In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (May) our current feature is on Japanese American Baseball Pioneer, Kenichi Zenimura (1900-1968). While Jackie Robinson and the Negro Leagues have been well documented, few baseball fans know about the Japanese American Nisei Leagues, or of Zenimura, their most influential figure. A phenomenal player who excelled at all nine positions, Zenimura possessed a gift for using the game to transcend the ignorance and intolerance of his era. As a player, captain, and manager, he worked tirelessly to promote Japanese American baseball, leading goodwill trips to Asia, helping to negotiate tours of Japan by Negro League all-stars and Babe Ruth, and establishing a 32-team league behind the barbed wire of Arizona’s Gila River Internment Camp during World War II.
“Kenichi Zenimura, Japanese American Baseball Pioneer” (McFarland 2011) is a new book by SABR member Bill Staples, Jr. With a foreword by Don Wakamatsu, the first Asian-American manager in MLB history, this biography of the "Father of Japanese-American Baseball" delivers a thorough and fascinating account of Zenimura’s life. In anticipation of the book’s release in June, Staples shares a summary of one of the most under-appreciated aspect of Zenimura’s career, and that of Japanese American baseball in general – the important role played in pre-war U.S.-Japanese baseball relations.
The 1922 MLB Tour to Japan: A Blow to American Sportsmanship
In the fall of 1922 Major League Baseball announced that it was sending a team of all-stars to tour Japan. Among the stars selected were Luke Sewell (Indians, c), Waite Hoyt (Yankees, p), Irish Meusel (Giants, of), George “High-Pockets” Kelley (Giants, 1b) and Casey Stengel (Giants, of). The tour was led by Herb Hunter and was the brainchild of American League Commissioner Ban Johnson, who said, “Perhaps someday we will have the Champions of America meeting the winners of the Japanese series in a real world’s series. This may be my dream, but it is a dream I shall cherish until it materializes.”
On October 14, 1922, Herb Hunter’s all-star club and a young Kenichi Zenimura were literally two ships passing in the night. At that same time that the all-stars were heading West across the Pacific, young Zenimura was returning from Japan where he spent several months coaching baseball at Koryo High School. The Koryo team roster included his cousin Tatsumi Zenimura, outfielder and future Meiji University team captain, and Kisaku Kato, future player and manager for Nankai of the Nippon Professional Baseball league.
Zenimura was born in Hiroshima in 1900, moved to Honolulu in 1907, and as a young man moved to the U.S. mainland after visiting relatives in Fresno. He arrived in 1920 and immediately assumed a leadership role with the nascent Fresno Athletic Club. While he was away coaching at Koryo, the Seattle Asahi won the 1922 West Coast Japanese baseball championship and the rights to represent the U.S. during a tour of Japan in 1923. Zeni had devised a plan to bolster the talent of his club to claim the West Coast Japanese Baseball championship from Seattle. The plan required another trip back to Japan and then on to Hawaii to recruit his former Island teammates to join him on the mainland in California.
Back in Japan, the 1922 MLB All-Stars took on and defeated every college, industrial and amateur team the country had to offer – except one. On November 23, Herb Hunter’s men lost 9 to 3 to the amateur Mita Club, led by pitcher Michimaro Ono. On the surface, one would think that the Mita Club and fans would be happy with the victory over the Americans, but they were not. Reports out of Japan explained why:
America's reputation for sportsmanship suffered a severe blow when the American baseballers threw away Sunday's came to the Mita local nine, which is strong nationally, but obviously no match for the American professionals … The general opinion was frankly expressed that the Americans dropped the frame for advertising purposes, anticipating increased gate receipts later at Osaka and other parts … The Tokio Asahi expressed the disappointment, “We welcomed the American team because we thought they were gentlemanly and sportsmanlike. They have now shown themselves to be full of the mean professional spirit. Japanese baseball followers are not foolish enough to believe they tried to beat Mita … they disappointed our hopes and left an unpleasant impression upon us.”
Losing pitcher Waite Hoyt would later explain that he and his teammates were just “foolin’ around” on the field and meant no disrespect to their Japanese hosts. Nonetheless, the damage was done. As a result of the All-Stars thrown-game fiasco – and perhaps other factors such as the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake in Japan, and restrictive post-season play policies established by Commissioner Landis – no major league team would tour Japan for another eight years. (Note: Ty Cobb did tour Japan in 1928, however it was as an individual and not as a member of an MLB team tour.)
