In the Sugar Sun series, I have attempted to combine the authenticism of well-researched historical fiction with the emotional payoff (the feels) of romance. The more tragic the history in the book, the more important it is to lighten the mood when I can. Music cannot be made with only one note, nor even one movement. A really good read should be like hearing a whole symphony.
Ben Potter’s past is pretty dark: opium addiction, combat trauma, and more. So he seeks out the light: the capable but audacious school teacher, Allegra Alazas. And he will have to win her heart in the light—the sunlight, to be exact. It will be out on the baseball field where Ben wins Allie’s hand.
(Yes, I am not only taking on historical romance and historical fiction, but I am throwing in some historical sports romance, too. What bang for your reading buck!)
The Americans brought baseball to the Philippines as a part of their educational system. The sport caught on. It even found its way into courtship rituals—feats of valor on the baseball field could replace them on the battlefield. Whereas medieval knights used to win jousts to earn the heart of a lady, now you just needed a good hit. According to sportswriter Ernie Harwell, “Americans, acting as muscle-bound cupids, often played simple grounders and easy outs into home runs so their Filipino friends could escape bachelorhood” (quoted in Elias 45).
Plot bunny! Keep in mind that Allie is an exceptional young woman, and she will not sell herself short. She will not require one run, but eight. And Ben won’t accept any help from the defense; he is going to do this the hard way. Hold onto your hats, folks!
Baseball arrived in the Philippines with Commodore George Dewey in May 1898. After sinking the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay and taking over Cavite Naval Base, the Olympia‘s team, the Diamond Diggers, played the first Army-Navy game on Philippine soil. I could not find out who won.
Though basketball proved a more popular sport amongst Filipinos in the long term, baseball is a fitting metaphor for the entire American occupation.
Let us be honest: American justifications for imperialism were racist right out of the gate. The Yanks claimed to be “benevolently assimilating” the Filipinos, and assimilation included sport. General Franklin Bell (of reconcentrado fame) claimed that “baseball had done more to civilize Filipinos than anything else,” and the Manila Times called it a “regenerating influence, or power for good” (quoted in Gems 112).
And colonial racism was not limited to Filipinos. The Americans mistreated their own, too, including the 24th and 25th Infantries, both African-American regiments. Jim Crow America came to Manila, including all-white barber shops and all-white baseball leagues. The 25th—who played for “Money, marbles, or chalk, money preferred”—got a small bit of revenge by winning the island championships for four years in a row.
If sport was to “civilize,” it had to be a part of the Thomasite educational program from the beginning. The teachers hoped that it would replace cockfighting, though that goal ultimately proved too ambitious. Still, baseball did catch on. One Thomasite reported: “We first got hold of the Jolo boys through baseball” (quoted in Elias 44). Because English was the language of the diamond, it was seen as a way to advance a holistic curriculum. Maybe it was too successful. According to public health commissioner, Victor Heiser:
…a group of yelling Igorots (mountain tribespeople) had been seen playing baseball in a remote clearing. The catcher wore only a G-string and mask, and the runner on first started for second amid cries of: “Slide, you son of a bitch, slide!”
Remember that public schools were started in the first place because “no measure would so quickly promote the pacification of the islands,” according to the colonial government’s 1903 Census. In other words, Americans wanted to rule with books, not Krags. (Not a bad inclination.) Baseball was another “weapon” in the search for peace. The Los Angeles Times claimed that “The American athletes will teach them that the bat is more powerful than the bolo” (quoted in Franks 17).
Baseball may have provided a more romantic substitution, as well. Local courtship tradition demanding that a prospective groom impress his bride’s family with a “scalp of their bitterest enemy,” but conveniently this new game provided an alternative: home runs. According to sportswriter Ernie Harwell, “Americans, acting as muscle-bound cupids, often played simple grounders and easy outs into home runs so their Filipino friends could escape bachelorhood” (quoted in Elias 45).
