NBRP Tour to Japan

A Hall of Fame Affair at the Tokyo Dome

 

November 3, 1999 Today in Japan it was a national holiday celebrating the Emperor’s birthday and renamed as Cultural Day. The streets of Tokyo were very quiet as our motor coach of Nisei Baseball Pioneers approached the majestic Tokyo Dome. Inside the ‘Big Egg,was Japan’s mecca of baseball museums, the Japan Hall of Fame. As we entered the museum, secret service agents surrounded the perimeter of the Hall of Fame Gallery. The room was packed to the capacity and the noise and energy level was deafening. Looking down from the walls, were the bronze immortal faces of Japan’s professional baseball legends.

Japan Hall of Famers
Enshrined were three American Nisei ballplayers. Tadashi Henry ‘Bozo’ Wakabayashi was a legendary pitcher from Hawaii and a veteran of the Hanshin Tigers. Hisashi Koshimoto, was prewar manager of the 1910 Keio University Baseball Club, and in physical presence with his son and grandson’s, Wally Yonamine of the Tokyo Giants. Wally was drafted straight out of high school to play for the 49er’s in 1947. The following year he signed with the San Francisco Seals. He encountered many hardships crossing over as a ‘foreigner’ and opened the bridge for many future Americans to succeed in Japan. As I introduced Wally to our Pioneers, one of the players, George ‘Tak’ ‘Beanball ‘Abo remembered playing against Wally when he visited Fresno. “He was a great athlete, big and fast for a Nisei. He could have been a good major league player,” said Abo, a four year journeyman pitcher for Fresno State in 1946.

Diplomatic Bridge
A sea of bodies parted as the former Speaker of the House and now Ambassador to the United States, Thomas S. Foley took his seat. The Commissioner of Professional baseball in Japan, Hiromori Kawashima welcomed the honored guests, officials, media, friends, and especially the pioneering 14 Nisei ballplayers. Ambassador Foley said, “Thanks to the pioneering efforts of these players present and in spirit who are commemorated in this exhibition, they have helped to bring our two great nations closer together through sports.”
President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, Glen S. Fukushima pointed out that “contributions in such areas as agriculture, business, politics, law, academia, journalism and sometimes entertainment are well covered, but rarely has there been attention given to Japanese American contributions to the profession of sports. Thanks to this marvelous exhibition to Japan, it will contribute to even closer cooperative ties between our two great countries.”

What an extreme honor it was to have the Ambassador of America acknowledge our exhibit as much more than a sport. It is a dynamic focused on diplomacy, culture, history and a proud 100 year legacy. This year earmarked the 40th anniversary of the Japan Hall of Fame and Museum.

All the ballplayers were suited up in their Upper Deck jackets, caps looking and feeling very athletic again thanks to Mayumi and Jack Sakazaki of JSM in Tokyo. The last time Tar Shirachi was playing baseball in Japan, it was 1928. Tar shared some of his wisdom with us that he has accumulated for 92 years. He was on the 1928 tour with the Stockton Yamatos. On their way to Japan, they picked up an outstanding pitcher from Hawaii, future Japan Hall of Famer, Bozo Wakabayashi. He said, “Your body will change in the years to come and grow old...but if you keep your heart young, you will stay young .” Some of the other ballplayers giving interviews was 4’ 10” Kay Kiyokawa from Hood River, Oregon. He was the starting pitcher for Oregon State and took advantage of a Quaker sponsored program that enabled him to play baseball and football at the University of Connecticut. Dr. Tak Susuki of the Ventura Merchants competed against Babe Ruth’s Universal All-Stars in 1931. He was a member of the 442/552 regimental combat team that liberated the German Death Camp, Dachau, while his own family was behind barbed wire in America. Every player had their own unique and compelling history.

Nisei Pioneer, Tar Shirachi, Hall of Famer, Wally Yonamine and Baseball Commissioner, Hiromori Kawashima officially cut the symbolic ribbon to open our exhibit: Diamonds in the Rough: Japanese Americans in Baseball. It was a sparkling and perfect cultural gift we were sharing with the people of Japan and especially to the Emperor, on his birthday.

These wonderful moments transpired because of the efforts and support of the Japan Hall of Fame and Museum, Wally Yonamine Family, NBRP, NJAHS, Major League Sponsors: George and Sakaye Aratani and the countless individuals both here in the U.S. and Japan.

One last thought, Jeff Kusamoto of the Japan J.A.C.L. that hosted our post ceremonial reception said, “Some of the visitors that came to the exhibit were the children from Tule Lake’s Camp. Their parents repatriated back to Japan during and after the war, and they never came back to the United States. But now because of the exhibit, these elderly ballplayers are reconnecting with this past experience of playing baseball at Tule Lake. It was a very happy remembrance of America for them.”

Nisei Ballplayers at the Opening Ceremonies in Japan

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