Sometimes I look at something I’ve seen before and notice something new. This one is a doozy.
I was paging through one of the old scrapbooks, looking for a particular photo that I wanted to use for something, when I suddenly realized that a picture of the 1915 Rice baseball team was not actually a picture of the 1915 Rice baseball team. Not only that, this baseball team was Asian. A closer look revealed “CHINESE” emblazoned on their jerseys. (How could I not have noticed that before? I don’t know. In my defense, I will say that there was nothing unusual about the pose and the location was clearly on the Rice campus. On top of that, there aren’t any other pictures of Rice’s opponents in any of the scrapbooks so I had no reason to be suspicious.)
Well. Now this is interesting. There wasn’t a Thresher yet in 1915, so I had to turn to the local press. Sure enough, there were stories in both Houston and Galveston newspapers about the visiting team from the Chinese University of Hawaii and the two games it played with the Rice Institute. The stories reflect a mix of the casual ethnic stereotyping that was ordinary in those days coupled with first amazement, and then respect for the serious athletic ability of the Chinese team, which beat Rice pretty handily in both games.
However, twenty years of studying the history of higher education has taught me a few things. (I always told my mom it would pay off some day.) There is, of course, no such thing as the Chinese University of Hawaii and there never has been. So who were these guys? I found the answer in a very fine book, Asian Pacific Americans and Baseball: A History, by Joel S. Franks, an historian at San Jose State. (In what has to be a miracle, I already have this book on my shelf, so I could just walk over and pick it up without spending any money.) Franks describes the popularity of the game in Hawaii and the competition between and among teams of various Asian ethnicities. There’s a lot to the story, but in essence, the team that beat Rice in 1915 was a group of mostly ethnic Chinese all-stars (they were all American citizens), sponsored by Hawaiian businesses who wanted to create good publicity for the islands. They adopted the name “Chinese University of Hawaii” in order to make it easier to schedule games with mainland colleges and even professional teams. It worked.