Fortunately, girls could play, too, following the Thomasite emphasis on coeducation—maybe the best thing the Americans brought to the Philippines, in my opinion. Both boys and girls in the Philippines still play to great success. Youth league world championships often feature Filipino teams as the representative champions of Asia, and sometimes they win the whole thing:
I will end with a little confession for you: I used to date a baseball player before Mr. Hallock came along, and I have a thing for men in striped pants. Therefore, adding a touch of sports romance to the upcoming Sugar Moon was both historically accurate and fun:
Allegra did not know the score, nor did she care. Most of the time she could not be bothered to exert herself, but she did have a sharp eye for talent, especially in one man. Shortstop Ben Potter needed only a few graceful steps to cover half the infield, like a ballet of baseball.
I hope you will enjoy it! Look for release news in the coming months.
(By the way, if you are looking for contemporary baseball romance with a small town American feel, please check out Jen Doyle’s Calling It series. It’s hot and cozy at the same time. As Jen’s tagline says, “Life is short. Read happy.”)
In Under the Sugar Sun, Javier lamented his cousin Allegra’s wild side. At colegio the nuns claimed that she:
…refused to observe silence at meals, faked illnesses to get out of classes, and had a scandalous habit of bathing nude—thankfully, alone. What really gave the sisters apoplexy, though, were Allegra’s secret excursions to play sipa. No matter how many times they confiscated her footbag, she could be found bouncing one off her bare heel the next day. When Javier declared that this was not a very ladylike pastime, she boasted that she could do over a hundred hits nonstop, and would he care to see?
In other words, while wearing a skirt, Allegra lifted her foot almost to hip height, exposing her thighs for several minutes at a time as she bounced an object on her foot in a Filipino version of hacky sack. (By the way, if you think Allegra will give up the pastime as she matures, you don’t have a real good grip on her character. And Javier will ultimately wish that sipa had been his greatest worry for his ward. In book two, Sugar Moon, she will fall for the very worst scoundrel possible—two, actually, though she’ll use one to make the other jealous. She does like mischief.)
In the case of sipa, though, Allegra is at least troublesome in a very patriotic way. “Sipa” or “kick” is a sport that predates the arrival of the Spanish. The earliest sources date to the 11th century in Southeast Asia and maybe all the way back to China’s legendary Emperor Huangdi in 2600 BCE! (The featured image is from a 19th century Japanese woodblock print, so clearly the game became regional though this version was played with a paddle.)
There are several ancient Moro legends that revolve around sipa. For example, storm gods were said to kick around fireball sipas, and they kicked them so hard that they flew horizontally across the sky (i.e. lightning). Another legend says that the son of the sun and moon fell to earth while playing sipa, igniting a battle over parental supervision that ended in a prehistoric separation, which is why the sun and moon no longer share the sky. Yet another legend tells of a hero bouncing a rattan ball on his foot for two hours straight without fault in order to charm a widow out of her mourning.
When the Americans arrived in 1898, sport became a critical part of their “benevolent assimilation” plans. Yet, while the sanctimonious Yankees did try to eliminate cockfighting (unsuccessfully), they appreciated—or, at least, tolerated—sipa. True, one American called it “a very light form of sport” that was only “suited to an anemic people” and could not compete with “the more stirring games of modern basketball and baseball.” (See post #14 on racism.) However, another American described sipa as “a form of civilized football.” He explained that it “consists of really kicking the wicker ball, rather than the heads, ribs, etc., of fellow players in the game, as is customary in more boastful centers of civilization.”
One constabulary officer pointed out that since Moros used to have slaves to do ordinary work, they spent most of their latent energy on war or sipa. The officer was especially impressed at “the seeming ease with which a man’s foot appeared to reach behind and to the level of the opposite shoulder blade.” Sipa was even described in the souvenir brochure to the Philippine exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St. Louis World’s Fair) in 1904. The Americans allowed prisoners to play the game in penal colonies—along with basketball, volleyball, and other redeeming pursuits.
