The Importance of Nisei Baseball in Japanese Internment Camps

By Kevin Nelson

Question: What is the first (and so far only) movie in which John Kruk has appeared?

Team picture of Japanese Americans in the internment camp in Manzanar, Calif., in 1943.

Answer: American Pastime, a 2007 feature film about baseball in the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, in which the former Phillie and current ESPN broadcaster plays a ballpark announcer. Kruk became involved in the movie after being contacted by its producer, Hollywood veteran Barry Rosenbush, who himself got interested in the project while sitting in a traffic jam on I-405 in west Los Angeles.

Going nowhere fast on one of L.A.’s busiest freeways, the producer of High School Musical was listening to the radio when an interview with Kerry Yo Nakagawa came on. Nakagawa, the grandson of Japanese immigrants, has dedicated the past 20 years of his life telling people about the internment camps and baseball’s important role in them. After escaping from traffic that day, Rosenbush clicked on Nakagawa’s website and dropped him an e-mail. What ultimately became a $3 million independent film and delivered Kruk’s cinematic debut – Kruk’s role is an extended cameo; he shot his scenes in one day on a sound stage – was off and running.

Having known Kerry Yo Nakagawa for close to a decade, meeting him while I was writing a book on California baseball history that covered, in part, the story of Japanese baseball in America, I can understand why a Hollywood producer would want to do business with him.

“Nisei baseball is part of my DNA,” Nakagawa said. And no one is more passionate about the subject – or knows more about it – than he.

Nakagawa runs the Nisei Baseball Research Project, which strives to bring awareness and education about Japanese American internment through the prism of baseball. So far, he has written a book (Through A  Diamond: 100 Years of Japanese American Baseball); served as the driving force behind a documentary narrated by the late Pat Morita (Diamonds in the Rough: The Legacy of Japanese American Baseball); curated a traveling museum exhibit that has been shown in the U.S. and Japanese Baseball Halls of Fame (among other places); created an educational curriculum for schools; taught forums for college students across the country; spoken everywhere from San Quentin Prison to the Smithsonian Institution; and, of course, served as the driving force behind the film American Pastime, which was released by Warner Bros. and shown on venues including ESPN Classic Films. Besides his role as associate producer, Nakagawa acted in the film and served, as he says, as “human ball machine” for the baseball scenes.

Intended to be family entertainment, American Pastime was shot on location in the Utah desert at the Topaz internment camp, about a two-hour drive south of Salt Lake City. Topaz was one of 10 camps set up around the West after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and ushered the U.S. into global war. About 120,000 Japanese-Americans – many of whom were born in this country – were regarded as potential security threats to the U.S., and the government forced them to give up their homes and businesses to live behind barbed wire until the war ended in 1945. To keep their morale up in the camps and stay connected to their lives as Americans, they formed teams and played baseball on dirt diamonds of their own making.

Since American Pastime is based on historical fact, I asked Nakagawa why he, Rosenbush and writer-director Desmond Nakano chose to make the movie fictional.

“We wanted to tell the story about camp life from the inside looking out,” he said. “There have been a number of internment films, but they were directed by non-Japanese Americans and told the stories from an outsider’s point of view. Although the film is a dramatic narrative, the characters and events are based on true stories.”

Nakagawa is a “Sansei,” the term used to describe the third-generation of Japanese

From left, in that historic meeting of baseball cultures in Fresno, Calif., in 1927, Johnny Nakagawa, Lou Gehrig, Kenichi Zenimura, Babe Ruth, Fred Yoshikawa and Harvey Iwata.

Americans in this country. His parents were “Nisei,” or second generation, and they were among those sent to the camps.

As a boy, Morita (whose birth name is Noriyuki) stayed in the Gila River, Ariz., camp. Nakano and co-writer Tony Kayden wrote a role especially for Morita, but he died in 2005 before shooting started.

