120 years ago in mid-1896 a series of baseball games were played between the Tokyo Higher School (Ichiko)* and foreign teams in Japan that attracted a lot of attention, and have been attracting attention ever since from journalists and historians. What were four simple games of baseball, are today cloaked in a sacred aura, and are credited with starting Japan’s love affair with baseball, and with boosting the self-esteem of the Japanese people as the country moved towards the end of the ignominious period of extraterritoriality in Yokohama and the treaty ports.

The reason for this is that the team of Japanese students emphatically proved to the spectators and the world that they could easily beat local American baseball players at their national sport.

The first two matches were played between Ichiko and the baseball team of the Yokohama Cricket and Athletic Club (Y.C. & A.C.) on the cricket ground in Yokohama and resulted in overwhelming victories for the Japanese student team Ichiko: 29 – 4, and 28 – 9. Days later Ichiko demolished of the USS Detroit’s baseball nine on the school’s home ground in Tokyo and the team’s belief in its invincibility grew further.

However, in the final game with the Y. C. & A. C. played on July 4th, also on Yokohama’s cricket ground, Ichiko narrowly lost 14-12.

How did the Japanese manage to lose that final game? Although the best eye-witness account of the game – in the Japan Weekly Mail – notes that the Japanese made some rare errors at a critical times, it also notes the impact of a player from the USS Olympia called simply Church with the following words: “Abel made some pretty catches in the right field, while Church, a naval player, relieving Eckhardt as pitcher, made things more lively for the visitors, whose propensity for stealing bases he greatly checked.”

Almost nobody watching these games doubted that Ichiko was by far the better trained and more skilful team in each game, even the last one, but the loss in that final game was clearly a little hard for the Japanese team to bear at the time and historians have tended to sympathize with them right up until the present.

They all blamed the “naval player” named Church for the loss and Church has ever since been assigned such magical powers that some historians have suggested that it was unsporting of the Y.C. & A.C. to even play him.

In her 2012 book “Transpacific Field of Dreams: How Baseball Linked the United States and Japan in Peace and War,” Sayuri Guthrie-Shimizu rather eloquently presents the Japanese reaction to their defeat as follows: “To the chagrin of the Japanese players and their supporters, the American nine included a former professional ballplayer on their roster, “she wrote. “Olympia seaman and shortstop Hiram “Pop” Church had played outfield for the Baltimore club in the American Association in the 1890 season before joining the navy. An embittered editorial in the Ichiko student publication later complained that the American team had “an undue advantage” by using a professional and thus “breached sportsmanship.”

There are several huge problems with this statement with the biggest being that Hiram Church (1863- 1926), the only baseball player named Church listed in www.baseball.reference.com, the main database of major league statistics, did not serve on the USS Olympia and probably never came anywhere near Japan in his life.

But even if the USS Olympia baseballer had been Hiram Church or an ex-professional, surely it could not be judged unsporting to have played him. Why should the YC&AC not have been permitted to play the best players available, especially when the opposition was so strong?

In fact, Hiram Church, who would have been well over 30 in 1896, only scraped into the record books as a professional by virtue of having played in the last three games ever played by the Brooklyn Gladiators (not a Baltimore team) before the team folded. There is evidence that the reason he played was because the games were in Syracuse which was where he lived and the team were short of players.

The newly found evidence about the real baseball player named Church who served on the USS Olympia comes from the ship’s unofficial newspaper published during the ship’s cruise in the Far East. It included the following description of the game played on July 4 1896 which provides new insights into the game despite the basic error in stating the game was between the Olympia’s baseball nine and Ichiko rather than the YC&AC and Ichiko:

“Our Base Ball nine gave a native team who thought they knew all about it, a few pointers on playing the game. They were a crack team, however and put up a great game that would have made some of our professionals open their eyes.

The youthful (?) ‘Pop’ Church put a twirl on the ball that made their hair stand on end and won the day. He was carried around the diamond by the ladies and has continued a decided favorite among the fair sex ever since.”

So who was ‘Pop’ Church and where was he from?

