From internment to hope

Ariz. honors Japanese baseball player held at Gila River

Ty Young
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 10, 2005

Two years ago, Bill Staples was researching three seemingly unrelated interests - baseball, Buddhism and the Gila River Indian Community - when he stumbled upon a common thread.

It began with a single name, Kenichiro Zenimura, a practicing Buddhist and Japanese-American baseball player interned at the Gila River Relocation Center during World War II.

The Chandler man's simple Internet search soon evolved into a personal journey through baseball history and its link to a dark chapter in American history. Today, on the 60th anniversary of the closure of Arizona's Japanese internment camps, Staples has convinced a governor and a Valley city to recognize a key figure in the story.

Many baseball historians consider Zenimura to be the father of Japanese baseball. Before he and 120,000 other Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to relocation camps during the war, Zenimura played alongside future Hall of Famers such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. He organized games between his Japanese-American league players and White major leaguers of the day, who traveled the country playing off-season exhibition games.

Everything changed in 1942 when Zenimura was sent from California to the Arizona internment camp, where the Japanese were forced to farm and build the camp infrastructure.

It was here Zenimura transformed a desolate patch of land outside the barracks into a 6,000-seat baseball stadium, built of repurposed wood from camp fences and shacks. As Staples learned more about Zenimura and the stadium, he made it a mission to show the world how one man's idea and America's pastime gave more than 14,000 interned Japanese-Americans and their reluctant Native American hosts an outlet from war, oppression and confinement.

Through Staples' efforts, Gov. Janet Napolitano has proclaimed today Kenichiro Zenimura Day in Arizona.

"If you think about the relocation camps, it was a loss for the 120,000 nationwide who lost their freedom, but it was also a loss for the country as a whole," Staples said. "I feel like he's a kindred spirit. He struck me as being an important figure in baseball history, in American history and, of course, Arizona history."

Diamond in the rough
On the Gila River Reservation, 20 miles south of Phoenix, Mas Inoshita of Glendale stands atop the ruins of the kitchen barracks where he and other camp residents ate.

Leaning on a rusty water spigot protruding waist-high from the ground, the 85-year-old points to a grove of olive trees nearby.

"That is where the stadium was built," he said. "That is where Zenimura and his boys climbed under the barbed wire to make their stadium."

Inoshita remembers Zenimura, his two teenaged sons, Howard and Harvey, and the scores of others who snuck under the fence to work on the field. The massive structure was built from broken fence posts and heavy blankets used for curing concrete. Inoshita said Zenimura and his crew also took wood from the camp lumberyard, buried it for weeks, then retrieved it after it was no longer missed.

"I remember the camp director bringing Zenimura in and asking about the wood," Inoshita said. "He just said he didn't know where it went."

Howard Zenimura, 78, was a teenager when he helped build the stadium. He remembers sliding under the fence every day to divert water from an irrigation canal. He also recalls how baseball brought a sense of community to a confused population, most of whom were relocated from California and other western states.

"If we didn't play baseball, we'd probably be juvenile delinquents," he said with a laugh. "From the point we started to the point we left the camp, we were always working on it."

Over the next two years, the baseball stadium would change from a clandestine project into an accepted part of the camp infrastructure.

The Gila connection
Mary Thomas, lieutenant governor of Gila River Indian Community, recalls watching some of the games played at the stadium. As a young child living on the reservation, she and her family joined the interned citizens.

The stadium served as a community center of sorts, bridging two ostracized communities together in the name of sport, she said.

"We had grown so close together by playing baseball," she said. "There were many friendships forged on that field."

As the Japanese-Americans taught the Native Americans the finer points of the game, another bond was created, Thomas said. Although they shared the same land, there was a feeling of guilt among the Native American hosts.

"It's mixed, because it didn't have to happen to them," Thomas said. "We felt that it was unfair that we had to be a part of it. We were never asked. We were told."

Howard Zenimura said there were no hard feelings towards their Indian hosts.

"When we got out there to Gila, we didn't know where we were," he said. "They helped us build a field, but also helped us feel welcomed in their land."

A piece of history
This week Staples visited the site for the first time. As he stood among fallen leaves and dusty rocks, he peered into the shady grove. Despite the new life growing from the land, he said he still imagines Zenimura laying the foul lines, painted with flour as thousands of spectators converged on the ball park.

An uneasy smile came to his face, masking the hint of disappointment that there are no remnants of this field of dreams: It's now a grove of oil-producing olive trees.

"Ebbitts Field was torn down. The Polo Grounds too," he said. "They've torn down most of the old ballparks. It's the reality of economics."

Kerry Nakagawa, a baseball historian who specializes in Japanese-American players, is happy Arizona is recognizing its role in this story.

"It's great that Arizona is honoring Mr. Zenimura and his field," he said. "I hope this is a first step in a journey to have these players recognized by the baseball Hall of Fame."

Nakagawa created the Nisei Baseball Research Project in 1996 to preserve the history of Japanese-American baseball. Based in Fresno, Calif., he has toured the country with his exhibits of Japanese-American baseball artifacts. One of his most prized pieces in his exhibit is a piece of Zenimura's field.

Thirteen years ago, Steve Hall and his mother Midori, one of the first children born in the relocation camp, were walking the site before the olive trees were planted.

As his mother recalled her few childhood memories of the stadium, the Gilbert man walked the diamond, sharing the same ground Zenimura and others played on. Then he found it: home plate, a simple piece of wood sitting in the sun for more than four decades.

"It was so exciting," Midori Hall said. "We were so happy that there was something left."

A future park
Staples has convinced the City of Chandler to name a future park to honor Zenimura, who died in 1968. Because the city was reluctant to name a park for a single person, Staples came up with a more general name: Nozomi Park, using the Japanese word for "hope."

After presenting the park name request to Chandler officials last month, Staples learned of another park by the same name: Nozomi Park in Nagasaki, Japan.

It commemorates the hope forged in the aftermath of the second atomic blast, a final act of the same war that forced Zenimura and others like him into the Arizona desert.