Selig Lecturer: Baseball Helped Japanese Connect with America

Bud Selig with Professor Samuel O. Regalado

Major League Baseball Commissioner Allan H. “Bud” Selig, left, attended “One Base at a Time: Baseball and the Nikkei People,” the second annual Selig Distinguished Lecture in Sport and Society, presented January 24 by Professor Samuel O. Regalado, right, of California State University, Stanislaus. Selig’s gifts have funded the lecture along with the to-be-filled Allan H. Selig Chair in History at UW-Madison.

The journey wasn’t easy.

Early Japanese immigrants faced scorn from “xenophobic groups bent on rolling up the welcome mat,” Samuel O. Regalado said while delivering “One Base at a Time,” the January 24 Selig Distinguished Lecture in Sport and Society at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Like other migrants before them, the first generation, known as Issei, who had largely arrived between 1890 and 1910 to the Pacific Coast, was met with hostility and disdain,” said Regalado, professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus.

In reality, Japanese immigrants, also known as Nikkei, adopted America as their own, worked hard and persevered. “And of their activities, baseball, the most popular sport in their respective communities given its development in Japan in the 1880s, was as familiar to them as it was to those outside of their enclave,” Regalado said.

He touched on how baseball helped shape Japanese American identity and built social and global bridges. In animated fashion, Regalado spun tales of pioneers and communities using baseball as a bond and social outlet. Among them were:

  • Kyutaro Abiko, founder of the Nichi Bei newspaper, who pressed his countrymen to “abandon their lifestyle of bunkhouses and gambling houses and try to live respectably, worthy of acceptance in American society. To attain the worthiness of which he spoke, to be recognized as Americans, would not happen overnight. It would occur in stages. Or, one base at a time,” Regalado said.
  • Chiura Obata, who came to San Francisco in 1903. Obata worked as a domestic, studied English, and became a renowned artist and University of California professor. Obata also loved baseball, and in 1903 formed a team called the Fuji Athletic Club, or the San Francisco Fujis, the first U.S. mainland team of entirely Japanese players.
  • Frank Fukuda, who arrived in Seattle in 1906. By 1908, he joined the Mikados, a club formed only a year earlier. Fukuda eventually took well-mannered, scholarly players to compete in Japan in the belief they could be ambassadors and a bridge to the Caucasian culture.
  • Kenichi Zenimura, born in Hiroshima and raised in Hawaii. He landed in Fresno in 1920 and within a year started the Fresno Athletic Club, which went beyond baseball as a place for young people to socialize.  He was known among Fresno’s Caucasian civic leaders and had earned such respect that he was invited to compete in an October 1927 exhibition that featured Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, who were barnstorming throughout the West Coast.  “These were huge games, and to be invited to compete against them, this was a big, big deal,” Regalado said.

During the 1930s, “baseball served to bring together the Issei and Nisei generations and lessened the generation gap between Issei fathers and their American-born (Nisei) sons,” Regalado said.

James Sakamoto, a publisher in the Seattle area, used his newspaper to sponsor athletic leagues as a way to foster Americanism. His Courier Baseball League went from 10 teams in Seattle to, in its final season in 1941, more than 30 teams and four different classifications.

The Courier League’s most popular event was the Pacific Northwest Baseball Tournament, held annually and significantly on the Fourth of July weekend. “One player said, ‘You know, putting my uniform on was like putting on the American flag,’” Regalado recounted.

Without baseball, said one former internee, the camps would have been maddening.

Professor Samuel O. Regalado

After Pearl Harbor, “nothing the Nikkei had done to the end of 1941 – be law-abiding citizens, being productive, overachieving in education – none of that made a difference,” Regalado said.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, about 110,000 Nikkei were sent to internment camps without the benefit of due process.

“Unjustly interned, the competitive Japanese turned to baseball and other sports as a means to temper their dreary circumstances. … Without baseball, said one former internee, the camps would have been maddening,“ Regalado said.

The camps’ terrain, with sagebrush and rocky soil, was not made for baseball. Still, those interned took it upon themselves to create fields. At the Gila River Encampment in Arizona, Kenichi Zenimura himself built a diamond.

After the war and the closing of the camps, the second-generation Nisei got older, their baseball playing lives started to end and their offspring began moving away from the traditional Japanese communities. “That is not to say that baseball was nonexistent for them,” Regalado said. Some began to foster exchanges with Japan, in an effort to ease postwar tensions.

Wally Yonamine was a member of that generation. Born in Hawaii, he became a “Jackie Robinson type” pioneer when he was the first American to join the Japanese Yomiuri Giants in 1951, and he faced hostility in Japan similar to that Robinson saw in the United States.

Regalado recounted pioneers in the major leagues such as Ryan Kurosaki, a relief pitcher who in 1975 became the first Japanese American major leaguer with the St. Louis Cardinals; Lenn Sakata, who broke in with Selig’s Milwaukee Brewers in 1977; Kurt Suzuki, the current Oakland A’s catcher; and Don Wakamatsu, who in 2008 was hired as manager of the Seattle Mariners.

Wakamatsu’s father was born in an internment camp, and his mother was a Japanese American picture bride. “If I’m seen as a stepping stone for Japanese Americans and equality in baseball, I’m glad to carry that torch,” he said.

As Regalado said, Japanese Americans at the end of the 20th century were “no longer outsiders looking in. Baseball helped get them there.”

The Selig Distinguished Lecture was sponsored by the UW-Madison Department of History, Asian American Studies Program and the Center for East Asian Studies.