One Base at a Time: Baseball and the Nikkei People

“Oh how those Nipponese love their baseball!”

– James Sakamoto of the Seattle Japanese-American Courier

Yesterday I, along with Carson Cistulli and The Common Man, attended the second annual Bud Selig Distinguished Lecture in Sport and Society. This year’s presentation was titled “One Base at a Time: Baseball and the Nikkei People,” a lecture presented by Samuel O. Regolado (nephew of Rudy) of California State University-Stanislaus.

The lecture series has been designed and supported with the intent of going beyond the men and teams who comprise sports but to examine the communities behind the sports. In many ways, the games we watch and play are a reflection of us as a people (maybe it is, in fact, just society). Specifically, Regolado’s lecture looks at how baseball was a key component of the communities of the first generations of Japanese immigrants in America used baseball as part of their assimilation into American culture.

Regolado begins the lecture by noting a key fact about American immigration history: success for the immigrants begins not with the immigration itself — not with creating the home in America — but by earning respect from the mainstream. This is rarely an easy feat, and it typically takes generations. For many, amateur sport was an easy way for immigrants to partake in an American activity — “earn a spot in the collage known as America” — and for the Japanese on the west coast, it was baseball. The first wave of Japanese immigration occurred right around the turn of the 20th century, about 20 years after the development of baseball in Japan. Not long after, in 1903, the San Francisco Fujis became the first all-Japanese baseball team on the mainland. Teams popped up in many of the major western cities — San Jose, Oakland, and perhaps most prominently Seattle. These teams often played exhibition contests against white amateur teams as well against each other in their own leagues.

Some of these teams traveled to Japan to play against teams from their home country. Some of them played in games against Major League players on west coast barnstorming tours. The picture above shows members of Kenichi Zenimura’s Fresno Athletic Club with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in October of 1927. For the players, the act of playing baseball was a very American experience. As one player in the Seattle Courier League stated, “Putting my uniform on was like putting on the American flag.”

This made the tragic internment of Japanese-Americans following Pearl Harbor all the more painful. Despite the attempts of many Japanese-Americans through endeavors in all aspects of life — including baseball — to earn the respect of the mainstream in America, they were not recognized by the United States government in 1941 as Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the executive order authorizing the internment camps. Neither were they recognized by the Supreme Court — as Chief Justice Harlan Stone put it, there was “little to no evidence of interactions between whites and Japanese.” Baseball became a key form of escape for those in the internment camps. The prisoners built fields themselves, from outfields to chalk lines to bases to bleachers. As one internee said, “Without baseball, the camps would have been maddening” — I can only assume he means more maddening.

Although amateur baseball faded among Japanese-Americans in the following decades, there were some key professional figures to emerge in the post-war era. Wally Yonamine became the first Japanese-American NFL player and also traveled to Japan to play professionally. Ryan Kurosaki became the first Japanese-American player to reach the majors in 1975, although he would only appear in seven games with the St. Louis Cardinals. Lenn Sakata broke into the league two years later and would be the best Japanese-American player of his generation, playing 11 seasons and appearing in a World Series with the 1983 Orioles.

Now, although Japanese nationals like Ichiro, Hideki Matsui and now Yu Darvish have taken their place in MLB, Japanese-American players are sparse. The only one of note right now is Kurt Suzuki of Oakland, although a few more (like former Giants 1B Travis Ishikawa) toil in the minor leagues. Don Wakamatsu broke major ground as the first Japanese-American manager with Seattle in 2008 as well. Still, the culture retains its link with baseball, a sport which was so important for many of the initial Japanese to make the migration over to the United States, and it goes to show just how important baseball can be for communities outside of its significance on professional baseball diamonds.

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Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.

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