Japanese-American Baseball Leagues Fuel Dreams and Community Pride from Early This Century to the Internment Camps of World War II, Semi-Professional Baseball Teams Helped Keep Up Community Spirits and Provided a Path to Fuller Participation in American Life
Daniel Sneider, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
Herb 'Moon' Kurima was born early in this century in the farming town of Florin in California's San Joaquin Valley, the son of Japanese parents who had immigrated from Hiroshima.
From the age of 10, he joined his family after school in the strawberry fields. And after graduating from high school, Kurima went to work at the strawberry grower as a shed manager, remaining there almost all his life.
Only one thing broke the tight weave of family and hard work that formed Kurima's life - baseball. From grammar school, Herb took to the game with a joy that remains undiminished by age. He can still recall every pitch of his first at-bat in 1932 at the age of 18 for the Florin Athletic Club, one of many semi-professional teams formed by Japanese-Americans. Kurima pitched for the Florin team until 1948. But though he prides himself on playing "pretty good ball," this farm boy never shared the dream of other Americans of seeing his name in a Major League box score. For reasons of race, and to some extent physical stature, Japanese players were effectively barred from the professional ranks. "Japanese-Americans in the prewar period were not welcomed into normal mainstream league teams," says Stanford University political scientist Daniel Okimoto. This was a product of discrimination, he says, "but there was also a strong desire as a community to bond." Instead, beginning in the early 1900s, Japanese-Americans began forming separate teams, eventually organizing leagues, that played throughout Hawaii, California, and Washington, as well as some of the Rocky Mountain states. While the Japanese-American baseball leagues were not as fabled as the Negro Leagues, they performed a similar role as a source of community pride and a path to participation in American life. For almost 70 years, the Japanese-American baseball leagues were a vibrant part of the life of that immigrant community. After a long week of work in the fields, Japanese-Americans would gather in farming towns in California's San Joaquin Valley for the diamond battles. Even when they were denied their rights as Americans and placed behind barbed wire in internment camps during World War II, they kept their spirits up by reconstructing their baseball teams. And though they did not make it into the Major Leagues, Japanese-American players carried the game back to their ancestral homeland, promoting baseball in Japan and even becoming stars on Japanese professional teams. Exhibit opens This previously little-known corner of American baseball history is beautifully illuminated in "Diamonds in the Rough: Japanese Americans in Baseball," an exhibit that opened in early April at the California State Capital Museum in Sacramento. California State Assemblyman Mike Honda, a third generation Japanese-American, recalled the struggles of his parents and grandparents against the anti-Japanese laws passed in the 1920s, including those denying citizenship and halting further Japanese immigration. "There have been laws passed under this roof to deny us access," Assemblyman Honda noted. The celebration of the Japanese contribution to baseball history brings with it the promise that "there may not be any more parallel leagues," he told an audience of former players, Japanese-Americans, lawmakers, and other guests. Baseball came to Japan itself as far back as the 1870s, brought there by American schoolteachers, where it rapidly gained popularity. The first recorded Japanese-American team was the Excelsiors, formed in Hawaii in 1899. But growth came most rapidly after a Japanese college team toured the West Coast in 1905 and more than held their own against American collegiate teams. By the 1920s, more than 100 teams had been formed, mostly consisting of Nisei, or second-generation Japanese-Americans. "Despite the discrimination and racism experienced by Japanese-Americans during that time, on the baseball field they could feel equal to anyone else," writes Kerry Yo Nakagawa, who researched and organized the exhibition. …