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.” –
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.