The late Seth Sakai, who appeared on the 1970s TV series Hawaii Five-O,  stepped in to fill the role of Nori Morita. Many members of the cast and crew had parents and family who lived in the camps, including Nakano and an extra named John Owata, who was struggling with ill health but refused to take a break during filming despite the scorching Utah heat. “If my mom could take this camp for four years,” he said, “I can handle one day of it.”

One of the central themes of the movie – indeed, of everything Nakagawa does – is how, despite racial, cultural and generational differences, baseball holds American society together.

“Historically,” Nakagawa said, “baseball was the game for all diverse immigrants coming to America. They may not have been able to communicate outside the lines, but on the field, baseball was a universal language of sorts. If you could play the game with passion and win as a team, you gained immediate respect, despite your color or religion.”

Baseball was so much a part of American Pastime that a crew member took photos of everyone involved and turned them into Topps-style baseball cards. One of the film’s stars is Gary Cole, known for movie roles in Office Space and The Brady Brunch Movie and roles on TV series including Midnight Caller and The West Wing.”

When Cole received his baseball card, he said, “Now I don’t need a freakin’ Oscar. I have a baseball card.”

As part of ongoing efforts to promote Japanese American baseball history, Nakagawa is developing a line of “Nisei Pioneer” trading cards that includes old-time players unknown to the average baseball fan but who are legends of the Japanese game, such as Kenichi Zenimura. Zenimura, who went to the internment camps, too, was a star player on Japanese-only clubs in Fresno, Calif., in the 1920s and ’30s. The talented Zenimura joined Japanese-only teams because whites would not allow him to play on their teams, let alone the same fields they did. Nevertheless, Zenimura crossed over racial and ethnic barriers of that era by playing with white players and coaching white teams.

In 1927, when Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig came to Fresno on a national barnstorming tour, Zenimura and other Japanese stars (including Kerry’s uncle, Johnny Nakagawa) took the field with the Yankee greats in exhibition games that drew thousands of Japanese immigrants – baseball fans, all – from around the Central Valley.

Traveling Nisei baseball teams starring Zenimura and Johnny Nakagawa also played games against another group of outsiders barred from organized baseball at the time: black players from the Negro leagues.

Recently, at the home of the Fresno Grizzlies, the Triple-A franchise of the San Francisco Giants, Grizzly players donned the uniforms of Zenimura’s 1927 Fresno Athletic Club in tribute to him and others on that squad. Ten living Nisei pioneers were honored before the game. Nakagawa was on hand, along with his wife Jeri (an uncle of hers played with Jackie Robinson in junior college ball) and their two children, who are fourth-generation Japanese-Americans, or “Yonsei.” Two more Yonsei are Don Wakamatsu, manager of the Seattle Mariners, and ex-Oriole second baseman Len Sakata, a former Fresno manager who is now a minor league hitting coach. Perhaps the best-known Japanese American player in the majors today is catcher Kurt Suzuki of the Oakland Athletics, a fourth-generation “Nikkei.”

Besides working on his Nisei trading cards and promoting American Pastime, Nakagawa is collaborating with the SFO Museum, which curates a variety of exhibits inside the San Francisco International Airport. The Nisei baseball exhibit is tentatively scheduled for 2014, according to museum officials.

For now, though, Nakagawa is trying to figure out what to do with a historical artifact of the most rare and wonderful kind: 21 seconds of 16 mm film shot by an amateur photographer that shows Zenimura, Johnny Nakagawa and other Nisei stars chatting with Ruth and Gehrig before that fabled 1927 meeting of cultures.

“I’m exploring finding a national venue to show this never-before-seen footage,” Nakagawa says with typical enthusiasm.

Contact Kerry Yo Nakagawa at nbrp@comcast.net for more information on his Japanese American baseball projects. Kevin Nelson, the author of “Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of The Biggest Forgery Scam in American History,” can be reached at KevinNelsonWriter.com.

Leave a Reply