Backstory: The players in the shadows

As baseball honors forgotten groups, Japanese Americans may be next, including a 'Dean of the Diamond' who organized games in internment camps.

Kenichi Zenimura was determined to build his own field of dreams. Only this diamond wouldn't be in a lush Iowa cornfield. It would be behind hoops of barbed wire at a Japanese-American internment camp in the dusty desert outside Chandler, Ariz.

The time was World War II. Zenimura's overlord, the US government, wasn't going to build a ballpark for him. So he did what any baseball fanatic might do. He diverted water from a laundry room to nourish grass for an outfield. He built stands from wooden poles taken from the enclosing fences. He poured flour to make chalk lines. Then Zenimura organized a league of 32 teams out of the internees, which included one sure-handed shortstop and catcher – himself.

Now Zenimura's and other Japanese-Americans' contributions to baseball – and the morale of a generation of detainees – is gaining growing recognition in baseball circles and beyond.

A crusade is under way by an Arizona man to get Zenimura, often called the "father of Japanese-American baseball," inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum here in Cooperstown, N.Y. A movie about baseball inside the internment camps, "The American Pastime," is being shot in Utah this summer. The Baseball Reliquary, a nonprofit group in California, will elect Zenimura to its hall of fame next month. And a new book of historical fiction, "Suitcase Sefton and the American Dream" by Jay Feldman, tells about a Japanese-American internee who is recruited to play in the major leagues.

"In the 1970s and '80s recognition was raised for the Negro league ballplayers. And in the '90s, we did it for the female ballplayers," says Bill Staples, the man pushing Zenimura's induction here. "Now, hopefully, in the early 2000s, we can do this for Japanese-American ballplayers."

Certainly baseball has been staking out a big tent lately. The exhibition "Planet Baseball," which opened June 7 at the Hall of Fame, recognizes the sport's international heritage, including last winter's World Baseball Classic, which pitted teams of professional players from all over the world. Cooperstown has just revamped its exhibit on women players, which opened in 1988 and inspired the 1992 hit movie "A League of Their Own." Two traveling exhibitions on Latino ballplayers are in the works for next year.

Baseball is also reveling in its African-American heritage, heroes, and teams, at least as reflected by the Hall. In late July, 17 players and executives from the era of segregated baseball will be inducted in Cooperstown – none of whom ever played a day in the major leagues. It will be the largest class ever enshrined in a single year. The 17 are all players, managers, or officials connected with the Negro Leagues or pre-Negro Leagues, before Jackie Robinson famously broke the color line to star for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Recognition of the part Japanese Americans played in baseball's past – which is smaller and lesser-known – may take longer to materialize. Mr. Staples himself just stumbled on the story of Zenimura and the internment camp a couple of years ago when he moved to Chandler. Staples, a former youth-league baseball coach who works in advertising and marketing, was "looking for ways to get involved in my community." Through a bit of serendipity, he heard about Zenimura, who despite being only five feet tall and weighing 100 pounds was considered a gifted player.

Zenimura, who lived in Fresno, Calif., organized and led goodwill tours of Japanese-American (or Nisei in Japanese) teams to Japan in the 1920s and '30s. Later as a manager, he earned the nickname "Dean of the Diamond" for his grasp of baseball strategy.

In October 1927, when Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were barnstorming the country after the New York Yankees' World Series victory, Zenimura was one of four Japanese Americans who played in an exhibition game with the Yankees superstars. The Japanese Americans helped Gehrig's team defeat Ruth's, 13-3. "Pound for pound, the Nisei players were as good as the major leaguers," Al Beir, bat boy for Ruth and Gehrig on the tour, told the Fresno Bee in 1996. "They ate, thought, and slept the game."

Still, some of Zenimura's most important contributions to the game, and individuals' lives, wouldn't come until later, behind the imposing fences at the Gila River internment camp in Arizona. More than 13,000 Japanese Americans were detained there during World War II. Zenimura organized a league with three divisions. Some games would draw 4,000 to 6,000 spectators to what became known as Zenimura Field – truly a diamond in the rough – providing a respite from everyday life in the Tabasco-hot camp.

Staples's hope is to see Zenimura inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012 – 70 years after President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 formally calling for detaining thousands of Japanese Americans.

Even after the war, segregation kept Japanese Americans out of the big leagues for decades, similar to what happened to African-Americans. The first Japanese American didn't enter the majors until 1965. "Playing baseball and loving it behind walls of segregation" creates "a true parallel" between black and Japanese-American ballplayers, says Tom Fredrick, a board member of the Negro League Baseball Museum in Independence, Mo.

At least Zenimura had his encounter with the Babe, though, which apparently was memorable. Zenimura singled his first time at bat. He took a big lead off first. "Ruth glanced at me and said, 'Hey, son, aren't you taking too much of a lead?' " Zenimura once told the Fresno Bee. "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.' "

Ruth's anger must have abated: He posed for a photo with Zenimura after the game. Someday the diminutive "Dean of the Diamond" may have the last laugh – his own plaque at Cooperstown, right next to the Sultan of Swat himself.

To learn more about Japanese-American baseball pioneers, visit www.niseibaseball.com.

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