Visit the Allendale Branch Library Saturday to learn some little-known history about California’s place in baseball’s hall of shame as author, filmmaker and historian Kerry Yo Nakagawa presents his 35-minute documentary “Diamonds in the Rough: The Legacy of Japanese American Baseball.
Nakagawa will also be signing copies of his book, “Japanese American Baseball in California: A History.”
“Most audiences aren’t aware that there was so many prewar issei [Japan-born first generation] and nisei [American-born second generation] ballplayers who could have played Major League Baseball in the 1920s and ’30s but had to play in leagues of their own,” Nakagawa wrote in a recent email. “Also, how these nisei ballplayers were our American ambassadors in 1919, 1924, 1927, 1937 and were our ‘bridge builders across the Pacific,’ traveling and playing baseball in Japan, Korea and China, and helped to usher in and inspire professional baseball in Japan in 1936.”
Nakagawa’s talk is timely. February is Black History Month, a time to commemorate love but also a time to remember a lack of love in California, particularly in the Pasadena area. On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, legislation that would lead to the rounding up of Japanese and Japanese-Americans in California, Oregon, Washington and, to a lesser degree, Hawaii. By March 1942, people were sent to the Santa Anita Park racetrack, which served as a transfer center, a way station before people were sent on to hastily built internment camps, some as close as Manzanar to as far away as Arkansas. For some, Feb. 19 is Day of Remembrance, a time when one should reflect on the hatred and prejudices that resulted in as many as 120,000 ethnic Japanese being forcibly relocated to unknown destinations for unknown durations with only what they could carry.
While extreme prejudice produced the Negro Baseball Leagues in many states with large African-American populations, like California, similar prejudices toward Asians resulted in Japanese-American baseball leagues.
Just what did Japanese-American baseball players do? They beat players with all-white teams and even some of the Negro League teams. As Nakagawa explained, “Japanese-American ballplayers have been sitting at the back of the baseball history bus for too long. They should be included in the conversation that since there are 17 Negro League Hall of Famers at Cooperstown, and with new Internet box scores available that show that nisei all-stars beat the black all-stars eight out of the 12 games, some of our legends should be considered as well. Asians in baseball would welcome an invitation to join a permanent exhibit much like the Pride and the Passion (Negro leagues), All-American Girls (women’s baseball) and Latino baseball at Cooperstown.” Some of these baseball players, Nakagawa said, “kept baseball alive during World War II, even from behind barbed wire in America’s concentration camps. No other group can make this claim.”
One thing Nakagawa hopes his audiences will take away from his documentary and book is that Japanese-American contributions have been “a hidden legacy” and missing chapter in baseball.
“During the prewar era, ballplayers of color were banned and during World War II America imprisoned their own Americans, only because of their race. It was a dark stain on our civil liberties and Constitution in America, but in order for us to not repeat these mistakes we continue to have xenophobia affect other groups today,” Nakagawa said. “My hope is that we can embrace other cultures, their customs and celebrate our diversity.”
“Desert Diamonds Behind Barbed Wire” is a joint Allendale Branch Library and Baseball Reliquary presentation and part of the Pasadena Public Library’s NEA Big Read project. This presentation is partially supported by a grant to the Baseball Reliquary from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors through the Los Angeles Arts Commission. Copies of Nakagawa’s book will be available for purchase for $20.
“Desert Diamonds Behind Barbed Wire is at 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10, at the Allendale Branch Library, 1130 S. Marengo Ave., Pasadena. Admission is free. For further information, phone (626) 791-7647 or visit baseballreliquary.org.