Players (April 2020).
How has social distancing affected you and your writing?
I live in New York City in a residential section of the Bronx. My wife and I have been in near total quarantine since March 12. During the first week, we went to a handful of stores—wearing gloves and being careful to social distance—but since then we’ve only been out of the house for walks. We will occasionally see friends during our walks and have brief conversations from across the street but other than that we haven’t had a non-virtual conversation in a long time! Luckily, my wife cooks for a hobby so I’ve been spoiled with delicious dinners.
I’ve worked at home since becoming a full-time writer twenty years ago, so the quarantine has not affected my work schedule. Every weekday I continue to spend the mornings and early afternoons researching or writing and the rest of the day doing chores. But I’ve had a significant drop-off in productivity. I’m having trouble focusing and now find it difficult to get even a few paragraphs done each morning. I think it is time to change my routine.
Of course, I miss baseball! During the season, my days would begin by reading the box scores and associated articles. People are surprised when I tell them that I don’t watch many games. I probably watch parts of about a dozen games during the regular season and go to a game or two in person. After writing and thinking about baseball all day, I rarely want to watch it at night. Instead, I watch or read a mystery. Once the playoffs arrive, it’s a different story. I love the drama of post-season games and try to watch as many as possible.
It sounds like you make a concerted effort to balance writing with other activities. What is one activity that feeds back into your writing, something non-writing-related that helps you stay creative at your keyboard?
I’m an avid squash player. I picked up the game in college and have been playing for about 35 years. After all that time, I should be a better player than I am, but I enjoy it. When I’m not traveling, I play three or four times a week. Getting on the court every other day for several hours not only helps me keep in shape but it also clears my mind. When I’m stuck on a writing problem and can’t seem to move forward, I will sometimes go to the courts and just practice by myself. Hitting the ball over and over, falling into a rhythm, allows my mind to relax. After thirty minutes or so, the way out of my writing knot usually pops into my brain. Stuck in my house, I miss squash terribly. Not being able to play certainly contributes to my current difficulties concentrating at the keyboard.
Why is your book on the first Japanese-American baseball players important now?
My book unfortunately has become timely. Issei Baseball follows the lives of five young Japanese men who immigrated to California at the beginning of the twentieth century to study and make their fortunes in the United States. I focus on the bigotry Japanese immigrants faced and how these men used the shared love of baseball—America’s National Pastime—to build bridges between Japanese and white Americans. Although these men struggled to assimilate into American society, and at times succeeded on the diamond, their efforts were ultimately rejected as they and their families were forced from their homes and placed in interment camps during World War II because of their Japanese heritage.
One hundred years later, we are once again struggling with unfounded stereotypes and a wave of bigotry towards Asians. The coronavirus, of course, originated in the city of Wuhan in China. As the virus has spread across the United States, there has been a spike in hate-crimes and bigoted behavior towards people of Asian descent. A recent article by Cathy Park Hong entitled “The Slur I Never Expected to Hear in 2020” in the New York Times Magazine, details this heartbreaking trend. I wish my book offered a solution to stem the tide of bigotry or at least a way forward but it doesn’t. Instead it shows that little has changed in a century. Ignorance and hate still keep alive the divisions that threaten to doom our democracy.
What are you working on now?
My research focuses on Japanese baseball and Japanese baseball cards. Besides marketing Issei Baseball, I’m currently working on three projects. For about a decade, I’ve been collecting sources for a history of Major League tours of Japan. I’ve accumulated a stack of Japanese-language magazines, newspaper clippings, player interviews, and website printouts. I’m starting to organize these sources and hopefully will outline a book by the end of the year.
At the moment, I’m zeroing in on one MLB tour. In 1956, the Brooklyn Dodgers traveled to Japan and played about 20 games against the Yomiuri Giants and Japanese all-star teams. It turned out that the final game of this series was Jackie Robinson’s last professional baseball game—he retired a few weeks after returning to the United States. I’ve finished my documentary research on the tour and this spring am trying to interview the few living Dodgers who visited Japan. At the moment, I’m not sure if this project will produce a long article or a short book.
I’ve been a serious collector of Japanese baseball cards since living in Japan in 1993. I set up on-line business selling the cards in 2000 and write and give talks about the hobby. I’m in the process of creating a self-published book entitled An Illustrated Introduction to Japanese Baseball Cards. Learning how to layout and produce an ebook is both challenging and fun. For the past month, I’ve been bouncing back and forth from this project to the Dodgers in Japan project. You can learn more about my work and Issei Baseball on my website here.