He was Ernest Fisher Church and he was born, according to nearly all records, on September 21 1877 in Tiverton, Rhode Island (RI) though in at least one the date is a year earlier. That means he was only 18 years old when that game was played in July 1896. His ancestors were among the first settlers in RI and even America with the first Church arriving in 1630. His father, Fisher Church, was one of the famous seven Church brothers who developed the hug family fishery business based in Tiverton before even moving into whaling with their ships even ranging round Cape Horn and into the Pacific. Most of the brothers, including Fisher Church, were ship captains.

Ernest Church’s early life was filled with tragedy. First, his father Fisher Church died at the young age of 26 in 1878 when Ernest was around two years old and while his mother was still pregnant with his brother Nathanial. Nathanial died in January1880 and in the federal census in June 1880 Ernest and his mother Latitia (Letty) are listed as living with his grandfather Joseph Church and grand mother Jemima in Stone Bridge, Tiverton. Things got even worse in 1884 when his mother aged just 24 died when he was only seven.

Ernest Church attended the long-established Quaker-run New England Yearly Meeting Boarding School (now known as the Moses Brown School) in Providence RI. A history of the school indicates that the school had a baseball diamond and a football ground which is relevant because Church was also the star player of the football team of the USS Olympia and was outstanding in the ship’s match against the Y.C. & A. C. in 1898. His military pension record appears to suggest that he served in the navy from 1894, probably right after leaving school, until 1899. Church joined the navy as a first-class apprentice on the soon-to-be flagship of the China Squadron, the newly-built protected cruiser USS Olympia.

Church is often referred to in the Olympia’s newspaper indicating that he was held in high regard or seen as a colorful character by at least the newspaper’s editor who hints that he looked older than he was – possibly because of his large moustache and possibly the reason for his nickname ‘Pop’ – and the fact that he sometimes long overslept is hinted at by his being referred to as Rip Van Winkle.

His ability to learn fast is suggested by the following story in the Olympia newspaper about him learning to dance: “Pop Church, our own Rip Van Winkle is a patron and is learning to dance. Actually trying to be a spieler. He is an apt scholar and is progressing so rapidly one would think him the teacher instead of the pupil. Oh, but won’t he cut a – when he gets home.”

The following is a description of Ernest’s somewhat less successful attempts to learn to cook: “’Pop’ Church has made a new departure by becoming cook(?). He is certainly a shining star in the culinary firmament. First he started in to make “corn dodgers” and used oatmeal by mistake, then he used all the cornstarch to wash the dishes, thinking it was washing powder, put sugar in the stew instead of salt, and put eggs for breakfast on to boil the night before, so that they might be well done. As they were, we have ten of them as momentoes and weapons of defence.”

In 1898, not long after leaving Yokohama, Church was present when the USS Olympia led the attack in Manila Bay in the Spanish-American War which was to be perhaps the most notable event in his life.

Before retiring from the navy he also served on USS Ralegh rising to the rank of boatswain.

On leaving the navy Ernest Church first worked as mate and later captain of a steamer. In his later years he was a marine pilot and tug boat captain.

He married (Mary) Hazel Cobb (1888 – 1977) of Connecticut in August 1911 and starting at the age of 34 became father to two daughters: Letty Ray Bell (1912 – 2010) and Frances (1915 – 2009). In the state census of 1915 he and his family were living at 25 Riverview Avenue, Tiverton. Ernest seems to have spent the rest of his life living in the Newport area of Rhode Island and working on the sea.

Ernest Church died weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbour and the start of WW2. He was 65.

He will now hopefully gain his rightful place in the history of baseball in Japan for his youthful pitching in Yokohama on Independence Day 1896.

As for the USS Olympia baseball nine, the editor of the Olympia newspaper failed to write as much about any of its other games. He says that they only lost two games in over two years and in one issue laments the fact there are few games: “The Base-ball nine, also, should revise interest in our National Game and challenge one of the many American ships out here, to a battle on the “diamond.” It’s been so long since we have had a game of base-ball that we’ve almost forgotten how to whoop.”

* The Tokyo Higher School was not a high school in today’s sense and included students over 20 years old. It was one of the forerunners of the University of Tokyo. Many of the Ichiko baseball team would have been older than Ernest Chuch!

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