The importance of Japanese American baseball


Nikkei Baseball: Japanese American Players from Immigration and Internment to the Major Leagues

Nikkei Baseball: Japanese American Players from Immigration and Internment to the Major Leagues
Nikkei Baseball: Japanese American Players from Immigration and Internment to the Major Leagues

Nikkei Baseball: Japanese American Players from Immigration and Internment to the Major Leagues
By Samuel O. Regalado (Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2013, 208 pp., $80, cloth, $25, paperback)

From its roots in Meiji era Japan, history professor Samuel O. Regalado traces Nikkei baseball’s journey from Japan to Hawai‘i, and then to the Pacific Coast states of Washington, Oregon and California. Whether in large population centers such as Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles — or in one of the many small towns scattered in between — baseball became a strong, unifying force in Japanese American communities in the 1920s and 1930s. In this book, Regalado attempts to answer the question, “…what did it mean to Japanese Americans as a factor in the shaping of their history and how does it reveal more about their past?”

During the course of research for my own book on Japanese American baseball, I began to realize the importance of sports, and baseball in particular, in the Japanese American community. The Issei realized the value of sports, and because baseball had been introduced to Japan in the 1870s, it was the one sport for which both the Issei and Nisei shared a passion. This shared passion became not only a bridge between generations, but it was an important social activity that connected Japanese communities with one another, as well as to their surrounding Caucasian communities. This importance is difficult to overstate. Regalado provides us with an important contribution by exploring the subject in depth, drawing on a great many resources including archival sources, community newspapers and interviews.

Regalado writes that many Japanese Americans hoped that baseball would demonstrate their “Americanism.” Japanese and Caucasians seldom mixed socially, and yet at baseball games between Japanese and mainstream teams you would find Japanese and Caucasians sitting side by side, interacting and getting to know one another. The value of this interaction was well-demonstrated here in my own hometown of San Jose. The activity of our local Asahi baseball team caught the attention of our city paper in the early 1920s, and the on-going publicity had the Asahi playing as many or more games against Caucasian teams than against Japanese teams. Fourth of July tournaments became a tradition in the Japanese community, which Regalado says were yet one of many patriotic gestures made by the community in an effort to gain acceptance and ease discrimination.

Sports, and baseball in particular, became a focus of activity during their World War II incarceration. Regalado explores this historic period, challenging earlier historical studies that underplayed the role of sports in the wartime concentration camps. He stresses that sport was, “…an essential component to their mental and emotional survival in camp.” One only has to skim through copies of the Heart Mountain Sentinel newspaper to see the amazing range of sports activities being offered and the central role of baseball in the lives of those forcibly relocated. Regalado explains that included women as well as men, with the women’s softball league at the Manzanar concentration camp being extremely popular.

Regalado’s final chapter takes us from the struggles of the resettlement period through the Japanese American rise to the major leagues in modern times. Well written and well documented, Samuel Regalado has added an important and welcomed study to the relatively small number of books that have been written on the topic of Japanese American baseball.

A professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, Samuel O. Regalado is also the author of “Viva Baseball! Latin Major Leaguers and Their Special Hunger.”

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