A home run: Japanese American baseball history

BASEBALL GREATS ­— (From L to R): Johnny Nakagawa, Lou Gehrig, Kenichi Zenimura, Babe Ruth, Fred Yoshikawa and Harvey Iwata after an exhibition game at Fresno’s Firemen’s Ballpark on Oct. 29, 1927. photo by Frank Kamiyama

Don Wakamatsu recalled Seattle Mariners’ superstar Ichiro Suzuki returning from the World Baseball Classic in 2009 to the doctor telling him he had an ulcer. The then-Seattle Mariners manager told his star player how much he respected him for wanting to play through the injury, but he wouldn’t risk Ichiro’s death if his ulcer ruptured. Wakamatsu noted that Ichiro’s jersey hung in the dugout while he was on the injured list.

Wakamatsu’s story of Ichiro’s work ethic was one of several that speakers told during the “Play Ball: The Japanese American Experience and the National Pastime” virtual event hosted by the Japanese American Citizens League May 7.

The other panelists included Kerry Yo Nakagawa, the Nisei Baseball Research Project founder and director, and Brandon Zenimura, the great-grandson of Kenichi Zenimura, a Japanese American baseball pioneer.

Bill Staples Jr., a baseball historian and Nisei Baseball Research Project board member, moderated the conversation.

As a child, Zenimura spent time with his grandparents and great-grandmother, looking at a photo of his great grandfather with other Japanese American players, alongside baseball legends Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. For Brandon Zenimura, the dream was “to be as legendary, as impactful” as Ruth. Zenimura played college baseball at Fresno City College and Sonoma State University.

Nakagawa’s uncle, Johnny Nakagawa, was also in the same photo as Zenimura’s great-grandfather, Ruth and Gehrig. He likened his uncle, a left-handed pitcher and home run hitter to a “Nisei Shohei Ohtani or Babe Ruth.” He added that his Uncle Johnny toured in 1924, 1927 and 1937. Nakagawa played for the Fresno Athletic Club in the 1920s.

Nakagawa pointed out the significance of the early Issei and Nisei teams, including the Fresno Athletic Club in 1924 and the Los Angeles Nippons in 1931, which helped pave the way for modern players of Japanese descent, such as Ohtani and the retired Ichiro. Nakagawa added that Issei and Nisei players had to play in their own leagues.

Their passion for baseball carried over to the World War II concentration camps, as “many players were ready to make that leap, but because of World War II, had to play in the camps making tours…,” Nakagawa said. He added that teams traveled to different concentration camps, including Gila River, Ariz. and Heart Mountain, Wyo., to play in tournaments. Baseball “brought a sense of normalcy,” Nakagawa said.

An audience member asked about the connection between Japanese American baseball history and traditional Japanese American cultural values. Wakamatsu said his greatest baseball story is a photo of him in his Seattle manager uniform with his grandparents. He called it an “amazing emotion” knowing the sacrifice they made being incarcerated at Tule Lake and “gave me the opportunity to manage the Seattle Mariners.”

To help create more diversity, equity and inclusion in the game of baseball for Asian Americans, Zenimura said it’s about “how the story is shared” and the continuation of Japanese national players coming to play in the major leagues from Japan.

Nakagawa said he sent a letter to Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert Manfred and Larry Baer, the president and chief executive officer of the San Francisco Giants, to celebrate 120 years for the 1903 Fuji Athletic Club in 2023. He suggested the Giants take the field wearing the 1903 team’s jerseys and the visiting team wear the 1924 San Jose Asahi jerseys.

As a kid, Wakamatsu played in the JACL baseball program in Alameda, Calif., which “gives them an opportunity to play at a young age and continue to develop and maybe go on.” Wakamatsu hopes Ohtani can influence kids of Japanese descent to play baseball, similarly to Michael Jordan’s “influence on Black youth playing basketball.”

“Let’s hope and continue to push that with Ohtani,” he said.

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