NISEI: The Early Japanese-American Ballplayersby Charlie Vascalleros
It seems like everybody has a story about grandfather, an uncle or some other distant relative that almost made it to the big leagues." Old photographs might reveal time spent on a major league diamond, family albums may even contain newspaper clippings of box scores from minor league or exhibition games with familiar names of big leaguers along side that of their family member. But how many can claim to have an uncle at played with Lou Gehrig on a team that beat Babe Ruth?
Hanging on the wall of his childhood home in Fowler, California was a family photo of Kerry Nakagawa's uncle Johnny and other Japanese-American ball players posing with both Ruth and Gehrig during a 1927 exhibition game in Fresno, California. The elder Nakagawa was a slugger known as the "Nisei (second generation Japanese American) Babe Ruth" during his playing days in the Japanese American baseball leagues and member of the Fresno Nisei all stars.
"I always used to marvel at it as a kid," says Nakagawa. "How many kids could say their uncle played with Babe Ruth?" Nakagawa goes on to explain that his uncle Johnny played for Gehrig's Larrapin Lou's team along with three other Nisei all star against Ruth's Bustin' Babes club that also had other major leaguers on its roster.
"That for me is the greatest part about baseball, the universality of it," says Nakagawa.
Years later the historic photograph would provide the impetus for the birth of the Nisei Baseball Research Project of which Nakagawa is now the director.
"It really had its start on a Little League field," says Nakagawa. "I was coaching son's 10-year-old all-star team in 94, and Kenichi Zenimura's (commonly known as the "Father of Japanese Baseball") great-grandson was also on the team and I realized that two generations had passed since a Nakagawa and Zenimura were on the same baseball field together." Nakagawa also realized this tpart of family history had been lost on his son Kale as well as Brandon Zenimura, the great grandson of a Nisei baseball legend.
By May 4, 1996 Nakagawa created the first "Diamonds in the Rough: Japanese Americans in Baseball" exhibit. His friend Howard Zeniumura dug up more historic photographs of Nisei legends and exhibit has continued to grow in depth and scope, with the assistance of the National Japanese American Historical Society, touring from Fresno to the Arizona State Hall of Fame Museum and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, where it was housed along side of the African American and Women's league exhibits from February through April of 1998.
Nakagawa's initial inquiries into his study of Japanese baseball revealed a lengthy history of involvement in America's national pastime dating as far back as the 1870s.
"I first started researching the Fresno Athletic club that my uncle played with. Imagine playing for the championship at Meiji Stadium in Japan in 1927 against an African American all-star team. I found newspaper clippings and box scores about my uncle," says Nakagawa. Later he met with a Japanese author named Kazuo Sayama, who sent him portions of clippings from Japanese encyclopedias about the origins of baseball in Japan.
"This was a missing chapter, a hidden legacy until a couple of years ago," says Nakagawa.
While baseball has long been acknowledged as a vehicle of cultural assimilation for waves of immigrants seeking acceptance in America, baseball has played a significant role back home for the Japanese in their own country.
Baseball was first introduced to Japan in 1872 by an American school teacher named Horace Wilson who was teaching English to Japanese children.
"He wanted to introduce baseball to them from a spiritual aspect, and introduce the team ethic," says Nakagawa. "At the time Japan was only into individual sports like kendo, judo and sumo. It caught on like wildfire and spread to high schools and universities."
By the turn of the century the game had become Japan's most popular sport. In 1905, Japan's national champion Waseda University team toured the United States competing against American Universities. Despite a 7-19 record against the American schools the games played to large crowds and served as vehicles towards improved international relations. In years to follow, more Japanese university teams conducted similar tours.
While baseball was already booming in Japan, the first American team comprised of Japanese immigrants got its start in 1899 when the Excelsiors ballclub was formed in Hawaii. The Fuji Club of San Francisco became the first Issei (first generation Japanese immigrant) team on the mainland in 1903. American cities with large Japanese populations like Seattle, Los Angeles and Honolulu also had teams by 1905.
At the same time, anti-Japanese movements were on the rise in cities like San Francisco, where The Asiatic Exclusion League was formed in 1905.
In a recent symposium held at the Arizona Hall of Fame Museum, "Diamonds in the Rough," project coordinator Gary Otake made reference to numerous examples of racist legislation passed against Japanese American citizens just after the turn of the century. He added that baseball provided relief from such turbulence and a way for young Japanese Americans to develop pride and self esteem.
"The community coming together and cooperating, for me, is the essence of Nisei Baseball," Otake said. "Baseball was also a passion shared by different generations. Baseball brought Japanese people into the mainstream, but ironically also built bridges back to Japan."
In 1914, the Asahi club from Seattle became the first Nisei baseball team to tour Japan. Teams from California and Hawaii continued this tradition through the 1930's.
The 1920's and 1930's constituted the "Golden Era" of Nisei Baseball. During this time, many Japanese American communities from San Diego to Seattle, San Jose and Salt Lake City had baseball teams and leagues. Unfortunately, at the same time more anti-Japanese legislation was passed. In I 922 the Supreme Court declared Asian immigrants were ineligible to become naturalized U. S. citizens on the basis of race. In 1924 the Immigration Act was signed into law, effectively ending Japanese immigration into the U.S.