Since the earliest time of sipa in the Philippines, there were many regional variations, both in gameplay and in kicking object. There is the community game, where a circle of people keep the object in the air. Or there is the challenge type, where you try to make the most kicks in a row (Allegra’s choice). Or the distance game, where you try to kick it the farthest.
One could use a shuttlecock made of a washer with paper or feather, and this type of fly could be bounced off feet or elbows or hands, depending on preference.
A woven rattan ball was used consistently in the Moro lands, which makes sense given the cultural link these areas had with their Malay neighbors. This ball is what is used today in the energetic off-shoot of sipa called sepak takraw—a gymnastic blend of volleyball, badminton, and soccer. The net was added sometime around the turn of the 20th century, and each country has its own claim to put to the invention. (In the Philippines, it is Teodoro Valencia who supposedly created this sipa lambatan in the 1940s.)
Proof of how ingrained this sport was in 20th century Philippine culture, overseas workers took the game with them, even to Alaska. Filipinos working in salmon canneries in the 1930s described playing sipa until ten at night, as long as the daylight lasted.
However, by the 1990s sipa was on the wane. In 2009 President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo dethroned it as the national sport in favor of arnis, a martial art whose popularity has spread even to my small town in New Hampshire. (Known also as eskrima, this Filipino fighting technique will make an appearance in Sugar Moon, too.)
Some folks blame technology for taking kids off the playground and away from their traditional sports, a trend I see happening in the United States, as well. But, as with America, I wonder if our organized sports culture is really to blame. Kids do not run out and play pickup games anymore. They play on teams with coaches, referees, and uniforms. Sipa was actually removed from the elementary division of the Palarong Pambansa (National Games) in 2014. Now even the little ones play “sepak takraw junior,” a modified version of the regional net game. Maybe there is more future in that sport—one can travel and compete throughout ASEAN—but with all this competition, are we losing sight of fun?
Missing sipa? Don’t worry. There’s an app for that. The first Filipino-designed app on iTunes and Android was—yep, you guessed it—SIPA: Street Hacky Sack. There’s terrible irony here, I know, but the app looks beautiful. It takes the user through a tour of cultural Manila and encourages the player to pick up virtual litter along the way. (Genius, that.) In the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” school of thought, the app is a winner. But I just can’t see Allegra playing it. Too tame.
Sundays and saints’ days were the only days when cockfighting was legal under the Spanish—and since it happens to be both (see term #12, Sinulog) as I write this, it is a good time to introduce the kristo, or all-around bookie and cashier. A kristo brokers bets by pointing at the two opposing parties, arms outstretched like Christ on the cross, hence kristo. Hand signals indicate the amount of the bet and other details. You had better know what you’re doing and be able to choose fast.
I don’t think I could—both because of my general indecisiveness, and because I have pet chickens now and have become squeamish about the whole enterprise. I know that many prizewinning cockerels in the Philippines are very well cared for birds. Until the fight itself, these birds live far better than their factory-farmed chicken nugget brothers in America. What can I say? My poultry ethics are convenient, not consistent.
Nevertheless, I do want to see a kristo in action. These men manage to keep track of dozens of bets in each fight, all in different amounts, all in quick succession, and without the use of a computer or even pen and paper. In fact, kristos in the early American period were often illiterate—which, if you think about it, makes sense. Literacy ruined memory. Our forefathers learned poems, songs, stories, histories, and religious revelations by rote, yet I can’t keep track of my grocery list without Google Keep on my Android.
Pathetic, the kristo says. Pathetic.
By the way, when the kill-joy Americans arrived, they tried to replace cockfighting with baseball. Though the great American pastime caught on—shout out to the Manila-based champions of the 2012 Big League Softball World Series—it never replaced cockfighting. (Creative commons featured photo by Adam Cohn.)