Skip to main content

Baseball behind barbed wire

August 22, 2014

Kerry Yo Nakagawa, Pete Mitsui, manager of the Manzanar baseball team, and Jeff Arnett, former director of education at the Baseball Hall of Fame, gather at the site of the baseball diamond at Manzanar during World War II. Photo courtesy Rosie Kakuuchi

Seven years ago I stepped onto the sacred grounds of Manzanar with the frigid cool morning breeze greeting me on a February morning. I thought of the orphaned internee Dennis Bambauer who lived in the Manzanar children’s village and his quote, “there was always the wind.”
A group of students from Kansas had won the national contest to host the Electronic Field Trip where classrooms all over the country are taken to Manzanar via television satellite hookup. Our goal was to clear the sagebrush and tumbleweeds off the baseball fields and mark out the bases. Pete Mitsui, manager and former player of the Manzanar camp champions, led us to where the bases used to be. On his hunch, we discovered a rusty metal peg that had anchored the base back in 1942.
“Seeing our kids so excited and getting the opportunity to host a live show was the highlight of my educational career,” said Dan Brown, a teacher from Kansas. For Tom Leatherman (former superintendent of Manzanar), it was all about the kids telling the story of the concentration camp. “Watching the students become the voice and engage and share their discoveries with millions of other kids across the country was powerful.”
After clearing, leveling, grooming and white chalking the fresh lines of the baseball field, Tom and I played catch while coach Pete proudly looked on. Pete remarked, “We built this field with a lot of sweat and love.” I wondered how Pete felt being back to his former home away from home and this diamond 65 years later.
Nisei Pioneer Rosie Kakuuchi stood by us and she also played on this field with her Dusty Chicks team. She was an all-star catcher and competed with teams like the Modernaires, Stardusters and the Montebello Gophers. “We were so good we even challenged the men to play us and we beat them,” she said. Rosie’s husband Jack would enlist and play third base for the Camp Grant Illinois Army Team. In 1943, Jack’s Army team would beat the Chicago Cubs in an exhibition, 4-3.
As we continued our catch ball, I could imagine the thousands of fans lined up all along left field, center and the right field lines, wrapping around to the backstop cheering on their favorite team and players. Ralph Lazo was probably at one of the games. He was a Mexican American teenager who refused to let his Nisei friends go to camp without him. He went to the Santa Anita Racetrack Assembly Center for six months and then stayed at Manzanar with his neighborhood buddies. On this field, the San Fernando Aces honored quadriplegic Pete Kondo who was an all-star third baseman for the prewar semi-pro Los Angeles Nippons team. In 1931 the Nippons went to Japan on a goodwill tour and compiled a 20-5 record. A car accident ended his playing career but not his passion for writing and art which he continued at the camp through the kindness and rehab work of a humanitarian nurse.
Manzanar is a Spanish term meaning “apple orchard” and reminds us that the interned Japanese Americans were as American as mom, apple pie and baseball. They kept the all-American pastime alive, even from behind barbed wire. In their world, life brought a desert and they built these diamonds in the rough, persevered and eventually made it home. Inclusion within the context of exclusion. The irony of camp baseball was that Japanese Americans were considered “enemy aliens” and confined, but if a relative had passed away outside the camp … they could not leave for a service. By being a ballplayer you could travel from Manzanar to Tule Lake, Calif. or from Gila River, Ariz. to Heart Mountain, Wyo. for a tournament. It gave you this free passage and amnesty.
 After 1945, most Japanese Americans had very little. Most came back to nothing, but they could still meet every Sunday at the ball field, forging community and fellowship. Through its positive identity and image, baseball helped salve the deep wounds of war. Similarly, the story about baseball behind barbed wire contains the potential to transform not only Japanese American communities, but American communities throughout the nation because of its heroic triumph over discrimination and xenophobia.
 Tom and I finished playing catch and Rosie said, “Now you two will have great memories of this field like us.” Great response from one of two “Living Manzanar Treasures.”
Manzanar is a National Park now and to some a museum; but for me it’s a sacred church to pay my respects to my relatives and friends, walk their hallowed grounds, lay flowers at their monument and thank them for life and opportunities I have today because of their sacrifice and indomitable spirit. It will be nice to feel the cool breeze on my face again.

(Kerry Yo Nakagawa is the author of “Japanese American Baseball in California.” He will be presenting programs at Manzanar on Saturday, Aug. 30 at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. and on Sunday, Aug. 31 at 11 a.m. He will be available to meet visitors and sign his new book before and after the programs.)

Premium Drupal Themes by Adaptivethemes