Baseball boosted Japanese Americans during internment. A field in the desert may retell the story.

In a desolate valley of Southern California’s high desert, an act of restoration is unfolding that befits the resolve of the intended honorees.

With every prickly chunk of cleared tumbleweed, every smoothing of soil, every commitment of time and materials and resources, baseball is getting closer to a return to Manzanar, one of 10 internment camps where Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated during World War II.

It remains one of the USA’s national shames: More than 120,000 of its citizens ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to sell their belongings, abandon their homes and report to 10 camps spread almost exclusively throughout grim and remote locales in the American West between 1942 and 1945, as World War II raged on two fronts.

For the oppressors, it’s a black mark in history perhaps not equal but akin to the removal of native peoples, slavery and Jim Crow laws, which were still decades from eradication.

And for the oppressed, it remains a shameful subject for which many are reluctant to discuss.

Yet it was baseball that offered both a proving ground and a modicum of dignity for citizens detained in camps.

And it is baseball that organizers hope sparks a renewed conversation around this era.

“We are reenacting,” says Dan Kwong, a performance artist and longtime baseball player whose mother was interned at Manzanar, “a piece of our history.”

Kwong, a 69-year-old Santa Monica resident, has volunteered at Manzanar since 2009, and answered a call last May for volunteers to help clear the area marking the camp’s baseball diamond during internment. It was then that Kwong, who still plays in Japanese American leagues in California, was struck by the vision of baseball once again unfolding on this patch of dirt framed by the Inyo Mountains.

One year later, the vision is nearing reality: Thanks to significant contributions from design and construction firms, cooperation from the National Park Service and an ongoing fundraiser, Kwong hopes to break ground on the ballfield by June.

A September doubleheader is planned, including an all-star game pitting players from Japanese American teams hailing from the state’s north and south, a fitting tribute to those still burgeoning but rarely discussed leagues in the country’s most populous state.

The all-stars plan to wear uniforms designed by K&P Weaver, which specializes in vintage baseball garb. A Hollywood props house, History For Hire, has opened up its trove of ancient baseball gear previously seen in Field of Dreams, A League Of Their Own, and other baseball films.

It is both a recognition of the resolve of the imprisoned who kept the game alive and an ode to baseball lineage.

Baseball before internment

In a more just world, the arc of Japanese American baseball would be unfettered by internment.

The game was largely introduced to Japan in the late 19th century by Horace Wilson, a Maine librarian and Civil War veteran who eventually taught English at Tokyo University. The game’s popularity both in Japan and the USA boomed just as a significant number of Japanese immigrated stateside.

One of those immigrants was Kenichi Zenimura, now known as the “Father of Japanese American Baseball.” He eventually settled in Fresno, California, and spearheaded barnstorming tours of Japan with his Fresno Athletic Club team.

In 1927, he competed alongside and against Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig when the New York Yankees legends’ barnstorming tour came to Fresno; eventually, Zenimura helped set the stage for the future Hall of Famers to tour Japan.

Just like Black people and Latinos, Asian American players were not welcome in Major League Baseball, reduced to exhibitions and playing against Negro League teams – both stateside and in Japan.

“They had the five tools and the desire, but didn’t get the opportunity,” says Kerry Yo Nakagawa, director of the non-profit Nisei Baseball Research project. His uncle, Johnny Nakagawa, is pictured in a famous portrait alongside Ruth and Gehrig from their Fresno exhibition.

“It wasn’t so much who won or lost, but rather that American ambassadors banned from baseball in America became amazing ambassadors in Japan.”

Nakagawa’s family arc was typical. His grandfather immigrated from Hiroshima to Hawaii and moved to Fresno in 1886 to start a grape farm. Nakagawa’s father was born in 1905, part of the Nisei generation, or children born to Japanese immigrants in their new country.

Soon, baseball would help define the generation. Both the grassroots and high-profile events seeded a bustling Japanese American baseball movement in California, with teams in more populous areas like San Jose, San Pedro and the San Fernando Valley, along with clubs in migrant towns far smaller on the map – Lodi, Reedley, Florin

“Every little Podunk farm town,” notes Kwong, “had a baseball team.”

Soon, they would have to play behind barbed wire.

Internment, indefinitely

Internment scattered families, friends and ballplayers from California to Arizona, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Arkansas. Zenimura was sent to Arizona’s Gila River camp, far from his Fresno home, but the far-flung locale did not diminish his enterprising spirit.

Zenimura soon had a baseball field up and running, and eventually, a 32-team league that competed against each other and also area teams.

Some teams had virtually their entire rosters intact within the camps. The San Fernando Aces, well-seasoned from their semi-pro tours of California, dominated opponents at Manzanar.

In this setting, baseball represented a paradox: An entire people held against their will, yet allowed to construct fields, obtain equipment and compete, sometimes in front of hundreds standing or crouched in the dirt surrounding the diamond.

