A Century Of Japanese American Baseball
by Gary T. Otake
Developed in collaboration with the Nisei Baseball Research Project, Diamonds in the Rough: Japanese Americans in Baseball tells the one hundred year history of baseball in Japanese American communities.
Baseball, it is said, is the sport which mirrors our nation’s soul. It is our hallowed “national pastime,” the game which represents the best that America has to offer: democracy, fair play, and equal opportunity. In fact, baseball and America are so intertwined that many believe we cannot know one without the other. “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America,” so the saying goes, “had better learn baseball.”
For many who have taken the challenge to understand the “heart and mind of America,” baseball has indeed proven to be fertile ground. Within the microcosm of baseball, we discover stories far more compelling than the box scores reveal. We can see into the far corners of our nation’s past and witness the deeds of heroes, villains, and everyday people. We learn of the struggles of war and building a nation, and of the extremes of economic depression and fabulous wealth. Through baseball, we learn of our aspirations and triumphs, our shortcomings and fears, our hopes and our dreams.
Baseball is the game which gave us Babe Ruth, the quintessential ‘rags to riches’ hero who embodies the enduring myth that baseball – and by extension, America – gives all who try the chance to succeed. The legend of Babe Ruth, we are told, proves that in America, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you look like or how much money you have, as long as you can play the game.
But no matter how compelling the myth, America is, and has always been, a complex place where success is not guaranteed to all who play by the rules. After all, as Ken Burns observes, “the story of baseball is also the story of race in America.” Despite its promise, baseball (and America) do take into account where you’re from and what you look like.
Japanese American baseball, therefore, is more than a story full of great players and epic games. It has a history that encompasses the cycles of discrimination and acceptance that have defined the Japanese experience in America. At its core, Japanese American baseball makes an eloquent statement of pride and possibility and is truly a reflection of the “heart and mind” of a community which has sought to fulfill the promise of America for one hundred years.
Origins and Development
When Japanese immigrants made the voyage across the Pacific to America during the last decades of the nineteenth century, they not only brought with them dreams of success, they brought a knowledge and appreciation for baseball back to the land of its origins. This knowledge made them stand out among other immigrants at the time, as most countries in the world had no prior exposure to America’s national game.
Japan, in contrast, had adopted baseball in the 1870s during the ambitious years of the Meiji era, when the Japanese were recreating a national identity to fit the needs of the modern times. Baseball was seen as a bridge between two cultures, as it embodied Japanese values such as harmony, perseverance, and self-restraint while simultaneously reflecting the ideals and spirit of the rising West.
Coming from a country with such a strong interest in baseball, it is not surprising that the Issei (Japanese immigrants) started their own teams shortly after settling in the US In 1899, the first known Japanese American team – the Excelsiors – was organized in Honolulu. Within a decade, many more teams were formed across the islands and highly competitive leagues developed. Mirroring the ethnic divisions in Hawaiian society, these leagues formed along ethnic lines, with Japanese American teams competing against Chinese American, Portuguese, Hawaiian, and haole teams.
The earliest known mainland Japanese American baseball team is the San Francisco Fujii club, a team of Issei players which formed in 1903, the first year of the modern World Series. Other cities across the US with large Japanese American populations also developed Issei teams around this time. Seattle, Los Angeles and Honolulu, for instance, all had teams by 1905 and organized leagues by 1910.
These first teams were primarily organized for the enjoyment of the players wishing for some much needed recreation. But there were other motives as well. Many Issei were aware that baseball could provide a common bond between the Japanese immigrant community and the dominant white society. Through a shared love of baseball, it was hoped communication and perhaps even respect could be established. However, except in isolated instances, these diplomatic goals were not always achieved through baseball. Despite playing baseball with All-American fervor and ability, Japanese immigrants continued to face hostility from the general public that could not readily be overcome.
The Golden Years, 1920 – 1941
The 1920s and 1930s were the heyday of Japanese American baseball. With the rise of the America-born Nisei generation, baseball activities grew to new heights, reflecting a renewed optimism in finding a place in America. Every community with enough players had a baseball team, and segregated ethnic leagues flourished in Japanese American settlements all over the West. From San Diego to Seattle, San Jose to Salt Lake City, people were going baseball crazy.
Naturally, top notch teams developed in cities with large Japanese American populations. But many small towns, boasting home grown talent, also fielded powerhouse teams which were the communities’ pride and joy. Friends, fans, and families packed the grandstands on Sunday afternoons, and crowds often numbered in the thousands for the “big games.” No other social event could match the power of baseball in bringing people together.
But more than just recreation, baseball played an important role in the development of social and cultural concepts like “ethnic identity” and “community” for a rapidly growing Japanese American population. As former sports writer Fred Oshima recalls, “Japanese American baseball served a meaningful socio-economic role and entertainment lifestyle for this closely knit ethnic group on the wrong side of the tracks.”
Baseball Behind Barbed Wire: 1942 to 1945
With the entry of the US into World War II, the federal government in 1942 ordered 112,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast to be forcibly removed from their homes and relocated to 10 internment camps in desolate areas of America.
In every camp, internees attempted to counter the boredom and harsh conditions of internment life by developing thriving sports activities. Baseball, in particular, provided a much needed diversion for players and fans alike. Internees at Gila River, for instance, developed a year round baseball league with 32 teams and championship games drawing crowds into the thousands. As George Omachi recalls, “It was demeaning and humiliating to be incarcerated in your own country. Without baseball, camp life would have been miserable.”
Japanese American baseball did manage to continue through the difficult resettlement period after the conclusion of World War II. In fact, some areas saw a resurgence of Nisei baseball in the 1950s that continued through the 1960s into the 1970s.
Yet, social conditions after the war forever altered the dynamics of baseball in Japanese American communities. The passing of the Issei, who were baseball’s most passionate fans, severely altered the composition of community support and baseball lost the function and meaning it had prior to the war. In addition, more opportunities in mainstream culture for the younger Nisei and Third-generation Sansei eroded the social need for baseball as they found interests in areas previously denied to them. Although many fine teams and players developed during this era, Nisei baseball eventually faded to the background as the younger generation left the ethnic communities in record numbers.
Legends and Legacies
Though the heyday of Japanese American baseball may have passed, it still has the remarkable power to bring people together. With the resurgence of interest in baseball history, families are looking again at the old scrapbooks with renewed interest, and the stories of grandparents are being told to curious grandchildren. For a people whose history has often been so painful to recall, it is with pleasure that memories of those distant Sunday afternoons are relived.
Nowadays, baseball may not be the only game in town, but a new generation of Japanese American youngsters still get together to play baseball, forming teams and friendships based on a shared ethnic and cultural background. Significantly, these baseball teams are one of the few ties to the Japanese American community for many youth. As a reflection of the times, these teams are increasingly diverse, with hapa children and girls commonly participating.
Although the future of Japanese American baseball is uncertain, its legacy will continue. After all, more than any other activity, baseball reflects the pattern of inclusion and exclusion from mainstream American life that Japanese Americans have experienced in the US. By keeping this history alive, we not only acknowledge the Japanese American baseball pioneers, but we enrich our understanding of one community’s resilience, pride, and contributions to the diverse cultural heritage of this country.