JA baseball teams

Japanese American baseball teams thrived in local area before World War II
Special to the Herald
Posted: 05/31/2010

Photo: Roy Hattori, 91, left, Maya Miyamoto (Poston 308-13-A), 88, both of Monterey.(VERN FISHER/The Herald)

As the 2010 Major League Baseball season reminds us that hope springs eternal, a long forgotten chapter of local sports history waits quietly to be reopened.
Players from Japan are now commonplace in the big leagues — Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners and Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Boston Red Sox have become American sports icons — but few contemporary fans of the national pastime are aware that Japanese American baseball teams flourished throughout the Monterey Bay region during the era leading up to World War II.

"Baseball was my first love in those days," recalled 91-year-old Tom Mine (Poston block 216), a left-hand-hitting outfielder who played on the Watsonville Kasei team in the late 1930s. "We played some pretty good ball. But mostly, we had a lot of fun."

Baseball was first introduced to Japan in the early 1870s by American educator Horace Wilson, who taught the game to his students at Tokyo University.

"We loved the game," said Roy Hattori, also 91, who played for the Monterey Minato club during the 1930s. "Our fathers loved baseball, too. The Issei (first-generation immigrants) loved baseball before coming to the United States," he said.
During the 1920s and '30s, most communities in the Monterey Bay Area — Monterey, Watsonville, Santa Cruz, Salinas, Hollister and Gilroy — hosted talented Japanese-American baseball teams that played in highly competitive leagues against each other, with games scheduled on Sundays.

In a certain sense, these leagues were something of a parallel to the more well-known Negro Leagues that flourished in the U.S. before Jackie Robinson broke the so-called "color line" in the 1940s.

"We traveled all through Northern and Southern California," said Maya Miyamoto (Poston 308-13-A), 88, one of the five legendary Miyamoto brothers who formed the hub of the Monterey baseball squad for the better part of two decades.

"We'd ride to games in the back of old Model T trucks with sideboards and canvas tops. On the way home, we'd sleep in the back."

The late Frank Manaka, who was the first Japanese-American in Monterey to own his own sardine boat, was a star pitcher at Monterey High School who dreamed of playing in the major leagues.

According to Monterey maritime historian Timothy Thomas, Manaka's father insisted that he follow the family tradition, going to work in the fishing industry at the age of 18.

"But he never lost his passion for baseball," Thomas said, "and he followed the game until the day he died, on his 100th birthday."

Big in community
"Baseball has always played an important role in the local Japanese community," Thomas said. "At a very early age, young Japanese boys learned to play the game."
Sports activities in the Japanese-American community focused around the Japanese American Citizens League, or JACL, and the Minato Athletic Club. The first Minato baseball team organized in the 1920s and fielded strong teams for the next two decades.

During the early days of Japanese-American baseball, Issei women did not attend games.

"Only the men came out," Hattori said. But once the second generation of Nisei players came around, the entire family showed up to games at Jacks Park, located directly across from the JACL Hall. "The women wanted to see their sons play. Baseball became more of a family affair," Hattori said.

Larry Oda, currently the National President of the JACL, recalled a story about his father, Junichi, who owned the Western Wholesale Fish Co., which packed abalone on the Monterey waterfront in the 1920s. His father would hire young ballplayers so that they could earn extra money.

Work, then play
"On game days, he would let them rush through their task of shucking the abalone so they could get to their game on time," Oda notes. "Instead of carefully laying each abalone flat on the table, they would be quickly piled one on top of the other. The ladies doing the trimming and slicing would get upset because it is hard to get a good slice out of an abalone that's rolled up in a ball," Oda said.

The unchallenged star of the Monterey Minato team during the 1930s was Maya Miyamoto's older brother, Ky, who led the Minatos to a pair of state championships.
In 1935 he played third base for the San Jose Asahi in a celebrated contest against the touring Tokyo Giants before a capacity crowd of 1,000 at Asahi Park in San Jose. He singled and stole home in the ninth inning to tie the game before the Asahi went on to win, 3-2.

Ky Miyamoto (Poston block 308-13-A) was also was selected to play on the Alameda Kono all-star team that toured Japan, Korea and Manchuria for three months in 1937.

For all the cheers and diamond heroics, however, there was a troubling backdrop to the racially segregated leagues.

Immigrants from China, Japan and the Philippines have played a significant role in the region's cultural and economic development, but these immigrant groups were, at nearly every turn, subjected to both restrictive legislation and even vigilante violence throughout the region.

Anti-Japanese American activity in the Monterey Bay area reared its ugly head as early as the 1890s. In the 1920s, it became even more ramped up, as Japanese fishing boats were sunk in Monterey and local business associations tried to squeeze Japanese farmers out of the region's agricultural economy.

Breaking barriers
While baseball has often furnished the social lubricant for breaking down racial barriers in the United States and provided opportunities for ethnic groups to claim their share of the American Dream, the sport just as often reflected the harsh realities of American society.

As Japanese-American historian Gary Otake said, "we must acknowledge the discrimination and segregation from the larger society that forced the Japanese American community to build leagues of their own."

For the Monterey Bay region's Japanese-American communities, the legacy of America's racial divide took an even uglier turn when residents of Japanese ancestry were forced into internment camps in the early days of World War II.

Not surprisingly, many of the Japanese-American baseball teams re-formed in the camps. "We played on Sundays to big crowds there," Watsonville's Mine remembers. "Just like we did at home."

The Nisei baseball leagues also factored into U.S. military history during the war. Several of the ballplayers from Japanese-American teams in Hawaii and throughout the western states served in Europe with the celebrated all-Nisei "Go for Broke" 442nd Regimental Combat unit, the most highly decorated military unit in American history.

On MacArthur's team
Maya Miyamoto (Poston block 308-13-A), who served in the 441st Military Intelligence Battalion during the war, played on a team in Japan under Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the U.S. occupation.

After the war, some of the teams regrouped back in California, but the all-Nisei teams didn't last long.

All but a few had disbanded by the 1950s — with their players either retiring or playing on integrated teams.

Like many of those who played in the pre-war leagues, Miyamoto has fond memories of the old days. "Back then, it was all fun," he said.

"After the games it was a way for communities to get together and socialize. Nowadays, baseball seems a little too serious. Today it's all business. It's supposed to be fun."

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