“I think the government looked at it like, ‘Oh, this will be good for morale,’” says Kwong. “When the government started these camps, they had no exit strategy. It was like, ‘What are we going to do with these people?’ Nobody knew how long they were going to be there. Are we here for the rest of our lives?’

“Nobody knew.

“There was a sense within the communities of, ‘OK, we’re going to have to make this our world.’ And they began to make community. So they’re building gardens, making baseball fields, teaching classes in arts and crafts. Everything to try and make life as livable as possible.”

That included Kwong’s mother, Momo Nagano, who played softball at Manzanar. She died in 2010; Kwong’s 102-year-old aunt interned at Manzanar is still alive.

All were subject to the xenophobia and rampant racism that screamed from 50-point newspaper headlines or signs indicating their kind were not welcome as employees or patrons of certain businesses.

Internment was simply the ultimate byproduct of this sentiment; baseball under the gaze of a guard tower was a small part of reclaiming that personhood.

“To play baseball was also this expression of American-ness: ‘Yes, we are Americans, even if you don’t think we are,’” says Kwong. “And we will participate in this quintessential piece of American culture. It was a bit of a statement, in that regard.

“It was a way to experience a piece of their pre-war lives. They lost everything. But they were allowed to keep baseball? OK. So, it really had a very profound symbolic meaning as well as something to do.”

And there was talent behind the barbed wire.

Satoshi “Fibber” Hirayama stood just 5-3 and weighed 140 pounds, but after surviving internment in Poston, Arizona, he went on to become an all-conference football and baseball player at Fresno State, inducted into their athletics hall of fame.

Hirayama would go on to play for the Hiroshima Carp and later scout and coach for the Japanese club. It was in the Carp’s camp in the Dominican where he spotted and helped develop Alfonso Soriano, who would go on to play in Japan and become a seven-time All-Star for the Yankees, Rangers, Nationals and Cubs.

Some families were divided by circumstance. Rosie Kikuuchi was perhaps the most talented softball player at Manzanar, good enough to play, and flourish, with the men in baseball games. Yet since her husband, Jack, had enlisted in the Army before internment, he avoided internment and was able to play on an Army all-star team that defeated the Chicago Cubs in an exhibition.

For Japanese Americans in the Central Valley, Highway 99 served as a dividing line. Those west of the highway were sent to Jerome, Arkansas, and those east of 99, such as Zenimura, were sent to Gila Bend.

Nakagawa’s grandmother never made it back from Arkansas, passing away in the camp there.

Within the camps, baseball helped bond generations whose hierarchy was fracturing. It was the Nisei – or first-generation American-born – youth who were tasked with communicating with guards and camp officials, not the monolingual elders.

The universal language of the sport would endure.

'Baseball became an elixir'

After the war, the internment camps were hastily dissembled, and for decades, the lone remnants at Manzanar were an auditorium converted to a county storage space and two stone sentry huts marking the entrance.

But as it earned National Historic Site designation and fell under the auspices of the National Park Service, Manzanar has gradually been restored in the past two decades, with a guard tower, a mess hall and a school added.

If all goes well, the ballfield will serve as another testament beyond the commemorative marker.

Its remote locale – a nearly four-hour drive from Los Angeles, and closer to Death Valley than anything resembling a metropolitan area – means precious little baseball may be played there in years to come. Yet its existence should spark conversations that might have never happened.

The planned September twinbill – the first game pitting Kwong’s Li’l Tokio Giants against the Lodi JACL Templars, who began play in 1915 – is part of a larger commemoration that includes performance-art pieces.

The educational component is unspoken, but powerful. Kwong and Nakagawa feel that heaviness when they visit.

“You cannot escape that wind, from morning to night,” says Nakagawa. “These Americans, you can imagine their civil liberties taken from them, their homes, their farms, their businesses, and living at the base of the mountains.

“Baseball became an elixir, a normalcy."

After a group of three dozen volunteers helped Kwong remove tumbleweeds at the site and later thanked him for the opportunity to perform the thorny task. Kwong notes that the "Silent Generation" label applies to those interned during the war, as well; he says his mother was an outlier, that she was a natural storyteller.

But there are many gaps in how the word was passed from camp detainees to prior generations. Now, a gaggle of twentysomething Japanese American ballplayers may just have a life-changing experience on their journey to play a game.

“I had one manager,” says Kwong, “who said, ‘You know, I had a hard time getting my guys interested. They were like, ‘We have to drive all the way out to the desert?’

“I’m like, ‘Yeah dude, that’s where the government put your grandparents. It was not a place chosen for its convenience.’

“I’m pretty confident that any of these young guys who play in these games, it’s going to change their consciousness.”

Nakagawa agrees.

“It will be a full circle situation,” he says. “It’s so beautiful to see the circle closed in September.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Japanese Americans made baseball their own at Manzanar internment camp