At the end of last week, Cubs fans experienced their first taste of the exuberance of Munenori Kawasaki. A Spring Training invitee, Kawasaki displayed his singing chops with a rendition of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing.” You know, that song from Armageddon. While his song choice was no doubt troubling in and of itself—“Mama Kin” is, without a doubt, a far better Aerosmith song, and is in fact totally free from Ben Affleck associations—what followed the performance was what transformed Kawasaki’s performance from an orchestrated early Spring Training mood-lightener into another chapter—albeit a small one—in the history of racialized “mascots.”
Before we dive into that, let’s briefly review what happened. The Cubs, who’ve become known for having one of the more relaxed camps in the game, indulged in some Spring Training levity, donning headbands featuring the phrase “Just Win” in Japanese, and went about their team warmups to the sound of some pop hits. That’s when the day truly veered into the queasy: “Kung Fu Fighting” and “Gangnam Style” blared from speakers as the Cubs did their kinetic warmups. If you think about it even for a little bit of time, that doesn’t really make any sense, unless you’re willing to group all Asian cultures together in one big “foreign” pot, thereafter to serve as a theme.
Maddon acknowledged the infringement upon political correctness that the sequence of events posed, in a preemptive strike against the thinkpieces that would surely flurry soon after. “Political correctness has been at an all-time high over the last couple of decades,” Jesse Spector quoted Maddon as saying, “We’re not trying to hurt anybody, it was all in fun.” Other teammates and coaches summed up the situation by commenting on Kawasaki’s outstanding character and echoing their manager’s sentiments. Kris Bryant said that Kawasaki is “hilarious,” praised the new Cub’s desire to learn, and called the song routine “one of [Bryant’s] favorite skits that [he’s] ever seen here.”
While there’s no reason not to believe Maddon’s “we’re only having fun” assertion—Kawasaki reportedly consented to the antics, and in fact organized the headbands—Maddon’s dismissal of political correctness still rings a bit hollow, considering the Cubs’ and Major League Baseball’s uneasy relationship with its relatively few Asian and Asian-American players, as well as the history of teams and fandoms pigeonholing players of color into mascot-like roles.
The history of racial mascots in baseball dates back to the 1880s, which is not coincidentally the same decade that black players were purged from professional leagues across the United States. The Cubs organization themselves, then under the White Stockings moniker, were among the first to employ a black man as a “mascot,” the brainchild of their captain, Adrian “Cap” Anson. I wrote of Duvall in the wake of Adam Wainwright’s comments on Jason Heyward, about two months ago. Then, I had the following to say about Duvall:
The press roundly subjected [Duvall] to racialized characterizations that wrapped his blackness and supposed childishness in one. As the only black men permitted to participate in white professional leagues, Duvall and other mascots were the only representatives of black masculinity fans, players, and journalists saw, thereby reifying the preconceptions whites had about blacks’ unfitness for the professional ranks.
Anson’s contempt for blacks is now an important part of his legacy, and in his memoir, he detailed his exploitative relationship with Duvall, punctuated by racial epithets. Duvall’s “mascot-ization” was a direct result of Anson and others’ white supremacist impulses. While the impetus to cast Kawasaki as a mascot today certainly doesn’t come from quite that sinister of a place, or maybe even from a sinister place at all, teammates’ and journalists’ quotes regarding the player often make him out to be less of a baseball player and more of an avatar of unbridled enthusiasm, bordering on craziness. That’s damaging in its own way, even if it’s not intended that way.
And there’s a history here, for Kawasaki and for his new team. At the beginning of 2013, the conservative tabloid Toronto Sun titled an article “’Mascot’ Munenori Kawasaki Brings the Energy,” and within relayed then-Blue Jay Mark DeRosa’s likening of Kawasaki to the racial caricature Isuro Tanaka from the movie Major League II.i A Twitter search for “Kawasaki mascot” reveals a mix of feelings from Blue Jays fans, with some lamenting the departure of their “mascot,” and others hoping that Kawasaki’s signing with the Cubs would stop tokenism of the infielder in the press and among fans.
Meanwhile, in 2008, Cubs fans indulged in cartoonish recreations of Japanese culture upon the debut of the club’s first Japanese player, Kosuke Fukudome. The fervor surrounding Fukudome’s landmark signing, and especially in the wake of his heroic Opening Day 2008 performance, compelled many fans to reproduce a host of racial caricatures. Notably, headbands with Japanese characters were prominent, as well as conical hats that recall the worst of Disney-style stereotypes. Uglier manifestations include the detestable “Horry Kow” shirts that eventually died under legal threat from the Cubs organization. Subsequent Japanese players on the Cubs faced far fewer stereotypical depictions in the media, but Kawasaki is the most prominent Japanese player on the club since Fukudome.
On their Limited Range podcast, Sahadev Sharma and Brett Taylor delved into the personal feelings they had watching Kawasaki perform at Spring Training, and how the diversity of baseball’s participants—both on the field and in the stands—necessitates some sort of self-examination, resulting in a “laughing with them” or “laughing at them” question. That’s a worthwhile question to engage with. What, exactly, were the Cubs implicitly saying about Kawasaki’s role on the team? Taking that question one step further and anchoring it to historical precedents brings the situation more into focus. Situating the orchestrated levity of last week’s Cubs camp in the history of racialized mascots reveals a complex and often ugly history of such events, within which Kawasaki’s possible role as a mascot is only the most recent iteration of a long-running theme in professional baseball. Again, the Cubs almost certainly didn’t mean anything by it. But sometimes that’s not enough to avoid damage.
iSteve Buffery and Bob Elliott, “’Mascot’ Munenori Kawaski Brings the Energy,” Toronto Sun, April 16 2013.
Lead photo courtesy Matt Kartozian—USA Today Sports.