How One Japanese-American Runner Took On Babe Ruth, NISEI BASEBALL RESEARCH PROJECT
SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — Kenichi Zenimura was seven years old when his parents fled the poverty of Hiroshima, Japan, early in this century, emigrating to Hawaii. It was there that Mr. Zenimura fell in love with the game of baseball with an unmatched passion.
Zenimura moved to Fresno, Calif., in 1920 where he organized the Fresno Athletic Club, a Japanese-American baseball team that lasted for more than 50 years. The 5-foot, 105-pound catcher was one of the few Japanese to cross the racial divide and play also for white semi-pro teams.
"He always said, 'Try to play the game with speed and by outsmarting the other guys,' " recalls his son, Kenso.
In 1927, Zenimura was picked as part of a group of local all-stars to play with Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth when they came to Fresno on a barnstorming tour. Later he told this tale to the Fresno Bee:
"The first time up I got a single. I was very fast and took my usual big lead off first. Ruth glanced at me and said, 'Hey, son, aren't you taking too much of a lead?' I said no. He called for the pitcher to pick me off. The pitcher threw and I slid behind Ruth. He was looking around to tag me and I already was on the sack. I think this made him mad. He called for the ball again. This time he was blocking the base and swung his arm around thinking I would slide the same way, but this time I slid through his legs and he was looking behind. The fans cheered. Ruth said, 'If you do that to me again, I'll pick you up and use you as a bat, you runt.' "
Zenimura's true genius was as a manager and organizer of Japanese-American baseball. He forged a fiercely competitive league throughout the San Joaquin Valley, and led all-star teams to Japan in 1924, 1927, and 1937.
Perhaps his finest moment though came during the dark days of World War II when Japanese-Americans were ousted from their homes and shipped to internment camps. Zenimura was sent to two camps and at both locations, he mobilized his fellow internees to build baseball stadiums and organize leagues that were practically the only source of community entertainment.
Zenimura's crown jewel was a stadium erected on the scrub land of the Arizona desert, complete with dugouts, bleachers, and an outfield scoreboard, aptly named Zenimura Stadium. His son, Kenso, recalls carefully screening out the pebbles from the rocky field and using them to build the floor of the dugouts.
Zenimura organized a 32-team league at the Gila River camp. His two teenage sons joined him on the team that won the league championship. "A lot of people thought we were three brothers," Kenso says. His sons went on after the war to star at Fresno State College, and later to return to their father's birthplace to play professional ball for the Hiroshima Carp.
Zenimura continued to coach and play until he was 55 years-old, leading his teams to repeated state and national championships in the Japanese-American baseball leagues. "He was a real baseball man," says Herb "Moon" Kurima, who played for him. "You can't find a man like that anymore."