Kenichi Zenimura’s 32-team league divided players by skill level. Pictured above are his Gila Junior All-Stars, who traveled to the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming for an inter-camp series in 1944. (Courtesy Bill Staples Jr./Nisei Baseball Research Project)
FRESNO — The Nisei Baseball Research Project (NBRP), a nonprofit organization founded to preserve the history of Japanese American baseball, is pleased to announce that the wooden home plate from the World War II Japanese American concentration camp at Gila River, Ariz., is now on exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
In partnership with the NBRP and the Arizona Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, the National Baseball Hall of Fame added the wartime relic to its second floor exhibit “The Game.” The addition of the home plate coincides with May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and 2017 as the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which led to the forced removal and incarceration of some 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry.
According to a recent Hall of Fame article titled “A Field of Dreams in an Arizona Desert,” the home plate serves as an important symbol of hope for people of all nationalities.
The original home plate used at Zenimura Field is currently on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame. (Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)
“This wooden home plate was much more than a corner of a dusty baseball diamond, or the shape that helped define a batter’s strike zone,” said Hall of Fame senior curator Tom Shieber. “It was (and is) a vibrant symbol of hope for those who were denied their freedom, and an expression of what it meant to be an American for those who were stripped of their civil rights. It is an important artifact in the history of our country, not just the history of our national pastime.”
According to Hall of Fame officials, as “visitors learn about the home plate, with all of its rusty nails and splintered pieces of wood, so too will they understand the legacy of Kenichi Zenimura, the man who created a fountain of hope in the Pima Indian desert of Arizona.”
A poster advertising the home opener at Zenimura Field on March 7, 1943. Kenichi Zenimura created this poster by hand, in both English and Japanese. (Courtesy Bill Staples Jr./Nisei Baseball Research Project)
Zenimura is recognized by historians as “the Father of Japanese American Baseball.”
“Japanese Americans kept the all-American pastime alive behind barbed wire, despite the fact that their civil liberties were being violated by the country that they loved,” said Kerry Yo Nakagawa, NBRP founder and project director. “Long before World War II, Japanese Americans embraced the game of baseball, not only to display their sense of belonging in America, but because of their love for the game itself.
“Japanese Americans played in leagues of their own due to bigotry of the time, and they also competed against barnstorming Major League players and teams from the Pacific Coast League, Negro Leagues and Japan. They not only held their own; in many cases they were the victors.”
Japanese Americans also played a key role as international baseball ambassadors, helping to build a bridge to the Pacific. “If African Americans integrated the game of baseball, then Japanese Americans internationalized it,” said Bill Staples, Jr., author of “Kenichi Zenimura, Japanese American Baseball Pioneer.”
Between 1900 and 1940, Japanese Americans did more than any other group to help export the American style of play to Asia with numerous goodwill tours to Japan, China and Korea. And when Nikkei teams weren’t directly involved in tours, because they knew the language and customs of both countries, they helped facilitate tours behind the scenes, as was the case with the Negro League Philadelphia Royal Giants, who toured Asia in 1927, and the Major League tours of 1931 and 1934. These American ambassadors planted the seeds so that professional baseball in Japan could begin in 1936.
“Timing is key in the game of baseball,” says Staples. “Players like Masanori Murakami, Hideo Nomo, Ichiro, Hideki Matsui and Masahiro Tanaka were born at the right time. They all are indebted to the Japanese American pioneers who helped elevate the level of play in Japan before the war by building baseball’s bridge to the Pacific. Hopefully the wooden home plate will spark a greater appreciation for the pre-war impact and legacy of Japanese American baseball pioneers.”
“Since the inception of the NBRP, our mission has been to have the National Baseball Hall of Fame consider a permanent exhibition for Japanese Americans,” said Nakagawa. “All great journeys in the game of baseball begin at home plate. Hopefully Zenimura’s wooden home plate is just the beginning for Cooperstown to recognize, honor and celebrate the important legacy of Asian Americans in our national pastime, much like the All-American Girls, Latinos and the Negro Leagues.”
For more information, visit www.niseibaseball.com.