NISEI BASEBALL

DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH

Bridge Across the Pacific


NISEI BASEBALL: DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH is a dynamic and compelling look into the cultural and social legacy of an inspiring organization that has been obscured from public knowledge for almost 75 years. Only the inner circle of Japanese-Americans that have shared the community insight of the teams and players can appreciate their tremendous impact on the San Joaquin Valley, California, neighboring states and Asia.

On May 4, 1869, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, America's first professional baseball team took to the field. This launched the beginning of America's favorite pastime. Fifty-three years later in Fresno, California, the 1922 Fresno Athletic Team comprised of all Japanese-Americans organized a team of Nisei all-stars (second generation American born Japanese.) Although considered a social sport in the United States, baseball was an integral link to the Japanese-American culture. During its unrivaled history, the Nisei organization prevailed despite a great depression, two World Wars, internment, resettlement, community politics and different fads and trends.

This team 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 the Nisei team, but monetary gains were not goals for these great ball players; they simply wanted to compete and competitors they became. They played on church teams, city and county leagues, won regional and state championships within the Nisei league and dominated Universities in the U.S., Japan, Korea and China. Their world-class skills allowed them to oppose and play alongside professional baseball legends. The Nisei's 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 1922 to 1972.

Baseball was first introduced to Japan in 1873 at Kaisei Gakko (now Tokyo University) under the instruction of an American teacher named Horace Wilson. He stressed to his elite students the importance of the spiritual aspect of the baseball game. Baseball quickly spread throughout the country and became the most popular team sport in grade schools, high schools and Universities.

There are distinct similarities between the Samurai warrior and the Nisei ballplayer. Bushido, the ethical code of the Samurai, was submissive to authority, had reverence for the past and respect for the history of it's culture. Likewise, baseball shared the very same fundamental principles. Repetition, courage, sense of responsibility for great tradition and honor in the treatment of the game and fellow teammates are a few parallels.

The Issei (first generation Japan born) brought with them to America the Bushido spirit that would apply to their work ethics and lifestyle as primarily warriors of the earth. They excelled in farming and agriculture. Their assimilation in America brought great hardships, sacrifice and a pioneering spirit indicative of the new immigrants. New subcultured generations such as the Kibei (U.S. born, but educated in Japan) and the Nisei sprouted. However, great tension and misunderstanding between the Issei and the Nisei developed because the work ethics were so diligent and time consuming. Rising before dawn and working till sunset seven days a week left little time for family bonding and leisurely outings.

Baseball served as a "bridge" between the Issei and Nisei. It was easily accepted and comfortable for the Issei because of its popularity in Japan. Many Issei introduced the game to their peers in Sunday School as a fun and social sport that was gender less. Boys and girls participated and competed together and also formed teams. The girl's team in Fresno California was called Lumbini (named after the Buddha's Lumbini Garden.) They played and competed with other churches in the Valley. The Issei's acceptance of this social sport was in direct relationship to the unity of their children playing alongside other Nisei kids.

A close knit community was essential in the 20's through the 50's. It was the primal protection of numbers that cemented their faith, relationships and family. Church and ball park (not necessarily in that order) were strong symbols of their faith. They quietly expressed and pledged their love for God, Buddha, Jesus or whomever their faith worshiped under the churches roof. In the ball park bleachers, the Issei expressed themselves in ways that were atypical of their reserved and non-verbal mannerism. On these hallowed grounds, the Nisei could in fact feel the love of their parents cheering them on to victory. Where else could Issei go to express their support, love and demonstrate verbally their passion by hollering, heckling, screaming, shouting and on some occasions betting with their friends? They could experience that parental pride amongst the crowd. Elation, suspense, disappointment, excitement, success and failure could all be felt in one afternoon. This is exactly why baseball became the all-time favorite with them. All genders could participate and once organized teams were formed, the Issei became a league of their own. Many Issei would look to game days as B.B.C. Day&emdash;short for "baseball crazy." This seemed to shed new light on the complex and multiple ways in which an immigrant community adapted and contributed towards the larger society.

