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A Field in the Desert That Felt like Home An unlikely hero sustained hope for Japanese-Americans interned in World War II

Nov. 16, 1998
Nov. 16, 1998

Table of Contents
Nov. 16, 1998

Faces In The Crowd

A Field in the Desert That Felt like Home An unlikely hero sustained hope for Japanese-Americans interned in World War II

On Feb. 19, 1942, a little more than two months after Japanese
fighter pilots bombed Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt
signed Executive Order 9066, which created a civilian agency to
provide for the internment of Japanese-Americans living in the
western U.S. By summer, 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry
(approximately 70% of whom were U.S. citizens) were relocated to
prison camps for the duration of World War II.

This is an article from the Nov. 16, 1998 issue

At the 10 camps administered by the U.S. government, Nisei and
Sansei (second- and third-generation Japanese-Americans,
respectively) clung to vestiges of their prewar lives to help
them survive a humiliating ordeal. Behind the barbed wire,
playing and watching baseball became an important daily
activity. Prisoners organized teams in each camp, replicating
the Japanese-American leagues that flourished in California,
Hawaii, Oregon and Washington during the '20s and '30s.

Amid these harsh conditions, an unlikely hero emerged: Kenichi
Zenimura. Born in Hiroshima in 1900, Zenimura immigrated to
Hawaii with his parents in 1907. There he acquired his love of
the game, a love he took with him when he moved to Fresno,
Calif., in 1920. Zenimura organized the Fresno Athletic Club, a
Japanese-American baseball team, and directed the construction
of a wooden stadium next to the city dump. He also led
Japanese-American all-star teams on trips to Japan in '24, '27
and '37.

Despite his size--Zenimura was five feet tall and weighed 100
pounds--he established himself as a top Japanese-American
catcher and shortstop. In '27 he was one of four
Japanese-Americans selected to play with Babe Ruth and Lou
Gehrig when the New York Yankees sluggers visited Fresno's
Fireman's Park during an off-season barnstorming tour. Zenimura
singled and stole a base for Gehrig's team, the Larrupin' Lous,
which beat Ruth's squad, the Bustin' Babes, 13-3. (In an
interview published in 1962, Zenimura said that he tried to
persuade Ruth to travel to Japan in 1927, but Ruth asked for too
much money. The Babe did play in Japan in 1934, and his visit
helped spark the inauguration of professional baseball there in
1936.)

After Pearl Harbor, Zenimura, his wife and their two teenage
sons were notified that they would have to leave their home and
were given several weeks to put their belongings into storage.
Initially they were sent to the Fresno County Fairgrounds, a way
station for the area's Japanese-American inhabitants, where they
slept in animal stalls. Later that year they were moved to the
internment camp in Butte, Ariz., where they lived until the war
was over.

The facility was called the Gila River Relocation Center, and it
was situated on the Pima Indian Reservation, some 45 miles
southwest of Phoenix, a location chosen in large part for its
remoteness. Around them the 13,000 internees saw only barbed
wire and miles of desert. Zenimura, however, envisioned a
baseball stadium, complete with bleachers, dugouts and an
outfield wall. He enlisted his sons in the laborious creation of
his masterpiece. The first step was to tame the weed-filled
desert behind the barracks of Block 28.

Howard Zenimura, one of Kenichi's sons, was there the day they
began clearing away sagebrush from the desert floor. "Guys from
the other blocks asked, 'What are you doing?'" says Howard, 71,
a retired schoolteacher who lives in Fresno. "Pretty soon all
these people were coming with shovels, helping to clear the
area. We piled up the brush and burned it, and my dad somehow
got a bulldozer to level the ground. Then we flooded it to pack
the ground down."

To build a backstop, Kenichi swiped every other one of the
four-by-four poles that supported the camp's barbed-wire fence.
Using picks and shovels, the Zenimuras created two dugouts. They
framed these with wood "borrowed" from a lumberyard during
nighttime forays. They also used the stolen wood to construct a
small grandstand, which even had a reserved-seat section.

To get Bermuda grass to grow, Kenichi devised stratagems
straight out of Stalag 17. He had a plumber cut into the laundry
room's water line and extend underground pipe some 200 feet
(running under the camp fence) to the pitcher's mound so that he
could water the infield. Zenimura also persuaded the Butte fire
department to hold its water drills in the ballpark so the grass
would benefit.

"I remember watching this little old brown guy watering down the
infield with this huge hose," says actor Pat Morita, 68, who was
interned with his family at Gila River and grew up to star in
The Karate Kid, among other movies. "He used to have his kids
dragging the infield and throwing out all the rocks. Jeez, I was
glad I wasn't them. They worked like mules."

