NBRP Feature

A Model of American Sportsmanship: Tucson High Badgers vs. Butte High Eagles

“What the several thousand spectators witnessed…will be long remembered as one of the most thrilling chapters in the history of Butte (Gila River) baseball.” – Kenichi Zenimura

Upon first glance, it appears to be just another box score from an Arizona high school baseball game: in 10 innings of play, the Tucson High Badgers scored 10 runs with 19 hits and 6 errors; and the Butte High Eagles scored 11 runs with 13 hits and 0 errors. Game over? Not quite.

When one takes a closer look at the circumstances surrounding this contest – the historical point in time, place and people involved – this single game that occurred more than 60 years ago in the Arizona desert proves to be a significant “untold story of baseball” that demands to be shared and celebrated.

In 1945 the United States was a nation in turmoil. The country was in the midst of World War II. On April 12 President Harry S. Truman was sworn into office with the passing of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Anti-Japanese sentiment in the U.S. was still high as a result of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. The U.S. Government sent more than 120,000 U.S. citizens of Japanese descent to live in Internment camps across the country. On the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona, approximately 13,000 Japanese-Americans were relocated to the Butte and Canal Camps. In essence, Americans had imprisoned Americans. The nation was divided.

Internment & Baseball
In January 1942, FDR wrote his famous “Greenlight Letter” advising Major League Baseball Commissioner Judge Landis that “it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.” Several months later on the Gila River Internment Camp, the Father of Japanese-American baseball, Kenichi Zenimura, felt it would be best for his community to “keep baseball going”, so he built a diamond and organized several leagues.

As the head coach of the Butte High baseball team, Zenimura was well aware of the top competition in the area. He followed the success of the Tucson squad and eventually approached Internment Camp Director Bennett with a proposal for his Eagles to play the Badgers. Bennett was opposed to the idea as he believed the Eagles had no chance against the three-time state champs. Through his persistence, Zeni convinced Bennett to give the Eagles a shot – and so the game was on.

The Contest: Eagles vs. Badgers
On Wednesday, April 18 the Tucson High baseball team traveled over 80 miles to Rivers, Arizona (a.k.a. the Gila River Relocation Center) to play Butte High. This was not the first time for the Eagles to take on a non-Japanese-American squad. During the internment, Butte High beat several non-Japanese-American teams, including: Florence, 23-0; Tolleson, 6-3; and Mesa, 23-0. However, Zeni and the Eagles knew the game against the reigning state champions was a special opportunity to prove to themselves and others just how good of a team they really were.

The Tucson Badgers were a strong team full of talent. Their line-up included Lowell Bailey, who in 1944 became just the fourth pitcher in U.S. high school history to finish a season with a perfect 0.00 ERA. Third-baseman Lee Carey won the first-ever "Louisville Slugger" trophy awarded by the Hillerich and Bradsby Company for leading American Legion national competition as the top batter in 1945. Carey and teammates Joe Tully and Bailey would eventually go on to play professional ball. Tucson was also graced with the leadership of legendary coach, Hanley “Hank” Slagle. Between 1942 and 1954, Slagle led the Badgers to a 52-game wining streak and 10 State Championships, more titles than any coach in Arizona high school baseball history.

The Butte High squad was a skilled and disciplined team as well, and fortune was with them on April 18, 1945. The Eagles won the exciting contest on a full-count, bases-loaded, two-out single down the third-base line hit by Zenimura’s son, Kenshi. Years later, Kenshi and his brother Kenso would both go on to play for the Hiroshima Carp in the Japanese Professional Baseball League.

Post-Game Camaraderie
As expected, the Eagles win over the Badgers was an important and symbolic victory for all Japanese-American’s held behind barbed wire at Gila River. Nonetheless, the actions displayed and words shared afterwards demonstrated that there was no animosity at all between the two head coaches or their players. After the game both teams dined together, shared watermelon, and engaged in a cross-cultural exchange as the Tucson players were taught the finer points of sumo wrestling.

According to written correspondence between Slagle and Zenimura, the two attempted to schedule a rematch. Unfortunately, members of the Tucson community and school district were opposed the idea, citing the Japanese-American players as a potential security threat when leaving the Internment camp. Despite the fact that Internment teams in Arizona had previously received permission to travel as far as Montana and Colorado to play baseball, a second game in Tucson was denied.

More than Just a Game
Although the rematch never happen, the highly competitive contest that did occur between the Badgers and Eagles has come to represent all that is good about the game of baseball. Time and time again we see how baseball transcends the barriers created by language, race, religion, and politics. In a nation deeply divided by world war, this single baseball game was a significant, and much needed, gesture of American brotherhood and goodwill.

On and off the field, during and after the game, the conduct of the coaches and players demonstrated graciousness in winning and losing, and a healthy respect for others. In essence, this ballgame – and all those involved in it – embodied the true definition of sportsmanship.

With that, the Tucson High vs. Butte High game that occurred during World War II on a Japanese-American Internment Camp is an important moment in baseball, Arizona and U.S. history – one that should not be forgotten.

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