All the while, baseball helped hold Japanese American communities together. Fans came out in droves to watch teams from big cities and small towns alike. Former sports writer Fred Oshima said, "Japanese American baseball served a meaningful socioeconomic role and entertainment lifestyle for this closely knit ethnic group on the wrong side of the tracks."
Baseball continued to play a significant role in the development of cultural identity for Japanese American communities throughout the '30s, but all of that was to change when the bombing of Pearl Harbor rocked Japanese/American relations.
In 1942 President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, initiating the mass removal and incarceration of 120000 Japanese Americans and others into 10 detention camps across the country.
Forcibly removed from their homes, entire Japanese American populations, the vast majority of which were American citizens, scrambled to sell off cars, furniture and any other large possessions, taking with them money and whatever else they could carry.
The Livingston Dodgers, interned at Amache, Colorado
Upon arrival at the internment camps, detainees found themselves surrounded by barbed wire on barren lands where they lived in rows of military style barracks. The days became long, boring and devoid of meaning.
In the face of such adversity, it didn't take long for camp internees to turn to baseball as an escape from their circumstances. Daily baseball games provided a much-needed diversion from the monotony of camp life and like everywhere else, gave added meaning to time. Before long, teams and entire leagues were formed inside the camps, with as many as 32 teams playing at two or three different levels of play. Baseball had been a vital part of their existence in the outside world.
At the time of his internment, Kenichi Zenimura was already considered the "Dean of the Diamond,'' in Japanese American baseball circles. A 5-foot, 105 pound catcher, when Zenimura emigrated to Hawaii he became enamored of baseball, developing a life long passion for the game. He formed the Fresno Athletic Club team that Kerry Nakagawa's uncle Johnny played on. As a player and coach he took Japanese American teams on tours to Japan in 1924, 1927 and 1937
In 1942, Zenimura's family was sent to live in horse stalls at the Fresno fairgrounds. Within weeks, under his guidance and instruction, a ballpark was built and two leagues consisting of 14 teams began playing on an almost daily basis, "Every time my dad went someplace, if there was no baseball park he'd make one," said Kenichi's son, Howard Zenimura.
After six months at Fresno, Zenimura and his family were relocated to the Gila River Internment Camp in the barren desert community of Butte, Arizona. It was here that Zenimura built his Field of Dreams. Extreme desert heat and intense sunlight made for near impossible conditions under which to create a typical baseball field of green.
Recruiting volunteers to build the field, through creativity, imagination and dogged determination, Zenimura pieced together his third and final ballpark. It would also be his masterpiece. He tapped into a water line outside the barracks and channeled its flow 300 feet outside of the barbed wire fence the camp was contained in to water the Bermuda grass seed that would become the outfield. An irrigation ditch was carved from this main line to water castor bean shrubs that would grow more than eight feet tall and become the outfield fence. Zenimura's son Howard says the fortunate location of the block's 28 barracks was also of significant assistance. "We could cross over the fence to find scrap lumber, and we pulled up every other 4 x 6 wooden pole that anchored the barbed wire fence to build the backstop and grandstand," recalls Zenimura. "We sifted the rocks out of the infield dirt by hand, it took a long time. " When the field was complete Zenimura sold box seats to benefactors and further donations were put into coffee cans at the gate. The money was used to buy equipment and uniforms, and before long huge crowds would gather to watch games played by 32 teams in three organized divisions.
Actor Pat Morita ("The Karate Kid") was also interned at Gila River and remember when Zenimura built his field. "I remember this little old man out there every day watering the infield," Morita said. "One of the great sounds of joy for me was the sound of baseball."
"For Japanese Americans interned during World War II, playing, watching and supporting baseball inside of America's concentration camps brought a sense o normalcy to very 'abnormal' lives and created a social and positive atmosphere," says project director Kerry Nakagawa. "Japanese Americans kept the national pastime alive, even behind barbed wire. In their world, life brought a desert... and they built 'Diamonds in the Rough.'"
While Nisei baseball continued through the '50s, '60s and '70s, the end of World Was II forever changed the complexion of Japanese American baseball. Whereas prior to the War, baseball played an extremely significant function for immigrants (the Issei were far more passionate baseball fans than following generations) the end of the war brought opportunities previously denied to the Japanese American community, and the social need for baseball was diminished. This does not mean that Japanese Americans had abandoned the game entirely. Players like "Fibber" Hirayama, a standout outfielder at Fresno State, where he still holds several records, and later a star for the Hiroshima Carp of the Japanese Baseball League, continued to excel at the great game. In 1977 Kalani High School alumnus Len Sakata became the first Japanese American position player in the big leagues, platooning at second base for the Brewers. Completing the circle, a new wave of Japanese ballplayers is making its presence known in the major leagues with the arrival of Hideo Nomo to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995.
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