Filling the MLB Void: The Nisei and Negro Leagues Step Up to the Plate
This eight-year (1923-1931) major league void was proudly filled by Zenimura and his West Coast Nisei League peers. Ironically though, just as Zenimura and his teammates were about to enter the role of goodwill baseball ambassadors to Japan, on November 13, 1922 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ozawa v. U.S. to reaffirm the ban on Japanese immigrants becoming naturalized U.S. citizens. First-generation Japanese Americans, or Isseis like Zenimura, would have to wait another 30 years for the opportunity to call the United States of America their true home. Despite the ruling, Issei proudly represented their adopted country during several tours back to Japan. Specifically, during the eight year MLB-team void, Japanese American teams barnstormed the land of their ancestors approximately ten times, with Zenimura involved in four of the tours (1924, 1927, 1931 and 1937). The following is a comparison of pre-WWII tours to Japan by major leaguers and that of Nisei and Negro Leaguers:
MLB Tours to Japan, Pre-WWII
1908 Reach All-Americans
1913 MLB Giants-White Sox
1920 MLB All-Stars
1922 MLB All-Stars
1928 Ty Cobb (MLB exhibition)
1931 MLB All-Stars (Gehrig, O'Doul)
1934 MLB All-Stars (Ruth, Gehrig)
Nisei-Negro Leagues Baseball Tours to Japan, Pre-WWII
1907 St. Louis-Hawaii
1914 Seattle Asahi
1915 Honolulu Asahi
1915 Seattle Asahi
1918 Seattle Asahi
1920 Honolulu Asahi
1920 Seattle Asahi
1921 Hawaii All-Stars
1921 Seattle Asahi
1921 Vancouver Asahi
1923 Seattle Asahi
1924 Fresno Athletic Club*
1925 San Jose Asahi
1925 Sacramento Nippons
1926 Honolulu Asahi
1927 Aratani Guadalupe Packers
1927 Fresno Athletic Club*
1927 Philadelphia Royal Giants (Negro Leagues)
1928 Stockton Yamato
1931 Kono Alameda All-Stars*
1931 Los Angeles Nippon
1931-32 Philadelphia Royal Giants (Negro Leagues)
1933 Seattle Taiyos
1935 Nipponese All-Stars
1937 Kono Alameda All-Stars*
1940 Honolulu Asahi
*Note: Zenimura participated in the 1924, 1927 and 1937 tours, and coached the 1931 Kono Alameda All-Star players prior to their tour.
Debating the Birth of Pro Ball in Japan
The Nippon Professional Baseball league was established in 1936. Many baseball historians credit the famous 1934 MLB tour with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig as the primary inspiration for the start of the first professional league in Japan. However, knowing what we know now about the role of Nisei and Negro Leagues ball clubs and their tireless efforts to export the American style of play before WWII, we now see that the 1934 MLB tour was simply the capstone for building professional baseball in Japan, and not the foundation.
In fact, in the book Gentle Black Giants, Japanese author and historian Kazuo Sayama credits the 1927 tour, especially Mackey and his Philadelphia Royal Giants teammates, as the inspiration for the start of professional baseball in Japan in 1936. Sayama states that Japanese players and spectators knew about the racial segregation in professional sports in America and understood that, although they could not play in the Major League, they were as good as, or even better than, the major league players. Sabur Yokozawa, a Japanese player, later said how the Royal Giants played each game gentlemanly, with warm pedagogical thoughtfulness to the inexperienced Japanese players, while the All-American teams (of 1931 and 1934) sometimes treated the Japanese players with entertaining contempt during the actual games.
Not all researchers agree with Sayama's strong sentiment, but the consensus is this – the 1927 Goodwill Tours of the Philadelphia Royal Giants and Fresno Athletic Club are much more significant than the footnote status they receive in baseball history books. During the 80th anniversary of the 1927 tours, the Nisei Baseball Research Project (niseibaseball.com) told MLB.com that the intent in showcasing the role of Japanese Americans and the Negro League all-stars was not to take credit away from the major league tours but instead to “broaden the understanding that there are more ambassadors who built that (U.S.-Japan baseball) bridge.”
After the end of WWII, Zenimura offered advice to his players that reflects a key lesson he learned during his goodwill tours to Japan during the 1920s and 30s. “Try to speed up the mutual feeling between the Americans and Japanese,” Zenimura said. “It is much easier to make efforts of starting a better understanding between us in the field of sports than trying to talk your way through the rough spots." Spoken like a true diplomat.
To learn more about Zenimura’s role as a global baseball pioneer and passionate U.S.-Japan ambassador, visit www.zenimura.com.
Praise for the book:
Kenichi Zenimura, Japanese American Baseball Pioneer by Bill Staples, Jr. Foreword by Don Wakamatsu
Bill Staples, Jr. is a dedicated baseball historian, author and a meticulous researcher who utilizes twenty-first century technology to root out the most obscure facts about his subjects. His work on Kenichi Zenimura is a groundbreaking effort. –William F. McNeil, baseball historian, author, Sporting News-SABR Research Award Winner (2007), Five-time recipient of the Robert Peterson Award
Staples’ tireless research and love for the game has resulted in "Kenichi Zenimura, Japanese American Baseball Pioneer,” one of the great untold stories of our American pastime and an essential for any baseball faithful. –Kerry Yo Nakagawa, historian, author, filmmaker, founder/director of the Nisei Baseball Research Project
Hopefully (this book) helps transform a long-neglected chapter of baseball history – Nisei baseball history – into a well-chronicled saga for all fans of all races, creeds and colors to appreciate. –Don Wakamatsu, First Asian-American Manager in MLB History
Bill Staples, Jr., is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), a board member of the Nisei Baseball Research Project, and a past speaker at the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He lives in Chandler, Arizona. Learn more online at www.zenimura.com.