Kenichi Zenimura, the "Father of the California baseball league," the "Dean of Nisei baseball," and founder of Fresno's central California team began his reign in 1920. His journey could include 55 years of competitive baseball and his team would attain state and national recognition. College teams such as Stanford, UCLA and USC were routinely beaten in exhibition play. Internationally, he organized three and six month tours in 1924, 1927, and 1937 to Japan, Korea and Manchuria, China. These goodwill all stars would compete in exhibition play usually dominating team victories. His sons would go on to play professionally for Japan's Hiroshima Carps. Fibber Hirayama, another Fresno Nisei graduate would join them later. He played 10 years with the Carps and is still involved with player development to this day. When Kenichi was ready to pass on his coaching duties, he chose George Omachi, a former player and major league caliber coach. His experience included working with the St. Louis Browns organization after the war. Today, George is working with player development with the Houston Astros organization.

Kenichi Zenimura's passion and expertise of the game was outstanding, but his visionary skills during the hysteria and xenophobic times of relocation, internment and resettlement of Japanese-Americans transcends belief. WWII hysteria brought 5,000 internees to the animal stalls at the the Fresno fairgrounds. Weeks later a baseball stadium was constructed under Zenimura's supervision. Six months later, his family was moved to the desert wastelands of Gila River, Arizona. Once again, this field general of block 28 began designing, organizing and constructing Zenimura Stadium. Once completed, this stadium had cement dugouts, bleachers, a grass infield, an outfield and a home run fence complete with castor beans that hung like in Wrigley field in Chicago. Amid the desert wasteland and desolate vastness of sand and sagebrush rose a masterpiece field of dreams. (which still stands today on an Indian reservation.) Funding for most expenses incurred by the Nisei baseball team came via community. The best bleacher seats were purchased at premium prices. Money was also raised by passing the hat after games, raffles and donations from the B.B.C. Isseis who were known to engage in betting on two divisions of 28 teams just in Gila River alone. The Issei's funded bus trips from Gila River to play camp teams in Heart Mountain, Wyoming and also Poston, Arizona. Baseball during internment transformed these so termed "enemy aliens" into traveling goodwill ambassadors.

Baseball behind barbed wire brought a sense of normalcy, created a social and positive atmosphere, encouraged physical conditioning, kept the self-esteem variable alive despite the harsh conditions of desert life and unconstitutional incarceration. The civic pride and dignity which was fostered within many communities who had organized teams helped the Issei and Nisei survive this ordeal. Internees young and old demonstrated that the best possible testimony to the greatness of this country can be found in the loyalty, love and sacrifice that she inspired within her people. The Nisei baseball organization through its positive identity and image helped nurse the deep wounds of the barbed wire. George Omachi is quoted as saying, "the baseball experience was one of those elements that allowed me to develop as a person and an individual, plus it gave me opportunities."

 

Presently, baseball has lost significant values because of changes in our society. Money, greed and a loss of moral vision are negative lessons for our youth. Nisei baseball looks back at a time when the spirit of competition, honor, community and positive values had profound meaning. The historical significance of these pioneers will help to analyze, encourage and engage dialogue between audience and scholars on many levels of importance historically, philosophically and spiritually. Issei-Nisei relationships, baseball and the Japanese-American culture, baseball behind barbed wire, social sport vs. professional aspirations, Japanese-Americans in future professional sports can serve as examples of subject matter that will stimulate questions and help in defining where we have been, where we are now and the course of our future as the Sanseis, Yonseis and Goseis receive the torch from their ancestors.

If we were to use a schematic drawing to dissect a Nisei baseball, we would find that the center epitomizes the core members and pioneers of the Nisei organization. The fiber and strings represent the communities that tie their identity, loyalties and culture around the core founders. The leather skin represents the mental toughness developed by the Issei and Nisei needed to endure the arrival to the mainland and the battle of relocation, internment and resettlement during WWII. The stitching finally bonds the Issei and Nisei together and seals these wonderful family spirits for the future generations.

This symbolic Nisei baseball is now being passed on with the knowledge, history and pride of their ancestors which will hone and polish their skills and desire. These new generations of Japanese-Americans wear the colors of discipline, courage, determination and sportsmanship which will sparkle on and off the fields. The love and passion they possess for baseball will truly make them "DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH."

Return to NBRP Home Page