Japanese-American Baseball Leagues Fuel Dreams and Community Pride

From early this century to the internment camps of World War II, semi-professional baseball teams helped keep up community spirits and provided a path to fuller participation in American life.

Herb 'Moon' Kurima was born early in this century in the farming town of Florin in California's San Joaquin Valley, the son of Japanese parents who had immigrated from Hiroshima.

From the age of 10, he joined his family after school in the strawberry fields. And after graduating from high school, Kurima went to work at the strawberry grower as a shed manager, remaining there almost all his life.

Only one thing broke the tight weave of family and hard work that formed Kurima's life - baseball. From grammar school, Herb took to the game with a joy that remains undiminished by age. He can still recall every pitch of his first at-bat in 1932 at the age of 18 for the Florin Athletic Club, one of many semi-professional teams formed by Japanese-Americans.

Kurima pitched for the Florin team until 1948. But though he prides himself on playing "pretty good ball," this farm boy never shared the dream of other Americans of seeing his name in a Major League box score. For reasons of race, and to some extent physical stature, Japanese players were effectively barred from the professional ranks.

"Japanese-Americans in the prewar period were not welcomed into normal mainstream league teams," says Stanford University political scientist Daniel Okimoto. This was a product of discrimination, he says, "but there was also a strong desire as a community to bond."

Instead, beginning in the early 1900s, Japanese-Americans began forming separate teams, eventually organizing leagues, that played throughout Hawaii, California, and Washington, as well as some of the Rocky Mountain states. While the Japanese-American baseball leagues were not as fabled as the Negro Leagues, they performed a similar role as a source of community pride and a path to participation in American life.

For almost 70 years, the Japanese-American baseball leagues were a vibrant part of the life of that immigrant community. After a long week of work in the fields, Japanese-Americans would gather in farming towns in California's San Joaquin Valley for the diamond battles. Even when they were denied their rights as Americans and placed behind barbed wire in internment camps during World War II, they kept their spirits up by reconstructing their baseball teams.

And though they did not make it into the Major Leagues, Japanese-American players carried the game back to their ancestral homeland, promoting baseball in Japan and even becoming stars on Japanese professional teams.

Exhibit opens

This previously little-known corner of American baseball history is beautifully illuminated in "Diamonds in the Rough: Japanese Americans in Baseball," an exhibit that opened in early April at the California State Capital Museum in Sacramento. California State Assemblyman Mike Honda, a third generation Japanese-American, recalled the struggles of his parents and grandparents against the anti-Japanese laws passed in the 1920s, including those denying citizenship and halting further Japanese immigration. "There have been laws passed under this roof to deny us access," Assemblyman Honda noted. The celebration of the Japanese contribution to baseball history brings with it the promise that "there may not be any more parallel leagues," he told an audience of former players, Japanese-Americans, lawmakers, and other guests.

Baseball came to Japan itself as far back as the 1870s, brought there by American schoolteachers, where it rapidly gained popularity. The first recorded Japanese-American team was the Excelsiors, formed in Hawaii in 1899. But growth came most rapidly after a Japanese college team toured the West Coast in 1905 and more than held their own against American collegiate teams.

By the 1920s, more than 100 teams had been formed, mostly consisting of Nisei, or second-generation Japanese-Americans. "Despite the discrimination and racism experienced by Japanese-Americans during that time, on the baseball field they could feel equal to anyone else," writes Kerry Yo Nakagawa, who researched and organized the exhibition.

Though they played mostly against each other, the Japanese-American teams also took on foes from white America - from high schools, colleges, and semi-pro teams, occasionally battling barnstorming teams led by professionals such as Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, and Ted Williams. The Nisei teams also played their Negro League counterparts on many occasions.

Spoke little Japanese

Beginning as early as 1914, Japanese-American teams went to Japan to play against teams there. "I got a chance to see where my dad and mother lived," recalls Shigeo Tokumoto, a member of a 1937 all-star team that toured not only Japan but also Korea and Manchuria, both under Japanese rule at that time. Compared to his home in Hanford, Calif., he found Japan to be primitive. "They didn't have modern facilities," Tokumoto recalls. "People were on their knees working in the rice fields."

Like many other Nisei, Tokumoto was thoroughly American. He spoke only a little Japanese. "The only reason I felt at home was because my features were the same," he says.

The Nisei brought an American brand of baseball to Japan, featuring an aggressive, hit-and-run approach that the Japanese started to emulate. Tokumoto and others were offered contracts to play for professional teams in Japan but he refused. It turned out to be the right decision because those who stayed behind were inducted into the Japanese Army when the war with China broke out. "We never heard from them again," he says.

But five years later Tokumoto and his fellow Japanese-Americans faced their own trials of war. In 1942, some 112,000 Japanese-Americans were forcibly relocated to internment camps on the grounds they were potential threats to American security.

Amidst often dismal conditions, the internees found solace in the pastime of the nation that had denied them. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," recalls Kurima. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

Baseball also provided an opportunity to assert themselves as Americans, equal in every way to their captors. In Jerome, Ark., where Kurima was interned, they went to the camp commander and asked to play an outside team. "He said, 'Can you guys play ball?' We said, 'Bring them in and see,' " Kurima says. He still delights in recounting pitching a 6-0 shutout of the Arkansas A&M college team.

First in Major Leagues

After the war, Japanese-American players pursued their professional dreams in Japan, some becoming stars, even managers of Japanese teams. In the late '70s, infielder Len Sakata finally became the first Japanese-American to make it to the Major Leagues.

As discrimination eased, and as Japanese boys focused more on becoming dentists and engineers rather than ball players, the Japanese-American leagues gradually faded, disappearing finally in the early '70s.

Much of this history was locked away in dusty attics until Mr. Nakagawa began to dig it out. The actor and film producer grew up in the San Joaquin Valley with the baseball tales of his uncle, Johnny, and fellow Fresno star Kenichi Zenimura. "My uncle was considered the Babe Ruth of the Nisei leagues," recalls Nakagawa. "He was bigger than most of them."

Two years ago, Nakagawa was coaching his son's little league all-star team which included the grandson of Zenimura. "I thought, 67 years ago a Nakagawa and a Zenimura were having their picture taken with Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth and they don't have any idea of this history," he recalls. "I thought it would be a shame if all this history was lost."

An initial exhibit at the Fresno Art Museum has grown into the current show, supported by the National Japanese American Historical Society and enriched by wonderful artifacts donated by old-time players.

Last year, more than 200 Japanese-American league players turned up for a special ceremony at San Francisco's Candlestick Park honoring their contribution to baseball. Nakagawa's goal, supported by the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres, and San Francisco Giants, is to have a permanent exhibit on the Japanese-American baseball leagues at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Today there is a renewed interest in baseball among Japanese-American youth, sparked in part by the success of Japanese professionals, led by Los Angeles Dodgers ace hurler Hideo Nomo. "Everybody is talking about Nomo," says Tokumoto, who coached Babe Ruth league teams for 22 years. "It makes you feel good that somebody made it."

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