In the spring of 1942, the Bainbridge High School baseball team started its season only a few days before the forced evacuation of all of the island’s residents of Japanese descent. In a touching display of tolerance and good will, the coach started all six Nisei team members – their last chance to play in a game before being shipped off with their families to California and incarcerated in prison camps by the U.S. government. In his impressively researched book, “Nikkei Baseball,” California State University history professor Samuel O. Regalado uses stories about baseball as windows through which to examine Japanese-American immigration, settlement, and the World War II incarceration. The focus on this one, passionate and popular activity provides a fresh retelling of Nikkei community history.
Based on the handful of Nikkei (ethnic Japanese) ballplayers to reach the Major Leagues, mainstream baseball fans may not realize the long history of the sport in the Japanese-American community. Baseball was first introduced in Japan by Americans in the 1870s, and many Japanese immigrants were already well versed in the sport by the time they arrived in the United States. Organized Nikkei leagues started in the early 1900s in Hawaii. For most of the 20th century, baseball reigned as the most popular sport in America, and this was also true in the Nikkei community. Since young Nisei showed little interest in the traditional Japanese sports of judo and kendo, a columnist in the Los Angeles-based newspaper Rafu Shimpo opined, “Rather we should prompt them to take whatever sports they like. Baseball is it!” The game was seen as a way to train both the minds and bodies of young men.
Community leaders also approved of the pastime as a way to bridge two countries and cultures, and as a means of assimilation for the American-born Nisei. This was a noble sentiment, but the reality was that baseball, like most other Nikkei community activities, took place in segregation away from the majority white culture. The mainstream press rarely if ever reported on Nikkei games and tournaments.
Regalado describes the genesis and growth of the sport in Hawaii and the major urban areas on the West Coast, including Seattle. He devotes an entire chapter to Seattle’s Courier League, a large and active league organized by Jimmy Sakamoto, founder and editor of the Japanese American Courier newspaper. By 1941, the league boasted 30 teams at four levels, and included hundreds of players. The annual Pacific Northwest Baseball Tournament on the Fourth of July weekend was a major community event.
The onset of World War II suspended baseball activity at first. But after the initial upheaval of the forced removal of West Coast Nikkei community life — including sports activities — resumed. Baseball once again became integral to Japanese-American community life in 10 concentration camps, most of them located in isolated badlands throughout the American West. Fields were built, baseball equipment ordered, and practices and games were played on dusty dirt fields. Teams formed based on neighborhoods back home, and rivalries were revived, creating competitive tension and the occasional fracas. Thousands of spectators came to watch the games.
Regalado includes a section on the handful of Nikkei ballplayers who ascended to the Major Leagues. When Jackie Robinson joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1947, he paved the way not only for African-American ballplayers but other ethnic athletes as well, especially Latinos. It wasn’t until 1975 that the first Japanese American entered the big leagues when Ryan Kurosaki joined the St. Louis Cardinals. Currently, Hawaii-born Kurt Suzuki is enjoying success as a member of the Washington Nationals. Don Wakamatsu saw only a few games of Major League play, but went on to achieve a major milestone — becoming the first Asian-American manager in the Major Leagues when he was named the skipper of the Seattle Mariners in 2009.
I was hoping to read more about memorable games and the athletic feats of star players. Nonetheless, this is a fine addition to the ever growing historical record of Nikkei history in the U.S. Regalado’s account provides fresh insight into the experiences of this immigrant group and presents another poignant example of how devastating a blow the incarceration was to the community. Although Nisei baseball players revived the sport in confinement, it was hardly the same as the vibrant pre-war baseball mania that pervaded communities along the West Coast and in Hawaii.