The following is a transcript of a segment from this week's episode of the Cut4Cast podcast. To hear more of the Cut4 staff's weekly banterings about which position player is the best at pitching or how baseball would work in outer space, subscribe to the Cut4Cast by clicking here.
America's pastime has a rich history of outsider baseball. Before the sport was integrated, outsider baseball teams proliferated across the country, including Japanese-American baseball teams on the West Coast. This week, author, historian and filmmaker Kerry Yo Nakagawa joined Gemma Kaneko on the Cut4Cast to share the history of some of these teams.
Nakagawa: In our culture, we number our generations. The Issei were the first immigrants that came from Japan. Their kids were the American-born Nisei. ... The Nisei Leagues, I think, were very significant. They were much like the Negro Leagues. They couldn't play in Major League Baseball because they weren't white, or Caucasian. The leagues were vital to each community, each region, state, to demonstrate what a high caliber of ball that they could play ...
Each team had their star players. It gave them self esteem. And the Issei parents were baseball-crazy, since they played it and learned about it as kids in Japan. It goes back as far as 1872 in Japan. We had teams as far south as the Tijuana Nippons, the Vancouver Asahi, in Canada, As far west as the Hawaiian Asahi, as far east to the Nebraska Nisei.
Kaneko: The Nebraska Nisei? That's further out than I ever would have imagined. In your book, you give us this history -- the first teams in America were formed by Issei players. What do you think that journey was like for them, for these men who came over and started these teams? Who did they play? Did they ever play teams without Issei players?
Nakagawa: I think the first recorded team was in 1899 in the Hawaiian islands. But when we talked about the mainland, here in California, we talk about 1903. The San Francisco Fuji Athletic Club were an Issei immigrant team. There were many other immigrant teams that would play, clash and compete against each other at Ewing Field, in San Francisco. Takeo Suo, who was a Nisei, was quoted once as saying, "Playing baseball was like putting on the American flag."
In all the research I've done, it really went farther than that. Some immigrants, maybe they couldn't communicate, outside the lines, with each other. But inside the lines it was very black and white. I think whether you were Japanese-American, Latino, black, Italian-American, whatever, you wanted to prove you were the top sport in your community against these other teams. I think it was really a badge of honor to just prove that you had the five tools. You had the passion. You just needed and opportunity to play against each other.
Kaneko: Let's talk about the Zenimura brothers for a little bit. That's a name -- Zenimura -- that comes up a lot in the story of Japanese-American baseball. Kenichi Zenimura, nicknamed "The Father of Japanese-American Baseball," is in a rare video of a barnstorming tour with Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. How would you describe his role in Japanese-American baseball?
Nakagawa: I would call him -- even his peers would call him -- the tsar of Japanese-American baseball. He was the "Dean of the Diamond." He really crossed over. He was able to coach two all-white Twilight League teams, which was unheard of in the 20s and '30s. It was unheard of to see a Nisei guy coaching all-white teams. That shows you how much respect he had. He was an organizer who played all nine positions. Two of his sons went on to play and become Hall of Famers at Fresno State, and would go on to play pro ball for the Hiroshima Carp.
He was very much in contact with Ruth, when Ruth made his tours to Japan in the early '30s. Kenichi also took tours with his own team, the Fresno Athletic Club as early as 1924, 1927 and 1937, to Japan, Korea and Manchukuo, China. He had tremendous fellowship, and organized games against the Negro League All-Stars.
I really look at him as much more than a baseball player. He was a tremendous American ambassador for our country, in building this bridge across the Pacific.
Kaneko: You've curated some museum exhibits to bring some of this information to people. What is one item or photo from one of those exhibits that you think it's essential every baseball fan know about?
Nakagawa: I think it's the wooden home plate from Zenimura Field that was on a Pima Indian reservation during World War II. It was featured in "Baseball As America," the baseball exhibit that toured with the Baseball Hall of Fame.
When I was at Cooperstown, I was standing around it as an educational component and a kid came with his grandfather, and he asked him, "Grandpa, why is that wooden home plate there?" and his grandfather said, "Well, this is when Japanese-Americans played in these camps during World War II." What an amazing artifact to have to start these kinds of conversations.
Zenimura's wooden home plate is currently on display in Cooperstown. You can see it on the second floor of the Hall of Fame museum as part of an exhibit titled "The Game." To hear more from Nagakawa, listen to the rest of the podcast here.