Japanese American Baseball Steps Back Up to Plate
They took the field with such names as the Los Angeles Nippons, Seattle Asahis and Portland Mikados.
In the 1920s, ‘30s and early ‘40s, Japanese American amateur and semipro leagues thrived, producing a handful of players who seemed poised to make the move to the major leagues and change the face of the game forever.
Until the bombing of Pearl Harbor, that is.
Almost overnight, these teams vanished as their Japanese American players were interned in camps as enemy aliens or drafted into the army to prove their patriotism.
Now, like stars of the former Negro League, Japanese American players have only the tattered newspaper clippings and old photos to remind them of the days when even rural teams could pack the stands with 3,000 fans a game.
Pulling out a neatly pressed wool jersey embroidered with the words “Hood River Nisei,” Kay Kiyokawa, 77, recalled his first trip to the mound.
“The starter couldn’t get the ball over, so they inserted me as relief and ever since then I was the starting pitcher,” he said proudly.
Memories of these teams and their players are being revived in a traveling exhibit, “Diamonds in the Rough: Japanese Americans in Baseball,” which made a stop at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and is showing for three months in Portland.
Exhibit organizer Kerry Nakagawa said he got the idea while watching his young son play baseball in Fresno.
“I realized the fourth generation had no clue of the pioneering efforts and sacrifice their grandparents brought to the game. It is a hidden chapter in American history,” he said.
Early Japanese immigrants were no strangers to baseball. They brought a love for the game with them from Japan, where American schoolteacher Horace Wilson introduced it in 1872.
But their sons and daughters, the second generation--or Nisei--are the ones who played ball while their parents worked hard to make ends meet. In an era when Japanese Americans were often treated as second-class citizens, segregated teams were the rule, not the exception.
“When I would play Caucasian teams, they’d always have remarks about ‘Jap,’ ” said John Murakami, 79, who played for the Portland Mikados from 1936 to 1941. “And I tried to explain that I’m American, and they’d say, ‘Oh no, you’re a Jap.’ ”
When scouts came to watch a tournament game, they critiqued the players afterward, giving white players tips like throw farther, run faster and hit better.
“But when they came to me, they said, ‘You might as well forget it. Your people are never going to play professional baseball,’ ” Murakami said. “That really took the wind out of my sails.”
But baseball was a craze among the Japanese Americans that was hard to kill.
“They played baseball not to prove how American they were but to prove how competitive they were at the game and that they could compete at the highest level,” Nakagawa said.
And that they did. On a 1927 tour of Japan to play 50 games against Japanese opponents, a Nisei team from Fresno and the Negro League’s powerhouse Philadelphia Royal Giants both went undefeated.
When they met in Tokyo to play each other at the end of the tour, the Fresno Athletic Club pummeled the Royal Giants, 9-2.
Six years before Jackie Robinson shattered the color barrier in 1947 by being the first black to play in the major leagues, Henry Honda--a Nisei from San Jose--signed with the Cleveland Indians.
He was all set to pitch his first game and go down in history when Japan unleashed its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The contract was yanked out from under him.
“The war completely made it all come to a screeching halt,” Nakagawa said.
But even in internment camps, baseball played a critical role.
Ray Shiiki, 71, and his family were rounded up from their Gresham farm and herded off to the Minidoka camp in the badlands of Idaho. He credited baseball with helping him survive life behind barbed wire.
Playing infield on the camp team enabled him to stretch his legs and leave camp to play ball against white teams in the surrounding area. In 1944, they even won the championship. He said it was invaluable to boosting morale and self-esteem.
Other camps even had well developed leagues. At the Gila River Camp in Butte, Ariz., 32 teams played year-round. Women tore up mattress ticking to make uniforms and used flour instead of chalk to mark the batters’ box. Ironically, it was the U.S. victory in war that dealt a crushing defeat to the great American pastime in the Japanese American community.
After the war, Japanese Americans found themselves too busy rebuilding their lives to play games.
“We left everything on the farm, cars, trucks, the tractor. But it was all gone when we returned,” Shiiki said.
Nakagawa said a love of baseball is the forgotten legacy of Japanese Americans.
“When people think Nisei, they think an earth person, a farmer or a fisherman,” he said. “What I hope is that in the future, they will also think great baseball player.”