Japanese Influence on the Game: History on an Internment Camp Ball
The history of the game for players of Japanese origin and descent is considerably more recent than it is for African American players. Japanese ball players have seen great success since they were allowed to take to the fields of the Major Leagues.
After more than 29 years of waiting for my beloved Dodgers to return to the World Series, I was in awe to watch the boys in blue march through the end of September and both rounds of the playoffs (against the Diamondbacks and Cubs) with relative ease. Seeing the likes of Turner, Bellinger, Seager, Taylor, Forsythe and Puig inflicting damage in the playoffs and continuing into the Series was an absolute thrill. However, it wasn’t until the World Series that the Dodgers unhittable pitching began to fade. Kershaw’s start in game one wasn’t spectacular but the bullpen bailed him out, holding on for the win. The seesaw battle of exchanging wins with the Houston Astros was both exciting and difficult to watch. What brought particular discomfort was to see Yu Darvish relegated to a batting practice pitcher by the Astros’ batters.
Yu Darvish arrived late in the season and was brought in to help carry the Dodgers into the post-season. At the time of the trade, Los Angeles was reeling from the loss of their ace, Clayton Kershaw, from an injury. When their protracted losing streak came to an end, the Japanese pitcher Darvish was one of the reasons for helping to turn things around. Yu Darvish’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) career was nothing short of spectacular prior to his arrival to the Texas Rangers (the team who traded him to Los Angeles) and the subsequent four-time All Star, had moments of greatness mixed with modest performances in the Major Leagues during his first three seasons (he missed the entire 2025 season following “Tommy John” surgery). However in his post-season appearances with the Rangers, he failed to deliver, yielding two losses (one in the 2012 American League Wild Card and the other in Game 2 of the 2016 American League Division Series). Yu seemed to have turned the post-season victory corner with the Dodgers as he claimed victories against Arizona and Chicago in his 2017 playoffs appearances.
NPB players have experienced success in the American Major Leagues and the Dodgers have been the recipients of considerable talent from these exciting overseas veteran ballplayers, beginning with Hideo Nomo in 1995 (not including Masanori Murakami, a relief pitcher who was the first, signing with the San Francisco Giants in 1963 and appeared in 54 games between 1964-65). In total, 56 players (three on active rosters while five are current free agents, including Darvish) from Japan have served on major league rosters, many of which have dominated in their positions. Besides Nomo and Darvish, the Dodgers rosters since 1995 have been dotted with the following NPB veterans:
The 2017 Dodgers pitching staff has another NPB veteran pitcher, right-hander Kenta Maeda has been a bright-spot since he was signed to their major league roster in 2016, posting win/loss records of 16-11 and 13-6 in his two full seasons as a starter. During the post-season, Maeda was used only as a reliever, notching two victories in the NLDS and NLCS and appearing in four of the World Series games. For “my” Dodgers, the short-term future looks bright for another run at the championship. As the “hot stove league” starts to heat up with yet another of the NPB star hitters is looking to find fortune on a major league roster (Shohei Otani) and Los Angeles is one of the teams in contention to bid for his talents, the 2018 season could be filled with highlights from a Japanese star player. Horace Wilson’s 19th Century exporting of the sport to Japan continues to yield returns for the game in the United States. Within our own shores, the history of the game for Japanese Americans experienced a similar past as did African American players, being excluded entirely from major league rosters. Much of the focus of civil rights equality in the game has centered on the color barrier being broken with Branch Rickey’s signing of Jackie Robinson. As the integration of the big leagues wasn’t completed until 1960 (with the Boston Red Sox’s addition of Pumpsie Green to their roster) for players of African descent, the unspoken and unwritten line of segregation (of Japanese American ballplayers from MLB) was still very much intact for a few more years. In 1967 (20 years after Jackie Robinson’s debut), outfielder Mike Lum became the first American-born Japanese person to take the field in major league baseball, commencing his 15-year career with the Atlanta Braves.
For most American kids growing up in the 1920s-40s during baseball’s “golden era,” the game was an integral part of the experiences of youth in sandlots and streets of cities and towns across the United States. Regardless of ethnicities or the color of skin, kids were passionate about the game. When the U.S. was drawn into World War II and the ensuing internment of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans into camps throughout the Western half of the country, the game went with them into captivity.
As a collector of military baseball, artifacts from the internment camps have special consideration from me due to the impacts of these Americans, their love for country and the game and that many of the young men who were interned, volunteered to serve the nation who stripped away from them, everything except for their dignity. Many of these men went on to serve with distinction throughout the armed forces and including within the legendary 442nd RCT (the most decorated unit of WWII). When baseball artifacts surface for sale, I take particular interest. Earlier this year, a Nisei baseball uniform was listed at auction, purported to be from a player from an internment camp baseball team (see: Nisei Relocation Camp Baseball: Authenticating a Uniform). Though I was very interested and even willing to take a gamble on the uniform, the bidding went above my budget (the closing price was $370), even with questions surrounding its authenticity. For the second time this year, another Nisei baseball item (again, from the internment camps) was listed and sold at auction.
The listing’s description read, “This ball is signed by the ‘Young Men from Block 74’ to their coach, Mr. Shintaku.” The seller mentioned some researching of the players’ signatures that are distinguishable on the ball. “I was able to pick out one of the names, George Kurashige,” he wrote, “it turns out within the database there was only one in all of the camps. He was born in 1929 and in 1945 he would have been 16 which did fit for the ‘young men’s team.” The seller’s research showed that this player was interned at the Gila River camp in Arizona and that the camp was large enough to have been subdivided. The description continued, “(sic) the Butte camp division housed the 74th block among many others. There was also four Mr. Shintakus also stationed at the camp,” which seems to convince the seller that the Gila/Butte camp is where the ball originates. Constructed within this camp was a 6,000-seat baseball venue.
The softball includes a period-correct box (which is missing the top) with the GoldSmith Official label. The label shows the 12-inch softball to be “Concealed Stitch” model (the very faint stamping on the ball itself corresponds to the box). A cursory search for online listings shows an abundance of this model of softball (inclusive of boxes) with very little interest and low listing prices. However, with the history and the signatures on the Nisei ball, it garnered considerable interest, selling for nearly $300.
My interest in the ball was more from an historical perspective rather than wanting to add it to my collection. Softball, though very similar to baseball, has nominal value for me in terms of collecting. I decided not to pursue this artifact and hope that it ended up with someone who is preserving the history from the Japanese American experience or, more specifically from the internment camps to ensure that the history is preserved and shared with following generations.
As fall passes into winter and major league baseball rosters begin to settle following the free agency moves, I will grow increasingly hopeful for the 2018 season to see what the Dodgers do for the coming year. I am left wondering where Yu Darvish and Shohei Otani wind up, hoping to see the boys in blue landing one (or both) of these young Japanese players.
To learn more about people with Japanese origins or ancestry in Major League Baseball, see:
Posted on November 20, 2017, in Baseballs, Equipment, WWII and tagged 1940s softball, 2017 World Series, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Dave Roberts, Dodgers, Gila Internment Camp, GoldSmith Softball, Hideo Nomo, Hiroki Kuroda, Horace Wilson, Internment Camps, Japanese Internment, Japanese Leagues, Kenta Maeda, Manzanar Relocation Center, Nisei Baseball, Nisei Softball, Pumpsie Green, Yu Darvish. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.