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:
I am a bit of a jersey-nut. If I tallied all of my wearable sports jerseys, I think they would number somewhere in the 40s. The majority of that number consists of baseball jerseys – the most significant percentage of those are flannel reproductions of vintage minor league, negro league and WWII military baseball versions. Since I started to actively pursue militaria (beyond what I have inherited from family members), I have searched for and acquired a few baseball jerseys (three of which also included the accompanying trousers). For my military baseball collecting, landing jerseys (especially those with provenance) is the ultimate in my collecting quest.
I will be focusing some of my future posts on the vintage uniforms that are currently in my collection. Though a few of them are in need of more thorough research (in order to determine when and where they might have been used), forcing myself to write about them and share them on this blog will compel me to press further into locating any sort of data that can help me to connect them more specifically with history. In previous posts, I have documented some of the military baseball uniforms that eluded my pursuits (Satin on Diamonds: a Rare WWII Army Baseball Uniform, Obscure Military Baseball Jerseys – Rare Finds or Fabrications)) though in writing about them, helps me to preserve a record of what exists in order to have a resource for analysis.
I have seen several vintage baseball uniforms (specifically jerseys) that have been listed at auction that would be fantastic to add to my collection but they don’t truly fit in with my narrow military focus. Last year, one uniform came to market that I really wanted to pull the trigger on as it was very closely aligned with my interest but still fell outside of the military. It went unsold and was relisted three times with price reductions that were inching the grouping closer to a reasonable price range for me and had it gotten a bit lower (before it sold), this article would be covering my sixth vintage jersey (uniform) rather than another one that got away.
There are volumes upon volumes of books and personal narratives of one of our nation’s darkest actions ever perpetrated upon its own citizenry; Executive Order 9066 which called for and executed the Internment of Japanese Americans, German Americans, and Internment of Italian Americans was signed by Democrat President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The order authorized the Secretary of War to establish Military Areas and to remove from those areas anyone who might threaten the war effort and was able to accomplish this by withholding due process to those subjected to the terms of the order. On the United States’ West Coast, all Americans of Japanese Ancestry were removed from their businesses, property and homes (many, forcibly) and ultimately relocated to large camps that were hastily created by the War Department within the interior of the United States (away from the sensitive military areas) and greatly lacked in necessities and most comforts afforded to even the poorest of the poor.
To counter the effects of the isolation and monotony of incarcerated camp-life, these Americans engaged in as many normal activities as possible. Baseball teams were formed and, in some of the camps, substantial leagues were formed (at the Gila camp, a 32-team league) and competed against each other. One ball-playing internee (George Omachi) noted, ”It was demeaning and humiliating to be incarcerated in your own country. Without baseball, camp life would have been miserable.” I can’t help but consider that many of the young military-aged men who played on the camp teams opted to also serve their country, leaving behind their imprisoned families to serve the nation that stripped them of their Constitutionally-protected rights.
In terms of collecting and possessing a uniform worn by a camp ballplayer who could have also served in the armed forces, it would have been a nice addition to accompany my other items. Further justification that the uniform bears military historical significance is that the camps were all administered and secured by the U.S. military (predominantly, the U.S. Army). This particular uniform may also have possessed other baseball historical importance. Close examination of the jersey shows ghosting of lettering on the chest that could indicate prior use before it found its way into the camp. Accompanying the uniform was an autographed team photo showing players wearing (what appears to be) the same jersey and trousers as was listed in the online auction. The listing description didn’t provide anything in terms of provenance or any details surrounding how the seller obtained the items or who they came from. Had the auction gone unsold and relisted at yet a lower price, I would have pressed for information to help support the claims made within the listing.
What is challenging about the uniform is the lack of readily available analytics to validate the claims made by the uniform’s seller. In researching the uniform, one can only utilize what is visible within the auction photographs while placing very little weight upon the descriptive text. What can be seen:
- The material and construction of the uniform (wool flannel)
- Ghosting of lettering across the chest (though what the lettering was is indistinguishable in the photos)
- The uniform has matching manufacturer’s tags in the collar of the jersey and inside the trousers (Powers Athletic Wear; Waterloo, Iowa)
- The uniform’s design and appointments (the soutache on the jersey front and trouser legs)
- The matching cap design: six panel with leather sweatband and soft bill
Without a database of labels for the manufacturer, specifically dating the uniform inside of a broad range (1940s to 1960s) is difficult. At the very least, the uniform was made after the 1930s (comparing it to other known uniform designs within these eras). I unsuccessfully scoured the internet for anything related to Nisei baseball in search of photographs that could support the seller’s claims. Surprisingly, there is a fair amount to wade through but nothing like this uniform could be located.
The seller claimed that the uniform was previously used by a minor-league team, stating “It was a uniform from the California Fresno Bees/Minor League team.” He or she mentioned the (then) common practice of handing down old uniforms, often removing the names and number prior to giving them to the new team(s). There are no records that identify the name or location of a professional team fitting the one provided within the auction details serving to increase doubt as to the veracity of the listing as presented. Without the provided photo, there is virtually nothing to corroborate the story that this uniform had been used by a Nisei team, however the photo is very convincing.
Though I was unconvinced, had the price been a bit lower, I probably would have pulled the trigger and made the purchase. I remain mixed, however that I would be celebrating or left disappointed with the purchase of an overpriced vintage adult baseball uniform that lacked the purported history. I am genuinely hopeful that the person who ended up buying the uniform was able to fully research and validate that it truly is what it was listed as.
Nisei Military and Baseball Resources:
- Baseball behind barbed wire
- A Century of Japanese American Baseball
- Nisei Baseball History Project
- Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice: Goro Kashiwaeda
- Nikkei Veterans Honor Roll