The outfield wall was an improvisational gem. Zenimura noticed
that castor bean plants thrived in the desert. He planted seeds
10 feet apart and watered them by diverting an irrigation canal
that ran alongside the camp grounds. The plants grew to be seven
feet high and fanned across the outfield from foul pole to foul
pole. Balls hit over the plants were home runs; balls hit
through them were ground rule doubles. Outfielders chasing balls
to the wall learned to be wary of lurking rattlesnakes.

On March 7, 1943, Zenimura Field opened for play. Kenichi had
organized 32 teams into three divisions, and games were
scheduled in the early evening to avoid the desert heat.
According to historian Kerry Yo Nakagawa, director of the Nisei
Baseball Research Project, the equipment the ballplayers used
was primitive. Wooden blocks were sunk into the ground for home
plate and the pitcher's rubber (eventually Kenichi was able to
get a real rubber and a home plate), and some of the uniforms
were sewn from mattress ticking. The bases were hand-sewn bags
filled with rice, while the foul lines were drawn with flour
from the mess hall.

Fans flocked to Zenimura Field--and, not so incidentally,
dropped donations into a coffee can placed at the entrance,
allowing Kenichi to purchase bats, balls, bases and uniforms by
mail from a sporting goods store back in Fresno. The crowds
never stopped coming, and the fans who couldn't find space in
the bleachers would stand along the foul lines. The diamond
became a social hot spot.

"The teenagers and the adults would gather every night to watch
the games," remembers Morita. "I had never seen a live baseball
game before, so this was my introduction to baseball--sitting
and cheering with a couple of thousand rabid fans."

Zenimura and his sons played in the camp's top division, on the
team from Block 28. "The games were very competitive," recalls
James (Step) Tomooka, who was a hard-hitting outfielder with
another squad, the Guadalupe YMBA, which won the camp's
inaugural championship. "We had a good team because a lot of us
played together before the war [in Santa Maria, Calif.]."

On-field highlights included camp victories against visiting
teams from outside. Gila River's high school squad, on which
Zenimura's sons also played, beat the state champs from Tucson
in extra innings, buoying the internees' spirits. Tomooka
recalls driving in the winning runs for Guadalupe in a game
against a visiting internment camp team from Heart Mountain,
Wyo. "My dad used to talk about that game for years after the
war," Tomooka says.

Baseball, says Howard Zenimura, "was the only thing that kept us
going. If we didn't play baseball, [camp life] would've been
unbearable. Even when we didn't play, we were out there watching."

After the war the Zenimuras returned to Fresno, and although
they reclaimed their possessions, their life had changed.
Kenichi didn't get back his prewar job and had to find work on a
ranch. He later became a crew boss at a vineyard.

Baseball remained a constant in his life. He caught his last
nine-inning game when he was 50, and he coached until his death
in an automobile accident in 1968. In a 1945 letter thanking
Gila River internees for their support, he wrote of the healing
power of baseball: "I will be returning to Fresno and while I am
there will try to make a team to play in the league in the city,
[to] try to speed up the mutual feeling between the Americans
and the Japanese."

Zenimura and other Japanese-Americans revived their prewar
baseball leagues in California and Hawaii, where they still
flourish today. This commitment to the game bore fruit in the
1970s when Ryan Kurosaki and Lenn Sakata became the first
Americans of Japanese descent to play in the major leagues.

Zenimura's sons served in the U.S. Army after World War II.
Later they played baseball at Fresno State and for the Hiroshima
Carp in Japan's professional league. Howard is still involved
with the game; he is a coordinator for the International Boys
League and plans to travel to Japan next year with his grandson
for a baseball tournament. His brother, Harvey, 69, is retired
and lives in Fresno with their 92-year-old mother, Kiyoko.

As for Zenimura Field, it no longer exists. Near its old
location an olive orchard grows in the desert. "Kenichi Zenimura
showed that with effort and persistence, you can overcome the
harshness of adversity," says Morita, who recently made a
pilgrimage back to the Gila River site. "Zenimura and others
created a fraternal community in the desert--and baseball was a
glue."

Freelancer David Davis, who lives in Los Angeles, is a frequent
contributor to SI.

B/W PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE FRESNO BEE/KENICHI ZENIMURA FAMILY Diamond-maker Fifteen years before building a ballpark in a prison camp, Zenimura had gotten to play with Gehrig (left) and Ruth. [Lou Gehrig, Kenichi Zenimura, and Babe Ruth]B/W PHOTO: COURTESY OF KENICHI ZENIMURA COLLECTION Postwar pose Kenichi's son Harvey (left) played for Hiroshima when DiMaggio visited during his honeymoon with Marilyn Monroe. [Harvey Zenimura, Joe DiMaggio, and other baseball player]
To build a backstop, Kenichi swiped poles supporting the camp's
barbed-wire fence.
"Baseball kept us going. Without it camp life would've been
unbearable."