By Cody Kitaura
Ports Honor “Fibber” Hirayama, Nisei Players
By Cody Kitaura
By Cody Kitaura
STOCKTON—When Nisei baseball player Satoshi “Fibber” Hirayama (Poston 227-2-A) played his first of 10 seasons in Japan, he immediately had some pointers for the Japanese players.
The language took him a little longer to figure out. “One of the first things (the other players) taught me was when the manager says something, say ‘I understand,’” Hirayama said. The real translation of that phrase was “go jump in a lake,” he said.
“Everybody in the dugout was laughing up a storm,” the 79-year-old Stockton native said.
Photo: Satoshi Fibber Hirayama
On July 10, about 20 Nisei baseball players & their families were honored in a pre-game ceremony by the Stockton Ports minor league baseball team. They played in Japanese-American leagues from the 1940s to the 1960s. The event was important enough for Gary Horita to make a drive all the way from Los Angeles. His late father, George Horita, was the manager of the Stockton Yamato team that won the NorCal championship in 1940.“He would’ve been very happy to see this,” Gary Horita said. “I’m sure he’s here in spirit.”
Hirayama was recognized for his 1952 season with the Stockton Ports & his 10 seasons of play in Japan’s Nippon Pro Baseball League playing for the Hiroshima Carp.
When Hirayama moved to Japan in 1955 with his wife, Jean, they never thought they would stay more than a few years. “In Hiroshima they really treated me well,” Hirayama said. “It was a pleasure to be there.” He noticed that the Japanese teams played the game differently. They didn’t go for high-scoring innings, & instead focused on each run individually. “They played for one run, not a big inning,” Hirayama said. “They were very meticulous as far as the fundamentals were concerned.”
Another of the differences Hirayama noticed were the wild, raucous crowds at each game. “I couldn’t believe the intensity of the fans,” he said. “They had drum sections in the stands & everything like that.”
Although the Japanese & American attitudes toward baseball were very different, the game went a long way toward fostering bonds between the two countries. Consul General of Japan in San Francisco Yasumasa Nagamine, who was a guest at the July Stockton Ports event, said the two countries “have always cherished their relationship through baseball.” “Baseball is very much a global sport,” he said.
California State University, Stanislaus history professor Samuel Regalado agreed, & pointed out that Issei baseball players made trips to Japan to play against Japanese teams as early as the 1920s. “(Baseball) has been really instrumental in terms of establishing a social connection between the two nations,” said Regalado, whose first journal article on the history of Japanese-American baseball was published in 1992.
Baseball also worked to unite Japanese-Americans on a smaller level. Some of the first baseball games Hirayama played were inside the walls of the (Poston) Arizona internment camp his family had been sent to during World War II. He was only 12 at the time, & said he didn’t really understand why he was there. The only thing about the camp that caught his attention was the number of Japanese families that were there. “Coming from a small town, the fact that it was all Japanese was really different,” Hirayama said. He enjoyed those pickup games, but mainly played because there wasn’t anything else to do in the internment camp. “I just enjoyed doing it,” he said. “I never dreamt I would’ve made a career out of it.”
But Regalado said baseball was more than something to pass the time in internment camps. He said many Japanese-American players brought their uniforms with them to the War Relocation Authority assembly centers & immediately organized leagues; in many cases, teams that had played before the war broke out were interned together & continued to play. Regalado said through baseball, internees “were able to keep the community together not only as teammates, but also keep morale up.” “It added to their comfort levels,” he said.
Nisei baseball player Ted Kamibayashi’s internment led to a slightly different path – he left his internment camp & enlisted in the military. He had already had years of earlier experience – he pitched for the 1940 NorCal champion Yamato team. He & his two brothers left the internment camp & joined the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the all-Nisei Army unit that received many awards for its tour of duty through Europe. His brothers also played with him on the 1940 Yamato team & made it all the way to a final showdown with the Southern California champions – a bigger, older team, Kamibayashi said. “We were still a young team,” Kamibayashi said, adding that most of the players were 17 or 18 years old. He said the 1940 Yamato team also played against many Caucasian teams. Regalado said this was significant because baseball was one of the few sports where Japanese-Americans’ smaller height didn’t put them at a disadvantage. “It was one of the only team sports where (Japanese-Americans) could compete with Caucasians,” Regalado said.
When Kamibayashi was a child, he played baseball in rural Stockton. He said the day he played baseball was the only day of the week his parents would let him skip working in the fields. “That’s why we loved baseball – we didn’t have to work,” Kamibayashi said.
Regalado said as a generational gap drove the Issei & Nisei apart on many issues, baseball always helped bring them together. “Baseball was one of the chief components that bridged a lot of the gaps in those generations,” he said, adding that baseball also did a lot to help Japanese-Americans connect with mainstream America at a time when they faced hostility & discrimination.“Mainstream America, especially on a political level, was not all that welcoming,” Regalado said. “(Baseball) was a means by which they could represent their community in a better light.”
Fred Oshima, a journalist who covered the Yamato & Lodi Templar teams from 1937 to 1941, said another gap became apparent in the generations following World War II. “Before the war, the teams in every community in California had the backing of the first-generation parents,” Oshima said. “Today, the (Japanese-American) NorCal baseball league only has 4 teams.”
Regalado said as more & more opportunities opened up to Japanese Americans, their communities became less centralized & lost many social activities like baseball. “The community itself is no longer in a small area,” he said. “The only time Sansei & Yonsei had really spent on Japanese-American social activities would’ve been on holidays or social days.”