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Japanese American Players from Immigration and Internment to the Major Leagues
By SAMUEL O. REGALADO
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS
Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Chapter One Baseball in Nikkei America
Japanese American baseball served a meaningful socio-economic role and entertainment lifestyle for this closely knit ethnic group on the wrong side of the tracks.
Fred Oshima, Nichibei Shimbun
One by one they filed into the outfield of San Francisco's Candlestick Park. Some trotted, while others walked. Still others required assistance. And, apart from their friends and relatives in the seats, fans in attendance recognized none of the elderly men who were part of this pregame ceremony. Most had come to see Hideo Nomo, the thenLos Angeles Dodgers pitching sensation from Japan, who was scheduled to throw that day against the hometown Giants. But, the Nomo appearance notwithstanding, July 20, 1996, belonged to the men who stood in the center field grass wearing flannel pinstriped jerseys that bore the inscription "Nisei" across their chests. Though to the casual observer the uniform name portrayed that of a single team, in reality, if the clock could turn back, the uniform inscriptions would have more accurately read "Asahis," "Yamatos," and "Nippons," among several other names. Nearby, their families and old friends beamed while Kerry Yo Nakagawa, the event organizer whose own uncles had at one time competed against Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, announced the players' names over the stadium's public address system that echoed throughout the windswept park. "Kelly Matsumura, George Omachi, Shig Tokumoto" were among those whose names boomed in the cavernous stadium.
The ceremony held that day honored Japanese Americans from the Nisei (second-generation) era. Along with an entourage of some three thousand supporters, forty-nine players came together to share old friendships and memories and, for the moment, recapture the spirit that had embodied the game as they played it during the period of the 1930s and while incarcerated in the 1940s. Within the next two years, the Dodgers organization and the Oakland Athletics held similar events. Other testimonials also appeared. In 1997, the California legislature, whose predecessors were anything but kind to the Nisei during their prime years, voted unanimously in support of a resolution to permanently honor them with an exhibit in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. By February 1998, a temporary exhibit of artifacts from their baseball history made it into Cooperstown.
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The bestowal of honors was ironic in that most mainstream baseball followers knew little or next to nothing about the game that the ethnic Japanese in America, the Nikkei, once played. And these fans were not alone. In their works, scholars of the Japanese people in America, at best, only included passing references about the Nikkei affinity to baseball. And the same held true of those whose own expertise was, in fact, sports history. By the late 1990s, filmmakers, authors, and historians who had chronicled baseball's past through their books, movies, and academic symposiums gave emphasis to blacks, Latinos, and women. In the meantime, apart from the efforts of some Japanese Americans themselves, the history of Nikkei baseball went untouched. Ironically, even in its heyday in the early twentieth century, compared with the attention other ethnic-based leagues and ballplayers of color received, Nikkei baseball remained in the shadows. Rarely did any mainstream newspapers include even the box scores of games played in the Nikkei communities. And in an era of racial discrimination, Japanese American players ranked below blacks and Latinos, who, at the very least, established a presence in professional baseball.
Japanese American baseball, by contrast, was completely an amateur game. As such, its renown during their most prominent decades of competition was limited. Their invisibility, in fact, was such that when Japanese American players entered incarceration during the Second World War, some camp administrators were surprised to learn that the Nikkei understood and played baseball. Thus, from past generations to the present, only a handful of observers appreciated their contributions to the game, let alone knew that baseball had been part of the Nikkei community since 1903, when the first all-Japanese club formed in San Francisco.
Not surprisingly, from 1903 through 1941, mainstream Americans, even in the West, dealt very little with the Japanese in their midst. And those that did often held preconceived notions about Asians in general as a result of the nineteenth-century "yellow peril" crusades that were then aimed at the Chinese. As such, the negative connotations toward "Orientals" led to a slew of policies that state and local leaders mandated to deter opportunities for the newcomers from Japan. To be sure, the Japanese faced mounting perceptions during the 1920s and 1930s that were based more on stereotypes than built on truth. Their darkest days, of course, came after the December 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor. Wearing the face of the enemy, as many Americans believed, not only led to the then-popular and callous characterization that a "Jap was a Jap," but to their imprisonment into American concentration camps.
In reality, since the late nineteenth century the Nikkei were a small but vibrant group who, like so many other immigrants, had adopted America as their home. They peacefully raised their offspring and practiced time-honored American virtues of hard work and perseverance. And, of their activities, baseball, the most popular sport in their respective communities, was as familiar to them as it was to those outside their enclaves. The game, in fact, helped to shape their American identity, and the Nikkei used it to build global and cultural bridges on several fronts. The action on the field of play and its meaning to them beyond the foul lines factored into their daily routines in large urban centers and in distant rural communities. In short, baseball was unequivocally a part of the chemistry that supplied the heartbeat of their world.
