Baseball game at Manzanar War Relocation Center | Photo: Ansel Adams, courtesy of the Library of Congress
“If California has made any contribution to sport on a national level, it is in the democratization of pursuits that were previously the prerogatives of elites,” noted the dean of California history Kevin Starr in 2005. “Most of the champions of the twentieth century who come from California first developed their skills in publicly subsidized circumstances: municipally supported swimming pools, golf courses, and tennis courts in particular, where middle class Californians, thanks to the recreational policies of Progressivism, were introduced to these previously social register sports.”
Indeed, even under the weight of racism, groups denied equal access to mainstream U.S. society found sports as a means to greatness and, in part, as a declaration of their commitment to America. Take two-time gold medalist Highland Park native Sammy Lee, or Hall of Fame baseball player and former South Pasadena resident Jackie Robinson, both of whom labored under the auspices of segregation and racism to assert their own, and by extension their fellow Korean and African Americans’, claim to equality. Indeed, Southern California has proven a vital region for promoting the interests of racial and ethnic equality through athletics.
Undoubtedly, figures such as Lee and Robinson remain critical to postwar civil rights battles, yet more ordinary but nonetheless important examples have often gone ignored. For Japanese Americans, Southern California and baseball, though never producing a luminous icon on par with Lee or Robinson, served as critical factors shaping Japanese American identity, binding ethnic enclaves across the West Coast, forging ties with Japanese culture, and promoting civil rights. Moreover, in the face of debilitating internment policies, baseball provided a way to mitigate the trauma of forced incarceration.
However, before one delves into baseball’s meaning for Japanese Americans and Southern California, Japan‘s embrace of the sport needs to be discussed. In the late 1800s, the Japanese government engaged in a process of industrialization and modernization commonly referred to as The Meiji Restoration. Promoting a new industrialized economy and hoping to stake a claim internationally as a global power, Japanese officials established a constitution, created a legislative diet, and urbanized. Turning away from the more isolationist nature of the Tokugawa period, officials sought to simultaneously assert Japanese culture while advocating a set of ideals based on patriotism, industrial productivity, modernization, and teamwork. Baseball fit neatly into this dynamic.
With the combined efforts of American Horace Wilson and Meiji official Hiroshi Hiraoka, baseball flourished across Japan. In 1871, Hiroshi established the Shimbashi Athletic Club, the first of its kind in the nation, and soon the sport expanded in the Japanese imagination. Americans too saw in baseball the symbol of national ideal and by the 1880s, the sport became widely viewed as “the ‘watchword of democracy’,” notes historian Samuel A. Regalado in his compelling 2013 work, “Nikkei Baseball: Japanese American Baseball from Immigration to Internment to the Major Leagues.”
Keio University baseball team in Tokyo, with visiting players from Chicago White Sox and New York Giants, 1914 | Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Americans like Wilson wanted to export baseball as a means of spreading democracy and opening markets, while simultaneously promoting individualism and teamwork. With that said, such attitudes came with more than a touch of colonialism. Baseball, argued historian Edward M. Burns, “would fire the imaginations of foreign people and stir their countries from sluggishness and from enslavement to outworn habits and institutions.” In the Philippines, American officials oversaw the development of a physical education program meant in part to instill American values and “discipline,” through sport. Baseball occupied a central place in this configuration. Colonial governors sponsored nationwide baseball tournaments, and by the 1920s more than 1,500 schools fielded teams across the archipelago. Ultimately, basketball would win the hearts of Filipinos, but from 1910 to 1930, the U.S. heavily promoted its national pastime among its colonial subjects. 4
Whatever the colonial associations, Japan saw similar promise in baseball, believing the sport to be an important part of exerting Japan’s new international image. Meiji leaders supported the sport’s ability to reshape the image of Japan while also facilitating international connections. As industrialism and Japan’s standing expanded between 1880 and 1910, so too did baseball’s popularity among the nation’s citizens.
Undoing tropes assigned to Asian nations and their peoples has long been a struggle. In the 1970s, the late great Edward Said documented the West’s tendency to portray Eastern nations as feminine, sensual, and erotic, which within the context of gender relations of the nineteenth and twentieth century assigned Asia and its residents to a secondary status, in comparison to the rational, masculine, and scientific West. Known as Orientalism, this theoretical formation facilitated European imperialism and created an uneven dichotomy for Japanese leaders and its people. Baseball, its inherent masculinity, pushed back against such negative idealizations, or to paraphrase Harvard historian Akira Iriye, Japan went from sensual exoticism to masculine competitiveness.
