For much of the twentieth century, there was a widely-held stereotype that Asian Americans could not compete in athletics. It has only been in recent years that significant numbers of successful Asian American athletes have been recognized by the public. It may surprise you, then, to learn that as long ago as 1918, Chinese American Son Kai-Kee played varsity football for the University of California, and that George Fong became a football star for Cal in the 1940s. Here is the story of these pioneering Golden Bears.
Son Kai-Kee, who played fullback on Cal's 1918 varsity squad
Fittingly, Son Kai-Kee came from a family of California pioneers. His grandparents had settled in the foothill town of Ione, in Amador County, shortly after the Gold Rush. Son Kai-Kee was one of what turned out to be a family of nine very athletically and intellectually gifted children. His parents moved to Oakland when their children were young, and Son Kai-Kee entered the University of California in neighboring Berkeley when he was 18.
Son Kai-Kee, who was known by the Americanized name "Sam" among his non-Asian friends and in the University's official records, decided to try out for the football team, despite his slight build. He made the freshman squad as a quarterback in 1915. The following year, he tried out for the varsity squad. Cal Coach Andy Smith recognized Kai-Kee's speed and running ability and, despite his lack of size, put him on the varsity team as a reserve. (For more on Coach Andy Smith, click here.) Kai-Kee was quickly nicknamed "the Chinese Puzzle" by his teammates. Unfortunately, in an era when substitutions were rare, Kai-Kee never got a chance to play in a game in his sophomore or junior seasons. His role was limited to practice time against the varsity starters. Despite this, Kai-Kee tried out for the varsity team again senior year.
Kai-Kee's quest to make the team was covered by Ed Hughes of The San Francisco Chronicle, who wrote, "Kai-Kee, a Chinese, is trying for the end position. He is rather light, but he is fast and will be given every chance to show what he can do." Herbert Hawes of The Oakland Tribune called him, "little Kai Kee -- the slippery Chinese boy," and said that despite being small for a fullback, "he is as fast as lightening and not very easy to tackle." Kai-Kee made the team once again in 1918, and this time he would finally get his chance to play.
Kai-Kee's big chance came on November 2, 1918. The Bears were supposed to travel to Los Angeles to play USC that day. But the infamous influenza epidemic of 1918 forced the postponement of the game. As a substitute, Andy Smith scheduled an exhibition between the varsity starters and the reserves, who were called "the goofs." The game took place at California Field on the Berkeley campus before a sizable crowd. Unsurprisingly, the varsity trounced the goofs, 34-6. But the one moment of glory for the reserve team came when Sam Kai-Kee ran 70 yards for a touchdown. This feat was impressive enough to get a mention in the Blue and Gold yearbook:
The Varsity scored early when Hooper took the inflated spheroid across the line after a series of end runs and line plays. Watson converted. The "goofs" then surprised the rooters, the Varsity and themselves by scoring. Shifty Sam Kai Kee was the perpetrator of the deed in running seventy yards with the pigskin tucked under his arm. Smith failed to kick the goal and the quarter ended with the Varsity on the long end of a 7-6 count.
Although this was "the goofs'" only moment of glory in the game, it was sufficient to convince Coach Smith to give Kai-Kee some playing time. He appeared as a substitute in the California's wins against St. Mary's and USC and, most notably, in the Bears' 67-0 crushing of Stanford in the first game played between the two schools since 1914. Kai-Kee was not a star, but he had earned his varsity letter, as the first Asian American to play football at California. Interestingly, one of his teammates was Walter Gordon, the first African American to play at Cal. (For more on Walter Gordon, click here.) Although there do not appear to be any records on the subject, the 1918 Golden Bears may well have been the first varsity football team in the country to include both an African American and an Asian American player. And on top of that, the 1918 Bears were the first Cal team to win the Pacific Coast Conference championship.
California's 1918 Varsity Squad. Coach Andy Smith is in the back row, third from the left. All American Walter Gordon in in the center of the back row. And Son Kai-Kee is in the front row, fourth from the left.
