Rounding the bases

Pioneering Japanese-American ballplayers struggled through American Midwest


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Before the likes of outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and pitcher/designated hitter Shohei Ohtani took Major League Baseball by storm, an earlier generation of Japanese players emigrated to the United States hoping to become professional baseball players.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/08/2020 (913 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Before the likes of outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and pitcher/designated hitter Shohei Ohtani took Major League Baseball by storm, an earlier generation of Japanese players emigrated to the United States hoping to become professional baseball players.

Those wannabes lived a vastly different life, arriving in California as students or seeking employment, but always with the dream of making a living in baseball.

Instead they found themselves in a place that didn’t really want them, with the accompanying social and economic hardships.

Courtesy of the author In this undated photo, the Nanka Team practises in Los Angeles, Calif. Players saw the game as a chance for a better life and a means to bridge the gap between their home and adopted lands.

Robert K. Fitts is a historian of Japanese-American baseball and the game’s link to Japan. Earlier books include Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami and the award-winning Banzai Babe Ruth, about the Ruth-led major league baseball tour of Japan in 1934.

The key players in Issei Baseball, his fifth book, are five immigrants who shaped Japanese American baseball: Harry Saisho, Ken Kitsuse, Tom Uyeda, Tozan Masko and Kiichi Suzuki. It is a story of five passionate young men who were born in Japan and received a Western education as their fathers wanted them to be prepared for leadership roles in the new Japan, and who saw the game as a chance for a better, rewarding life, and as a means to bridge the cultural gap between their home and adopted lands.

They, and the many other Japanese immigrants on the U.S. West Coast in the early 1900s, were basically looking for the American dream. That quest was hampered by racism, some language difficulties and the complications of trying to put together a baseball team and barnstorm throughout the Midwest, chasing an income and baseball notoriety.

And their bats too often let them down on the field, even as their fielding and base running showed promise.

Rather than just playing Issei teams in California and Washington State, tours (mainly through the Midwest) were a key component in the development of Japanese-American baseball; they gave the newcomers competition outside their home communities.

Fitts also details tours made by Japanese university teams to the United States, American university tours to Japan as well as Japanese-American teams touring Japan — a period of activity taking place between 1905 and 1911.

Courtesy of the author The 1905 Waseda University baseball team photograph.

The major focus of Issei Baseball, however, is on the Issei tours of the American heartland, where the teams faced prejudice, racism, skepticism about their baseball skills as well as economic problems, because they lived on a share of the gate.

Some communities welcomed the teams as a novelty as they were billed being all-Japanese (although they did throw in ringers when facing a tough semi-pro opponent). In many other locales the players were referred to as “little brown boys,” and illustrations in newspapers depicted them with animalistic characteristics and big teeth.

The Issei teams were put in the same category as African-American and Native-American teams — all of them seen as outsiders with no hope of assimilation.

Fitts places the Issei in larger national and international context of the times, including the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the move to segregate Japanese-American children by the San Francisco Board of Education in 1906 and the fears of the Yellow Peril in American mainstream culture.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese Americans — Issei, the immigrants, and Nisei, their American-born offspring — were stripped of their possessions and placed in euphemistically named “relocation centres.” Fitts’ main protagonists spent the war incarcerated, having lost land, good jobs and any hope of being assimilated in their adopted home.

Issei Baseball is a detailed look at the Japanese immigrants’ attempts to realize their baseball dreams and start a new life in the U.S.

For some readers, there will be too much detail in game-by-game accounts (also appendices listing individual tour game scores and team lineups), but Fitts delivers an appealing account of a group of young men hoping to build a new western life for themselves with a bat, ball and glove.

Chris Smith is a Winnipeg writer.

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