This week we feature an early Chinese-American baseball player, Buck Lai. Born William Tin Lai in 1895 in Hawaii and commonly known as Tin Lai or Buck Lai, he was the son of Chinese immigrants that arrived in the late 1800s. Buck was an exceptional athlete and at age 17, he joined a traveling baseball team known as the Hawaiian Chinese University Nine. From 1912 to 1916, the team barnstormed the mainland U.S., exhibiting and playing in stadiums around the country against other college opponents. Many members would go on to continue playing pro or semi-pro baseball, and Buck did likewise.

By 1916, Buck had married a girl named Isabel Reynolds and settled in Audubon, NJ where he worked for Pennsylvania Railroad and played semipro baseball. In 1918, he was scouted and signed on to participate in spring training with the Philadelphia Phillies but was subsequently sent to a minor league affiliate team, the Bridgeport Americans, for more training and experience. Following five seasons with the Americans, Buck would move on to play for the Brooklyn Bushwicks where he met and played with baseball legends, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

In 1928, Buck would once again be scouted for the Major Leagues and was signed on with the New York Giants but was trimmed from the roster after the Giants played two official games in the 1928 season, becoming a phantom major leaguer. His contract was sold to the Jersey City Skeeters, where he played four games before ultimately returning to the semipro leagues with the Bushwicks.

In 1935, Buck would return to Hawaii to create his own traveling team, known as the All Hawaiian Nine, or the Hawaiians for short. The team would consist of Hawaiian American players of Japanese and Chinese ancestry. The Hawaiians would travel and play baseball throughout the States before World War II, including in New York; against local teams such as the Pennsylvania Red Caps (named after Penn Station, NY) and his old team, the Bushwicks. MOCA’s collections also has undated newspaper articles, 2020.012.015 and 2020.012.016 about the Hawaiians playing in Central Park against the Pine Grovers, featuring a Hawaiian hula dance performance and guest pitcher Jackie Mitchell, one of the first female pitchers in professional baseball history.

2020.012.002 Buck Lai and the All Hawaiian Nine. Buck is 3rd from the left. Courtesy of Roy Delbyck, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collection.