But Kai-Kee was not satisfied with his football success. In the spring of 1919 he organized a team of Chinese-American Cal students into a baseball team called the Sing Fats. This team got noticed by the press when it challenged a semi-pro team in the south bay, the San Jose Bears, to a game. Unfortunately, these Cal Bears were trounced by the San Jose Bears 11-0. Undaunted, after his graduation from Cal in 1919, Son Kai-Kee became a tireless advocate for and organizer of athletic competitions for Chinese-Americans in the Bay Area. He organized a group of Chinese American players in San Francisco into a football team, taking on other clubs in the area. And he and his brother Lock Kai-Kee played for and coached Chinese-American baseball teams in Oakland throughout the 1920s and 1930s, while Son Kai-Kee was becoming a manager at, and eventually the superintendent of, the Gerber Foods plant in Oakland.
Son Kai-Kee also encouraged the athletic talents of his younger siblings. His brother Mike went to Yale, where he played second base on the varsity baseball team in the 1920s. His sister Bessie captained her high school softball team and then played on a Chinese team in a women's basketball league in San Francisco. His youngest brother, Mark, somewhat inexplicably enrolled at Stanford, where he was a member of the varsity boxing team in the early 1930s. Kenny Kai-Kee, Son Kai-Kee's nephew, made a better decision, playing basketball for Cal in the early 1940s.
If the Kai-Kee family were not enough to put to rest the notion that Asian Americans couldn't be successful athletes, Cal's George Fong made that point even more clearly in the 1940s. Whereas Son Kai-Kee was a contributor to the 1918 team, George Fong was a stand-out on Cal's 1946 and 1947 teams.
California fullback George Fong in 1946
Fong had the misfortune to play for Cal during an era of turmoil. He played for three different head coaches in his three years on the varsity team and only the last one, Pappy Waldorf, gave Fong the chance to play for a winning team. Despite this, George Fong demonstrated that he was an outstanding running back.
In the fall of 1945, World War II had just ended. A native San Franciscan, George Fong, like many of his teammates, was also a returning veteran -- a 22-year-old sophomore. Prior to the 1945 season, long-time Cal head coach Stub Allison had resigned and been replaced by Buck Shaw. But Shaw had agreed to coach at California only for a single season, until the new All-American Professional Football League was formed, as he had agreed to coach the San Francisco team in that league. With this unsettled state of affairs, it is not surprising that the season proved lackluster, with the Bears' final record being 4-5-1. There wasn't even the Big Game to look forward to, since Stanford had quit football during the war, and did not field a team again until 1946. The highlight of the season was California's 27-14 upset of Washington, in which Fong scored the Bears' first touchdown on a 1-yard plunge into the end zone.
The following year proved even more difficult. The new coach, former Cal assistant Frank Wickhorst, was never able to build a relationship with his team, and the season turned into a 2-7 disaster for the Bears. One of the few bright spots in an otherwise dreadful season was George Fong. Despite the many losses and the dissension on the team, Fong played his heart out in every game. And he was directly responsible for one of California's two wins on the season, against heavily favored St. Mary's. The Gaels were led by their star quarterback, Herman Wedemeyer, who was himself of native Hawaiian descent. With Cal leading 13-7 in the third quarter, Fong intercepted a Wedemeyer pass and ran it back 18 yards for a Cal touchdown, to put the Bears up 20-7. This proved to be the winning margin in Cal's 20-13 victory.
The 1946 season was so bad that during an embarrassing Big Game loss, the students tore up the benches at Memorial Stadium and threw them on the field. And the team was so unhappy that 42 of the 44 varsity players, including George Fong, signed a petition asking that Coach Wickhorst be fired. He was. But despite the miserable season, Fong was an inspiration to his teammates. At the end of the year, he was selected by his teammates as the first recipient of the Ken Cotton Award, an award established by Vic Bottari, Sam Chapman and other members of Cal's 1938 national championship team, in memory of their teammate, Cotton, who had been killed in World War II. It is awarded each year to the varsity player who has displayed the most courage. (For more on Cal's 1938 national championship team, click here.)
