Early Nisei players competing alongside a couple familiar faces. (Photo courtesy of Kerry Yo Nakagawa)
As I work on my story on the Berkeley International League of the 1930s, I’m interviewing various people connected to the league or students of ethnic baseball in the Bay Area in the first half of the 20th century.
That effort brought me last night to Kerry Yo Nakagawa of Fresno, a member of SABR and an expert and author on the subject of Japanese-American, or Nisei, baseball played by first-generation Americans of Japanese descent.
I wanted to speak with Kerry because there were many Nisei who took part in the BIL, contributing to the remarkable mélange of colors and cultures represented in Byron “Speed” Reilly’s semipro circuit.
Our conversation centered around how the Nisei, like many other immigrant cultures, often used baseball to integrate and assimilate into American culture and gradually become accepted as Americans.
(Although in the case of Japanese-Americans, that process was greatly interrupted by World War II and the shameful internment camps, one of the dark blots in American history. But even then, Kerry noted, Japanese-Americans still played baseball, even under the shadow of military and governmental oppression.)
Toward the end of our talk, I asked Kerry about how the story of Nisei in baseball paralleled the experience of African Americans who fought to obtain a level playing field, at least inside the lines. In addition to competing in the BIL, Japanese Americans in the East Bay formed their own barnstorming teams and regional leagues, much like African Americans had the Negro Leagues.
Crucially, Kerry said, baseball did serve as a reflection of American society in general, adding that the sport “does mirror both the Japanese-American experience and the African-American experience.”
“They were very similar,” said Kerry, the author of a book about Nisei baseball in Cali. “Both cultures felt that baseball was their American pastime, too, their Americana. They looked at the game as a way to make sure people knew they could play at a very high level.
“It gave them the respect of their peers, and the admiration of their friends and family in the stands, and they should as much appreciation for that [devotion] as they could by playing as well as they could.
“It really felt like a dual situation [for each culture],” he added. “They thought, ‘This is the game we play. This is our American experience, our Americana.’”
In that way, Kerry said, baseball helped both Nisei and African Americans feel like, well, Americans, despite the bigotry and prejudice they faced and, in reality, continue to face to this day.
He and I also talked specifically about the role hardball played in the culture of Japanese Americans in the East Bay area, in cities such as Berkeley and Oakland, in the 1920s and ’30s.
“For them, putting on a baseball uniform was like waving the American flag,” Kerry said. “Not only was it their Americana, but it was their way of showing they had the skills and the talent to be the best players on any diamond, that they could be as good or better than anyone out there. Outside the lines, it was a little blurry, but inside the lines, baseball was very black and white — if you can play at a high level, you were given a lot of respect.”
Sound familiar? The story of Nisei integration into baseball and into American society in general was facilitated by the sheer talent and skills, much like the experience of not only Jackie Robinson (and Larry Doby and Henry Aaron and Willie Mays, etc.), but of Negro Leaguers who showed up major leaguers in all-star exhibitions, barnstorming tours, Latin American leagues, etc. Something to ponder, for sure …