Nisei Baseball

“Pound for pound, the Nisei players were as good as the Major Leaguers. They ate, thought, and slept the game”.
-Al Beir, bat boy for Babe Ruth and
Lou Gehrig, on their Fresno barnstorming tour.

 Diamonds in the Rough - Japanese American Baseball Multi Media Travelling Exhibit

Japanese Americans have been playing baseball for one hundred years. As fanatic about the grand old game as any other Americans-perhaps more so than most-they played the game around pineapple and sugar-cane plantations in Hawaii, near grapevines and vineyards in California, deep in the forests of the Northwest, and out near the cornfields of middle America. Their passion spread through the inner cities and found expression on church playgrounds, on neighborhood sandlots, and in city parks.

For half a century they played largely on teams and semipro leagues of their own, for American society was not yet ready to welcome them. To the north were the Vancouver Asahi, and to the south the Tijuana Nippons. In the East were the Nebraska Nisei and to the West the Hawaiian Ashahi. All-star teams crossed the Pacific, journeying to Japan, Korea, and Manchuria to compete with the university squads and merchant teams. In the Roaring Twenties and the depression-wracked thirties, great Japanese American teams were competing at almost every level. They played Pacific Coast Leaague clubs and all-stars from the Negro Leagues. They shared fields with Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Tony Lazzeri, Lefty O'Doul, Joe DiMaggio, and many other stars.

Then came World War II and, and hope and optimism were replaced with undeserved shame, humiliation, and disgrace. Merely because of their race, Japanese Americans-alone among ethnic groups-were summarily relocated to detention camps in desert areas. Stripped of nearly all their possessions, treated as enemies-in-waiting by their adopted homeland, they mustered their dignity and determination-and played ball. Amid sagebrush and barren mountains, they cleared land for diamonds and built grandstands-and played ball.

After the war, Japanese Americans started over again, often in unfamiliar surroundings. They rebuilt their lives from scratch, assimilated into the mainstream as never before-and played ball. In reconstituted leagues, in colleges and universities, on integrated semipro teams, in Japan's professional leagues, and-at long last-in the minor and major leagues of organized baseball, they followed in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents-and played ball.

In an often-quoted statement, Jacques Barzun wrote, "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." He might have written, "the heart and mind of Japanese Americans." Baseball has been integral to the Japanese American experience. It provided more than a pastime, a way of escaping for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon from hard labor in the fields and cities. It helped to build community; it helped to nurture pride. It gave Japanese Americans something in common with neighbors who often wanted little to do with them; it gave them a way of becoming "American." But baseball also struck deep roots among Japanese Americans, just as it did among native Japanese from the time it was first introduced into Japan in the nineteenth century. And time and again baseball has been a bridge between these two great nations, Japan and the United States, a connection shared by two very diverse peoples. After World War II, when American soldiers occupied Japan, it was baseball that provided the means of healing the wounds of war.

The Nisei Baseball league has played a significant role in the history of American Baseball, interacted with some of the great heroes of the sport, and promoted this all-American sport internationally. The game of baseball has significant and historical meanings for the Japanese American community. Nisei (second generation Japanese-American) and Nikkei (Japanese-American) baseball history in many respects, parallels the development of American baseball.

Beginning in the early 1900’s,Japanese American baseball leagues began to spring up in towns and cities throughout Washington, Hawaii, California, and in the Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Nebraska. Despite the racism and discrimination experienced by Japanese-Americans during that time, on the baseball field that could feel equal to anyone else. These players played for the love of the game. They helped boost civic pride, bonded communities and created fellowship between and across the chalk lines. It was on these fields of dreams that Japanese American heroes were made and legends born.

Some of these players were the first Americans to play ball in Japan and they helped promote the game of baseball in that country. They were ambassadors and bridge builders not only internationally, but within their own communities.

These young men truly played for the love of the game. Discipline, teamwork, loyalty, humility in victory and dignity in defeat empowered them. There was no financial windfall from playing on a Nisei team; but monetary gains were not the goals for these great ballplayers; they simply wanted to compete and competitors they became.