Unfortunately, for many Japanese farmers, modernization efforts resulted in the loss of whatever lands they had for cultivation, as industrialization resulted in higher property taxes that pushed 300,000 farmers from the fields. From 1885 to 1907, 155,000 Japanese traveled East to Hawaii and the American West Coast. Hawaii provided the first stop for many of these migrants, with nearly 25,000 settling there by 1896. Unsurprisingly, Japanese baseball leagues first emerged in the U.S. territory and often featured multi-ethnic/racial competition, as caucasian, Filipino, Portuguese, and Japanese laborers exhibited their skills on the diamond. As more Japanese immigrated to California, Washington, and Oregon, the leagues followed. By 1900, over 24,000 resided in mainland America, with just over 10,000 in California alone. San Francisco fielded the first U.S. mainland team comprised of Japanese American players in 1903, with the creation of the Fuji Athletic Club. 6
As baseball grew in popularity in California throughout the nineteenth century, the California League was developed in the 1880s, which eventually morphed into the Pacific Coast League (PCL) in 1903. “For more than half a century,” points out Starr, this league proved an “extraordinary popular and successful venture in terms of the number of cities represented, of successful stadiums, and of notable players,” among them Joe DiMaggio of the San Francisco Seals, and Ted Williams of the San Diego Padres. Banned by segregation, Japanese American leagues developed alongside the PCL, and though they produced few, if any, players of the stature of Williams or DiMaggio, they nonetheless sutured the community’s urban-rural diaspora across the state and the West Coast.
San Pedro Skippers, ca. 1930
While the first clubs formed in Northern California, by the 1920s and 1930s the best team, the San Fernando Nippons (later the Aces), could be found in Los Angeles. Likewise, by the mid-1930s worthy competitors such as the San Pedro Skippers emerged from Japanese American enclaves around Los Angeles. Southern California’s weather enabled year-round play, which helped to give coherence to the Japanese American community across the “vast” expanse of Los Angeles. In this way, these baseball clubs cultivated Japanese American civil society in an era of “yellow peril” and anti-Japanese legislation, which ranged from discriminatory state laws prohibiting Asians and newcomers from land ownership, to immigration legislation like the 1924 Johnson and Reed Act, which more or less banned citizenship for Asian immigrants.
Clubs soon emerged in Fresno, San Jose, Stockton, and elsewhere, including Portland, Seattle, and their hinterlands. Japanese American presses, like San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Shimbun (1899) and L.A.’s Rafu Shimpo (1903), played critical roles in baseball’s popularity, while contributing mightily to the kind of civil society so important to American immigrant groups by providing first generation Japanese, commonly referred to as Issei, with information on local enclaves and news from Japan.
As the Japanese and Japanese American population grew, generational differences emerged. For example, in four years between 1926-1930, the percentage of Nisei households among the larger Japanese population increased from 26.7 percent to nearly 50 percent. As a result, by the 1930s, with a rising Nisei generation, Rafu Shimpo began to also print English portions of their daily. The Los Angeles daily was not shy in its endorsement of baseball for Japanese Americans. The Nisei generation showed little interest in traditional Japanese sports like Kendo or Judo, the paper reflected, “[r]ather we should prompt them to take up whatever sports they like. Baseball it is!” The Los Angeles Nippons figured prominently in the paper as few other Japanese American teams received the amount of coverage bestowed upon the local team.
Around Los Angeles, teams played at public facilities such as Griffith Park, which in the late 1920s remained a rural area just north of the city. Additionally, Japanese Americans built new fields, often within the vicinity of foreign language schools, in places like San Fernando Valley. This required no small sacrifice from the Japanese themselves. “They may have been poor farmers,” acknowledged writer Wayne Maeda, “but when it came to donate money for uniforms and equipment, they reached down into their pockets and always came up with something to help the team out.”
Part of the game’s utility lay in its appeal across generations. “Baseball allowed each generation to interpret the meaning of the sport,” noted Maeda. Issei saw it as a means to connect their American-born children with Japanese culture, and believed it emphasized Japanese values of loyalty, honor and courage. In contrast, Nisei saw the sport as more modern than Kendo or Judo; it also provided an expression of their patriotism to the United States. Both believed the sport would serve as testament to their dedication to American ideals. In this context, baseball became a “safety net from the outside and allowed [Japanese Americans] to demonstrate their cultural traits before an audience of their own,” argues Regalado. For parents, simpler explanations also existed: it kept their kids out of trouble as more than a few older Issei worried about their children boozing, drugging, or gambling their lives away in American environs.
Los Angeles Nippons, ”Pride of Lil’ Tokyo” in 1931 during a tour of Japan
Japanese Americans’ place in Japanese society also became an issue. As a result of being in America, some Issei and Nisei worried about their status among Japanese nationals in Japan, believing that their more tenuous connection to their ancestral homeland might make them less than equals in the eyes of some Japanese. Baseball enabled the Issei and Nisei to assert their equality with their counterparts living in Japan.