In their history, Japanese Americans who played the game did so with zeal and passion in conditions that were often Spartan. Pickup trucks served as team buses and, in some locales, gravel pits were molded into makeshift fields. But the field of play and competition was only part of the story. Regional tournaments sparked patriotic fervor. And games even offered opportunities for potential courtship. Additionally, these men of Japanese descent and their supporters captured the true spirit of baseball's pastoral roots and helped to strengthen relationships in their regional communities. Sandlot games were magnets for neighborhood and ethnic cohesion. Traveling squads exchanged information about relatives and friends. And the games ignited a form of boosterism akin to that of American baseball's nineteenth-century past.
The significance of the game to the Nikkei increased after the February 19, 1942, announcement of Executive Order 9066, a policy that led to their incarceration. Unjustly interned, the competitive Japanese turned to baseball and other sports as a means to temper their dreary circumstances. Almost immediately, assembly center newsletters trumpeted a call for athletes; players enthusiastically responded. Schedules were arranged and requests for equipment routinely appeared in camp directors' administrative offices. And the same held true after Japanese Americans were relocated into each of the ten internment camps around the country. Residents transformed firebreaks into "stadiums" and built backstops from chicken wire, and the games themselves became the focal point for a people whose circumstances appeared, at times, to be intolerable and bleak. Without baseball, said one former internee, the camps "would have been maddening."
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Of course, baseball could not have been the important factor it was during internment had it not been strongly anchored in the world of the Nikkei to begin with. Throughout the history of their people in the United States, the national pastime resonated strongly among the Japanese from the time that its sojourners, the Issei, came to America to that of the Yonsei, the fourth generation. And, much more than a recreational activity, the game commanded respect as it grew to become part of their heritage. Baseball, as they organized and played it, also crossed geographical and generation boundaries. Rooted in the land of their forefathers, the Nikkei resurrected it in the American communities where they landed. "Their baseball" was metropolitan and rural and employed as a means to network with kin in other regions. Teams not only competed in many of the West Coast's largest cities, but they also crisscrossed the agricultural regions of California's inland valleys as well as the snow-capped peaks of the Cascades to take on opponents. These clubs galvanized communities and fostered relationships with others like themselves across the West. "A championship year," claimed writer David Mas Masumoto, "... solidified a sense of community."
Baseball, many hoped, would help to demonstrate their "Americanism" to the mainstream. While their Meiji forefathers viewed the game as a symbol of global competition against, among others, the Americans, the Nikkei saw it as game to help better define themselves simply as "Americans." Thus, not surprisingly, the Japanese American press in all locales always found room in their columns to relate American values and principles with the national pastime and to hammer home the point that they were one and the same. To that end, the press promoted and sponsored Fourth of July tournaments throughout their world and demonstrated their Americanism with patriotic gestures and good, competitive baseball.
Japanese American baseball, on the North American continent, was most active and in its largest scale on America's West Coast. Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles all housed the largest population of Japanese Americans. And cities like Sacramento, Stockton, Portland, and Fresno, too, had sizable Nikkei enclaves. In between these larger municipalities, dozens of smaller communities like Walnut Grove, Guadelupe, Monterey, Livingston, Hood River, Salem, and Wapato, among so many others, proudly displayed their own teams. Of course, rivalries grew from their regional identities and provided incentive for many in the small communities to better their urban opponents on the field of play. Often dubbed "yokels" by their haughty urbanite brethren, the rural Japanese generously pooled their assets so that they could travel to larger cities to teach their citified opponents a lesson. Baseball was just as important to the Japanese in Hawaii, as well. Indeed, the roots of the game predated that of the game's Nikkei origins on the mainland and developed at a faster pace.
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Nikkei baseball on the mainland was largely a segregated game. Though a number of early clubs did "cross over" and compete against non-Japanese teams, given the anti-Asian sentiments of the early twentieth century, they only did so because there was then not enough of their own kind to form exclusive leagues. However, as their numbers increased, by the mid-1920s more and more leagues made up entirely of Nikkei players started to appear. Also, many played the games in ball-parks built to house only Nisei players and their entourage. Japanese American baseball was, to a degree, a microcosm of the dilemma they faced during their overall North American experience. Their attempts to assimilate usually fell under extreme scrutiny or outright defiance from mainstream nativists. As well, federal and state laws were contrived to frustrate the Japanese and encourage them to go "home." Beyond their communities, their economic opportunities were few and far between. Discrimination, thus, was no stranger to the Japanese in America, and their baseball activities were, to an extent, a reflection of their discomfort with the attitudes they experienced beyond their world.
