William Tin Lai was born in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1895. His parents were Chinese immigrants who came to the islands along with more than 40,000 others from China during the late 1800s. Although most made the journey seeking work as contract laboroers, many remained in Hawaii and opened businesses after their contracts expired. “Buck” and his family were among those that stayed. A good student and exceptional athlete, he starred for his high-school track team as a long jumper and was a standout in Honolulu sandlot baseball .
At age 17, Buck joined a traveling baseball team called the Hawaiian Chinese University Nine, which barnstormed around America as something of a curiosity. While on tour, he met and married Isabel Reynolds and they settled in Audubon in Camden County. Buck worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad and continued to play semipro ball. In 1918, he was invited to try out for the Phillies, but was farmed out to Bridgeport of the Eastern League. He distinguished himself over the next four seasons as a solid utility infielder.
For most of the 1920s, Buck was a member of the New York Bushwicks, a semipro team that paid well and obviously did not consider him a "person of color." During this time he competed against several Hall of Famers in exhibition games, most notably Babe Ruth, with whom he was photogrpahed. Ruth signed the picture at their next meeting.
In 1928, Buck came to the attention of John McGraw, manager of the Giants. He invited Buck to Spring Training and he saw plenty of action—and appears to have traveled north with the club when the season began. At that time, major league clubs did not have to trim their rosters until May. The Giants played two official games in April before Buck's contract was sold to the Jersey City Skeeters. He played in four games for the Skeeters before deciding that a second go-roond in the minors was not for him. Buck continued to play semipro ball into his 40s. In 1935, he returned to Hawaii to form a barnstorming team of his own. He played his last games in the years prior to World War II.
The Lai sports legacy might have faded into obscurity were it not for Buck's son, Bill Jr. A talented athlete in his own right, he attended Long Island University and later became its Athletic Director after the legendary Clair Bee left to coach in the NBA. He authored a How-To book on baseball in 1954 under the name Buck Lai Jr. and also did some scouting on the side for the Brooklyn Dodgers. His father, meanwhile, settled into retirement, staying active and healty into his 80s before passing at age 83.
Was Buck Lai Sr. the first Chinese major leaguer? His name does not appear in any regular-season box scores or rosters from 1928. However, he defintiely wore the Giants uniform that spring and was most likely in the dugout and available for action on Opening Day.