The arrival of new head coach Pappy Waldorf changed everything for the Bears in 1947. On the first play of the Bears' first game of the 1947 season, against Santa Clara, Waldorf put the ball in George Fong's hands. He did not disappoint. In his 1949 book, 66 Years on the California Gridiron, Dan Brodie described what happened:
The season opened on September 20, 1947, and 45,000 turned out to see what the new Berkeley eleven looked like, and to find what ghosts Pappy Waldorf had resurrected from the "Coaches Graveyard." The alumni turned out with both lethal weapons (for use on the coaching staff in case of failure) and New Year's noise makers (for celebration in case of victory.) All the football world now knows that the alums had no use for their weapons, for on California's first scrimmage play of the afternoon, fullback George Fong banged his way through the Santa Clara left guard and sped thirty-nine yards to score. The crowd was stunned, and a full ten seconds elapsed before the spectators could break out in the great roar traditional to all football contests.
The next week, the Bears played heavily favored Navy. Temporary bleachers were added at the top of the east side of Memorial Stadium to accommodate the largest crowd in Cal history, more than 83,000. Looking for some extra motivation for his team, Pappy Waldorf named the popular and inspirational Fong as the team captain for the game, prompting The San Francisco Chronicle's Will Connolly to write that Fong's high school, San Francisco Polytechnic, and all of San Francisco's Chinatown, "should be proud of Fong." Expressing sentiments that were more self-congratulatory than the history of race relations in San Francisco warranted, Connolly declared that the selection of Fong as team captain, "could only happen in this cosmopolitan community," and that "the rest of the country considers a Chinese an exotic creature, but in this town and environs US citizens of Chinese ancestry are accepted as one of the boys."
Although Navy was a 2 to 1 favorite, the Bears pulled out a hard-fought 14-7 victory. From there, the season moved from triumph to triumph, with only a loss to #10 ranked USC marring the Bears' 9-1 record. Fong started every game, although as the season progressed he became increasingly overshadowed by another Golden Bear running back, Jackie Jensen. But then, Jensen overshadowed everybody, as he would turn out to be one of the greatest players in Cal history. Nevertheless, Fong remained a solid contributor throughout the 1947 season. In his last game at Cal, Fong, together with Jensen, led the Bears on a key drive against Stanford right before the half, which ended with Fong driving into the end zone from the 1-yard-line, for his last touchdown as a Golden Bear. California's 21-18 win was the Bears' first Big Game victory since 1941.
George Fong graduated after the 1947 season, and thus missed California's Rose Bowl appearances of the next three years. But his contributions to the 1947 team helped Pappy Waldorf to revive the moribund Cal program, and set the Bears on the path to football glory. (For more on the Pappy Waldorf years, click here.)
Brodie, S. Dan, 66 Years on the California Gridiron, The Olympic Publishing Company, Oakland, CA (1949)
Franks, Joel, "California Baseball's Mixed Multitudes," Baseball and the American Dream: Race, Class, Gender and the National Pastime, M.E. Sharpe, Inc., New York (2001) http://books.google.com/books?id=SdFK2VjTcjwC&pg=PA3&lpg=PA3&dq=elias+baseball+and+the+american+dream&source=bl&ots=A9aZoNefvo&sig=uY8ijeU8bD5L_-8q_e-VkH7hsT8&hl=en&ei=D1owTtqqD4PViALd-NAr&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&sqi=2&ved=0CCIQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false
Franks, Joel, Crossing Sidelines, Crossing Cultures: Sport and Asian Pacific American Cultural Citizenship, University Press of American, Inc. New York (2000)
Morse, Brick, California Football History, The Gillick Press, Berkeley, CA (1937)
Park, Roberta, "Sport and Recreation Among Chinese American Communities of the Pacific Coast from Time of Arrival to the 'Quiet Decade' of the 1950s", Journal of Sport History, Vol. 27, No. 3, North American Society for Sport History (Fall 2000) http://www.la84foundation.org/SportsLibrary/JSH/JSH2000/JSH2703/JSH2703f.pdf