AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Today professional baseball season began in Japan and if you're following it closely, you know that Hiroshima Carp beat the Chunichi Dragons three to two and the Orix Buffaloes squeezed out the Nippon-Ham Fighters in extra innings six to five. Baseball is big in Japan, very big and an American is credited with introducing the sport there in 1872.
The Civil War veteran and school teacher named Horace Wilson, his contribution is memorialized in a Japanese documentary.
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CORNISH: Not everyone this side of the world where baseball originated knows the Horace Wilson story. Neither did his own descendents. It so happens that NPR's Theo Balcomb is part of that family and with the help of her mother, father, aunt, cousin and grandmother, she has the story of what happened when they found out.
THEO BALCOMB, BYLINE: Horace Wilson. Who is Horace Wilson?
PATRICIA: I believe that Horace is my or was my great, great uncle.
BALCOMB: Grew up on a farm.
PATRICIA: He was born in Gorham, Maine.
BALCOMB: In my house in a little room, the birthing room.
PATRICIA: Whom I had never met. I was two years old when he died.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We had no idea about Uncle Horace's involvement with baseball in Japan.
KATE: He was recruited to go and teach English and math in Tokyo.
BALCOMB: One day at recess was like, hey, guys, want to learn how to play a game, taught them how to play baseball.
PATRICIA: You would've thought that someone would've said, well, Uncle Horace was instrumental in getting them interested in baseball.
BALCOMB: My mom got this call...
ABIGAIL: Philip Block(ph) came to try to find a descendent of Horace Wilson.
BALCOMB: Then, we got connected to the guy who was writing a book about Horace. This man named Kazz(ph) and so Kazz brings over these guys, like a newspaper reporter. They brought four or five people to the house.
ABIGAIL: We were in the midst of haying.
BALCOMB: They show up...
SCOTT: I was milking the cows and I looked up and here is a wonderful Japanese man in his coat and tie watching me milk a cow.
BALCOMB: My mom makes this big dinner.
ABIGAIL: For some reason, I'm really not sure why, I had decided to make spaghetti and meatballs.
BALCOMB: And then we all sit down to dinner and suddenly they start making this...
ABIGAIL: Special proclamation.
BALCOMB: They have come to invite us to go to Japan. As the descendents of Horace Wilson, we need you to come to bridge the gap between east and west, you know, they go through this whole - like, they somehow tie World War II into it. I mean, this is a very big deal for them. So we say, sure, we'll take a trip to Japan. We figure out who's going to go.
ABIGAIL: So we sent them Theo and Rosie.
BALCOMB: I and my cousin, we were both 12 or 13 at the time. My aunt was going to go and then, they needed a man.
SCOTT: Most of Horace's descendents in this area were all female, but the Japanese very much like males.
BALCOMB: My dad's like, sure, I'll go.
SCOTT: I'm not the biggest baseball fan.
BALCOMB: The irony being that my dad has no relation to Horace whatsoever.
SCOTT: They were very, very happy to see me.
BALCOMB: And so that is how we began this really weird three-week trip.
ROSIE: We were treated kind of like rock stars. I remember being gawked at a lot because we were blond and a redhead.
BALCOMB: We had this one big moment where it was the culmination of the high school baseball championships, I guess.
ROSIE: And we were guests of honor. We had our own box.
BALCOMB: So we're there, like, we're the dignitaries, right? So we're waving.
ROSIE: We knew nothing about it other than it what they had told us.
BALCOMB: When they go to throw out the first pitch, they fly planes over the stadium and they drop the ball down to the field. And my cousin and I were supposed to run out to the center of the field and catch the ball.
Theo (unintelligible) Balcomb-san, Rose Ruth Sanborn-san.
During the game, there's a presentation. We have to go out in the center of the field and they present to us a plaque commemorating our visit and honoring Horace Wilson. The plaque is so heavy. It's bronze. It has this portrait of Horace and then this message to our family honoring him. And the man who is presenting it is this tiny little old guy.
SCOTT: I believe he was in his late 80s, if not early 90s.
BALCOMB: He is holding the plaque and my dad is like, oh, my God, he's going to drop it. He's going to drop it.
SCOTT: Because it was extremely heavy. But we were both bowing and bowing and bowing and somehow the plaque got from his hands to my hands.
BALCOMB: And it's August in Japan, right, so it's sweltering, so my dad is like trying to hold this plaque and then he gets interviewed by some woman.
SCOTT: They told me that, first of all, there was going to be this ceremony, that I would be asked several questions by a reporter and I should think about how I would answer them.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Have you ever heard anything about this (unintelligible), like how did he teach (unintelligible)?
SCOTT: Horace Wilson believed that education should include exercise of the body as well as exercise of the mind. Of course, no one knows what Horace Wilson believed at all so we made it up on the spot.
BALCOMB: So that was the trip. The joke I make is, I'm big in Japan because I was for two weeks.
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CORNISH: NPR's Theo Balcomb with the help of her family, her father, Scott, her mother Abigail, her cousin Rose, her Aunt Kate and her grandmother Patricia. If you want to see pictures of Horace Wilson and his descendents, go to NPR.org. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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