They played on church teams, in city and county leagues, won regional and state championships within the Nisei League and dominated university teams in the United States, Japan, Korea, and China. Their world-class skills allowed them to play alongside professional baseball legends like Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson. The Nisei truly brought out the best in each other and those who opposed them. Their self-esteem, family and community pride were at stake and often fueled their driving passion for excellence.

Players, coaches and fans shared many special moments and afternoons of this social sport. Their incredible fellowship lasted on and off the fields from 1903 to 1972, and the legacy they created continues today in the fourth and fifth generations of Japanese Americans who continue to love and play the great American pastime.


The Genesis of Nikkei Baseball

While many Nisei considered baseball as all-American, it was their immigrant parents, the Issei, who transported the sport from Japan to their communities in the United States. The sport of baseball was first introduced to Japan in 1873 at Kasei Gakko (now Tokyo University) by an American teacher named Horace Wilson. This was only four years after America's first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Redlegs, took the field in 1869.

Wilson stressed the spiritual aspects of baseball, drawing parallels to Japanese deference to authority, teamwork, responsibility, discipline, honor, sportsmanship and conditioning. The game quickly spread throughout the country and became the most popular team sport in grade schools, high schools, and universities in Japan.

American Roots

The emergence of Japanese American baseball in California can be traced to 1903, the year of the first World Series. That year, the Fuji Club of San Francisco was organized; it included players Aratani, Natsui, and founder Chiura Obata, who was to become a prominent artist and art professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Between 1903 and 1915, a number of Japanese American teams formed in California, Colorado, Washington and Wyoming. These players were primarily immigrants (Issei) who had learned the game in Japan.

Nisei Teams

The Golden Era of the Japanese American Baseball League

The development of Nisei Baseball was highlighted by opportunities to play with established baseball stars and to travel across the States and world. For example, in 1927, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth went on a "barnstorming" tour through eight West Coast cities. Zenimura was on Gehrig's team that beat the Babe's 13-3

"The first time I got up, I got a single," Zenimura said, "I was very fast and took my usual big lead off first. Ruth glanced at me and said, 'Hey, son, aren't you taking too much of a lead?' I said no. He called for the pitcher to pick me off. The pitcher threw and I slid behind Ruth. He was looking around to tag me and I already was on the sack. I think this made him mad. He called for the ball again. This time he was blocking the base and he swung his arm around thinking I would slide the same way. But this time I slid through his legs, and he was looking behind. The fans cheered. Ruth said,'If you do that to me again, I'll pick you up and use you as a bat, you runt."

Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Fresno Nisei's in 1927

A photo of Ruth, Gehrig, Zenimura and several Nisei players appeared in the Japanese newspapers. Shortly after, Zenimura received a call asking if he could get Ruth to travel to Japan to play. Several years later, Ruth did travel to Japan and was a huge hit.

All-star teams consisting of Nisei players from Central and Northern California toured Japan, Korea, and Manchuria in 1937. Shig Tokumoto, a pitcher on the 1937 tour, recalled that they traveled by train and played teams along the coast from Pusan, Korea, to Port Arthur in Manchuria, and played them again on the return trip. The Nisei players accepted the hospitality of host families or roomed in hotels paid for by a sponsoring company. Despite a tour which lasted for six months, and the team playing sometimes three times a day, the Nisei team finished with an official 41-20-1 record.

In 1934, Harry "Tar" Shirachi, star pitcher of the Salinas Taiyo was a member of an all-star Nisei team that toured the American Midwest, playing against semi-pro teams and even the famous House of David team of the Negro Leagues. At a tournament in Wichita, Kansas, one of the pitchers was Negro League star and future Hall-of-Famer Satchel Paige. Shirachi, now 88, remembers that in the Midwest, Nisei caused a stir just by showing up. For many of the fans, it was the first time in their lives they ever saw a Japanese person and especially one who might speak English better than they did. Talent once again transcended the xenophobic attitudes, and as the Nisei displayed their athletic abilities, the tour and the diamond became an education both for the ballplayers and fans. By World War II, there were about 50 Nisei teams throughout California.

Diamonds in the Rough - Japanese American Baseball Multi Media Travelling Exhibit

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