Baseball as a symbol of hope


Barbed Wire Baseball

Barbed Wire Baseball
Barbed Wire Baseball

By Marissa Moss, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu
(New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2013, 48 pp., $18.95, hardcover)

What made baseball so compelling for Japanese American World War II inmates? “Barbed Wire Baseball” gives us a glimpse of one man’s yearning for the sport from Gila River, Ariz.’s desert concentration camp.

Kenichi Zenimura (1900-1968) is the subject of this children’s picture book/biography. From the age of 8, Zeni wanted to play baseball. Regardless of his diminutive stature, just 5 feet tall and weighing only 100 pounds, Zeni became a baseball star, coach, and manager in the Fresno Nisei (second generation Japanese) League and Fresno Twilight League. He played with star members of the New York Yankees, played exhibition games in Japan, and recruited Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to play there also. A famous photo of Zeni flanked by Ruth and Gehrig is included in the book. All of this took place before the outbreak of World War II.

The heart of “Barbed Wire Baseball” is Zeni’s determination to bring baseball to his fellow inmates at the Gila River camp. It chronicles Zeni’s backbreaking work clearing the sagebrush and rocks from an area of the camp; bulldozing the field; flooding and baking the dust into clay; planting grass; scavenging lumber to build bleachers; collecting money to purchase bats, balls, mitts and hats, and enlisting women to sew uniforms out of potato sacks.

The result was a thrilling opening game day with 6,000 people, half the camp, in attendance. When Zeni steps to the plate, he relishes the familiar feel of the bat. He takes in the sight of neat white lines marking the field, and fans in the bleachers. He hits a home run. He feels free, and “ten feet tall,” exhilarated by the game he loved.

The author’s note describes the baseball field that Zeni built as “a symbol of hope, of the resilience of the human spirit, of making life normal in the most abnormal times.” The reader can now understand the role of baseball in the camps behind barbed wire.

While in camp, Zeni “organized thirty-two teams into three divisions, games were scheduled every day.” After leaving camp, Zeni built a new ball field at home in Fresno, Calif.

Shimizu paints Zeni with a rugged face, and an especially powerful look as he savors his return to baseball. The other inmates are rendered with appealing “can do” expressions, showing them actively working to improve their bleak surroundings and cheering on their team. The illustrations were made with Japanese calligraphy brush and ink.

A number of books about baseball in the camps have been published, including “Baseball Saved Us,” a picture book by Ken Mochizuki, and “The Lucky Baseball: My Story in a Japanese-American Internment Camp” by Suzanne Lieurance for young adults. Two films on this subject are “American Pastime” by Kerry Nakagawa; and “Day of Independenceby Tim Toyama.

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