Baseball helped to promote transnational interactions so common today in baseball, soccer, basketball, and other sports. In 1931, the Nippons traveled to Japan, where they barnstormed across the islands and, according to catcher Ken Matsumoto, established “the best record of all teams that have invaded Japan.” When a team of American All-Stars including Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth toured Japan in 1934, they inspired near riots. On November 2, 1934, historians estimate that nearly 500,000 Japanese attended the team’s informal parade up the Ginza (Tokyo’s Broadway). When the Tokyo Giants returned the favor by coming stateside in 1935, the three-game series with the Nippons drew crowds as large as 5,000. In the end, the Nippons could lay claim to being the best Japanese American side, encountered by their Japanese rival.
Due to the aforementioned generational change, transportation innovations that enabled for travel abroad and within the U.S., and the sport’s malleability among Nisei and Issei, the 1930s represent the high water mark of Japanese American baseball, particularly in California. By 1930, 70% of America’s Japanese population resided in the state. This period coincided with the creation of Los Angeles Nisei Week in 1934, which attempted to draw Japanese Americans back to Little Tokyo, while also demonstrating a connection to American cultural activities in “their own ethnic context,” points out Regalado. Similarly, in 1936, Northern California communities started the first July 4th tourney, a clear attempt to display attachment of American traditions and ideals.
Tragically, none of this helped in the wake of Pearl Harbor and the simmering racism of WWII California. The “White California” movement of the early twentieth century stemmed from a “racism of envy,” notes Starr, and it persisted through WWII as some white farmers resented Japanese and Japanese American agricultural acumen. Moreover, unlike Americans of European descent, notes Regalado, Japanese American guilt for the war was viewed as collective. Though government studies like the Munson Report upheld Japanese American loyalty and pointed out the racism of anti-Japanese rhetoric, U.S. officials forced Nisei and Issei into concentration camps. Only Nisei old enough for military service escaped internment.
In the camps, baseball provided an outlet for the trauma of incarceration. White WRA administrators provided very little for internees, with a dearth of recreational facilities and equipment, Issei and Nisei created their own. Baseball once again took center stage. At the Merced County Fairgrounds, internees transformed an empty landscape into a diamond though the surroundings remained sparse. “We had to make the baseball diamond, and there were no stands, no seats, no nothing, so the crowd just stood around the field and watched the game,” remembers internee and baseball standout, Fred Kishi. Camp newspapers devoted nearly as much coverage to baseball as to those Nisei serving on the front. Far from inconsequential or frivolous, baseball occupied an essential place in internee life.
San Fernando Aces at Manzanar War Relocation Center
Still, baseball could not settle intraethnic disputes. Organizations like the Japanese American Citizens League, who helped administrate the camps in an attempt to improve conditions and demonstrate continued loyalty to the United States, came to be seen by some as collaborators. Some of baseball’s Japanese American proponents were viewed in like terms. James Sakamoto, the publisher of Seattle’s Japanese American Courier, endured such criticism after internment and died, as Regalado describes him, “a broken man.”
Others, like Fresno’s Kenichi Zenimura, who embraced interracial play and took teams abroad to Korea, Manchuria, and Japan in an effort to promote peaceful international relations, faced residual discrimination from whites. Zenimura returned to Fresno and reestablished local teams, but continued to encounter racism. One of Zenimura’s players, Dan Takeuchi, recalled enduring racist taunts from white fans; he and his teammates toughed it out in order to “let others know we were going to go on very positively.”
Still, bright spots surfaced as well. South Pasadena native Jackie Robinson grew up playing sandlot ball with Japanese Americans from local enclaves. At Pasadena Junior College, Shig Takayama played with Robinson and the two roomed together, often experiencing the effects of segregation together. In 1975, Ryan Kurosaki became the first Japanese American player to reach the pros when signed by the St. Louis Cardinals as a reliever. Lenn Sakata followed for the Milwaukee Brewers two years later.
Internment had robbed many of the best Japanese American players any opportunity to compete at the professional level. Talented players like Fred Kishi joined the military during the war, thereby eluding internment, but missing any possible window for a professional career in baseball. While Japanese nationals eventually became a common site in Major League Baseball, facilitated no doubt by these earlier transnational connections, their American counterparts failed to achieve such success.
Nonetheless, the number of professional Japanese American baseball players remains beside the point. Baseball shaped Japanese American identities, stitched together communities and generations, and provided solace to a people traumatized by unjust incarceration. If the journey matters as much as the destination, baseball took Japanese Americans across oceans and cultures while rooting them more firmly in Southern California on their own terms.
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Baseball, Japanese Americans, and Southern California’s Pacific Rim