On the other hand, their leagues were a safety net from the outside and allowed them to demonstrate their cultural traits before an audience of their own. And cultural identity was important to them. Team names, such as "Asahi" or "Yamato," were an expression of heritage. However, rarely did the Nisei use such names when they played in municipal city leagues, opting instead for such titles as "Giants," "Dodgers," or other American labels. The teams, thus, were a reflection of the players' upbringing and the community, as a whole. Those who attended Buddhist or Christian churches, operated local Japanese businesses, taught at the gakueans, or cultural language schools, all at one time or another frequented or participated in the games. Some ball diamonds were even on church grounds. And group elders, too, were part of the baseball environment. Many who were born in Japan encouraged cultural activities as a means to maintain old folkways and included the American national pastime in their menu. Baseball, in their eyes, bridged the traits of their traditional customs to those of the newer society of which they and their children belonged. In short, they saw in baseball an instrument of the past that held components applicable for the futurea "bridge," of sorts, between cultures and generations. "Baseball," said writer Wayne Maeda of the Issei and Nisei connections with the game, "allowed each generation to interpret the meaning of the sport."
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Nikkei Baseball is about the game's relationship to the Japanese American community. The focus, therefore, is on why the game was important in the construction of their identity. Their transition from being social outcasts at the outset of their presence in America to a position of respect nearly a century later was a step-by-step process or, to put it another way, taken "one base at a time." And the national pastime had a hand in this process. Its impact in their world was not mutually exclusive from such key historical factors as the Meji modernization policies, American anti-Asian sentiments, and the internment of the Japanese during World War Two, or the postwar transition, economic and educational opportunities in the 1960s, and the rise of the "Asian American" identity. Baseball had a presence and played a role in all of the aforementioned events and, as such, is a window from which one may understand and analyze Japanese history in the United States. Finally, Nikkei Baseball largely observes the game as they played it along the Pacific Coast states. In that region Japanese Americans competed in the community's largest geographic scale, and it is where they faced their greatest challenges as a people.
As to the game itself, as seen in the number of leagues that spanned the West, baseball drew the highest level of attention and competition. The game linked generations, and was a mechanism for ethnic solidarity and support and an athletic activity by which Nisei ballplayers could reasonably compete, with some success, against Caucasian clubs. Promoters of baseball saw it as an example of patriotic values. Plus, the Japanese American press featured and marketed the national pastime with zeal.
The Nikkei game on the West Coast also provided more documentation from which scholars of sport and popular culture could best probe the impact of the national pastime. As opposed to the professional game, Japanese Americans did not play for profit. They voluntarily spent their Sundays on the ball diamonds, and aficionados freely surrendered their sometimes-meager funds in support of the baseball competition. Even incarceration during the Second World War did not deter the passion they held for the game, and they continued to play it behind barbed wire. The Nikkei players were also among the first to practice globalism. Long before professionals from the United States engaged in baseball exchanges with their Japanese counterparts, Issei like Frank Fukuda organized goodwill baseball trips that date back to the 1920s. And, well in advance of the time when Japanese players like Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners stepped into the batter's box of Major League games, Japanese Americans players like Kenichi Zenimura and Johnny Nakagawa competed against players from both sides of the Pacific. One Nisei, Wally Yonamine, who played professional baseball in Japan, even made it into that nation's baseball hall of fame. But rarely was any of this touted outside their circles. In step with the modesty that came with their cultural conditioning, Nikkei players rarely bragged about their kudos as ballplayers to those outside their enclaves. And not until the mid- to late nineties did their accounts find an audience to take them seriously. However, as players like Lenn Sakata, Don Wakamatsu, and Kurt Suzuki, among others, appeared on Major League rosters by the end of the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, the Nikkei visibility in baseball increased. Of course, the great success of Japanese nationals like Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki, and Hideki Matsui accelerated attention to all players with Asian features. As such, while the public identified them as a whole, it also clouded the fact that a core of these players carried with them a heritage that had a distinct American background and whose forefathers played the national pastime for a community with a past grounded in courage, tenacity, and tears.
Excerpted from Nikkei Baseball by SAMUEL O. REGALADO Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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