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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.

Former Japan League and 2017 Dodgers pitchers Kenta Maeda and Yu Darvish proved to be formidable in the regular season rotation. Darvish struggled after winning two games in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Maeda, converted (for the post season) to a relief pitcher was dominant until he faced the Astros in the Series.

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.

Dubbed “Tatsumaki” (the Tornado), Hideo Nomo’s delivery was anything but conventional as it was reminiscent of Luis Tiant, turning his back to the batter before delivering the ball to the plate. Nomo was a bona fide star of the Japanese leagues before signing with the Dodgers prior to the 1995 season.

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.

Baseball game at Manzanar War Relocation Center, Owens Valley, California, 1943. (Source: Library of Congress: Ansel Adams)

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.

This (purportedly Nisei internment camp) three-piece baseball uniform set could have been originally used by a professional team as noted by the ghosted lettering across the jersey front (eBay image).

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.

This Nisei players-signed 12-inch 1940s Goldsmith softball is an absolute historical treasure (source: eBay image).

The auction had an opening bid of $59.99 (source: eBay screenshot).

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:

WWII Navy Baseball Uniforms: Preserving the Ones That Got Away

I created this site as a vehicle for me to write about and discuss the military baseball artifacts that I have or am adding to my collection. Rather than to be simplistic in describing the items and sharing photographs of each piece, I prefer to research and capture the history (when possible) in order to provide context surrounding the items as a means to educate readers. I find that I often return to my articles and incorporate their elements or entirety for use in subsequent articles or as a means to authenticate artifacts that I am interested in purchasing.  Another activity that I enjoy participating in is to document those artifacts that I have discovered either too late or was incapable of purchasing due to being outbid, a missed opportunity, too many unanswered questions, cost-prohibitive or simply unavailable for purchase. Losing out on acquiring somethings doesn’t necessarily translate to letting these pieces pass into oblivion simply because they are not part of my collection.

Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets sporting their wonderful flannel uniforms.
Left to right: Walter Masterson, Fred Hutchinson, Charlie Wagner, Tom Early (source: Hampton Roads Naval Museum).

Left to right: Charlie Welchel, Pee Wee Reese and Hugh Casey of the Norfolk Naval Air Station Airmen baseball team, wearing wings on their uniforms (source: Virginian-Pilot).

I have a soft spot for vintage jerseys and I am constantly on the prowl for anything that would help to make my collection more diverse with uniform pieces from all service teams such as Navy and Army Air Forces teams. In my collection, I now have three different World War II jerseys (two of which include the trousers) from Marine Corps ball teams. This past summer, I was able to locate ball caps that seem to accompany two of those Marines jerseys. In addition to the USMC items, I have two uniforms (jerseys and trousers) from WWII Army teams: one from the 399th Infantry Regiment and the other, a colorful, tropical-weight red-on-blue (cotton duck) uniform from the Fifth Army headquarters ball team (which reminds me that I still need to write an article about this uniform group).  Two years ago, I was able to find another uniform set (jersey and trousers) that I am almost certain was from a Navy ball team, due to the blue and gold colors of the soutache and that the plackard reads in flannel script, “Aviation Squadron” adorning the jersey.

In my pursuit of military baseball uniforms, I have been working to document the ones that got away (or simply were not available for purchase) in order to create a record for comparative analysis in support of research or to assist in authentication of other uniforms. Unlike professional baseball, the major leagues in particular, there are very few surviving examples of uniform artifacts from the 1940s and earlier. By creating an archive, I am hoping that not only will I have a resource available for my own efforts but will also help others in understanding more about what our armed forces players wore on the field during their service.

This close-up of Ted Williams shows him in the Navy baseball uniform that he wore while attending naval aviation training and playing for the Chapel Hill Cloudbusters ball team.

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by an author who was seeking information on what became of the baseball uniforms that were used by the naval aviation cadets who were attending U.S. Navy Pre-Flight School (The V-5 Program) at Chapel Hill. The cadet baseball team (the Cloudbusters) at the V-5 school included some professional ballplayers (such as two Boston Red Sox greats, Johnny Pesky and Ted Williams, Boston Braves’ Johnny Sain to name a few). In addition to the baseball team, Chapel Hill also fielded a cadet football team whose coaching roster included college legends Jim Crowley,  Frank Kimbrough, Bear Bryant, Johnny Vaught and even a future president, Gerald Ford. The uniforms worn by the Cloudbusters baseball team were trimmed with a double soutache surrounding the collar and the plackard that matched what was worn on the cuffs of the sleeves. Across the front in block lettering was N A V Y reminiscent of baseball uniforms worn by the Naval Academy ball teams at that time. In my response to the person who contacted me, I told her that I had not seen anything resembling the Cloudbusters uniforms nor did I have any knowledge of what became of them after the War. I can imagine that a team with a roster filled with professional ballplayers that they would have multiple uniforms (a few sets each for both away and home use), similar to what the Norfolk Naval Station Bluejackets ball team had.

Ted Williams and Johnny Pesky entertain a group of youngsters while in their Navy baseball uniforms of the Chapel Hill Cloudbusters team (source: Baseball Hall of Fame).

See Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot video series regarding the Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets baseball team featuring an interview with former major leaguer, Eddie Robinson:

 

The left sleeve of the Navy baseball jersey is adorned with patch bearing crossed flags. The U.S. flag shows the pre-1959 48 stars. The British-esque flag might help to identify where, when or who wore this uniform (Vintagesportsshoppe.com).

While looking through my photo archives for images of artifacts in support of another article that I was writing, I discovered images of a Navy baseball jersey that had been for sale at some point by a small, regional business that specializes in vintage sports equipment. I saved the image of the jersey for future reference due to the unique patch on the left sleeve. The patch bears two crossed flags – one is the U.S. flag and the other, a red flag with the British Union Jack in the left corner and an indistinguishable symbol in the red field. The jersey has a singular blue soutache trim and possesses the same block-lettering (as seen on the Cloudbusters jerseys – which have no sleeve patches). In searching through extensive volumes of historical Navy baseball photographs, no image has surfaced showing this uniform in use, keeping it a mystery for the time-being.

This Navy baseball uniform is unique with the zippered front and single, navy-blue soutache on the sleeve cuffs and the uniform front. The well-known Chapel Hill Cloudbusters uniforms had button-fronts and double-soutache trim (source: Vintagesportsshoppe.com).

Wool flannel numerals in navy blue adorn the back of the jersey (source Vintagesportsshoppe.com).

I am hopeful that I can continue to gather a useful archive of uniform artifacts in order to provide a sufficient military baseball uniform research resource. Aside from articles such as this, I think that I will organize the uniform images into a proper archive that will be organized and searchable. By capturing and cataloging the artifacts that do not make it into my collection, I can still maintain a “collection” of artifacts that will be helpful to me and other collectors and researchers.

 

 

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