Baseball's War Torn History
A good soldier is given their marching orders and they follow them but at day’s end a soldier is a person first. The spread of America’s pastime during the second World War is a testament to that fact; that and the idiom, 'He's just a kid at heart.'
We’ve looked at the way that World War II shaped the spreading of America’s pastime throughout Europe and beyond. Thanks to Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki, illustrated by Dom Lee, we learned a bit more about how Japan became the second-largest baseball market in the world.
This children’s book is about a boy named Shorty, a Japanese American boy. He and his family are placed in an internment camp in the middle of the American desert. As the people in the camp begin to turn on one another his father decides to build a baseball field and form teams to give the younger generation a healthy outlet. During WWII Mochizuki’s own parents were sent to the Minidoka camp in Idaho.
During the World Wars both US presidents were concerned with German-American citizens. In the first war President Wilson issued a set of regulations restricting the German-born male residents over the age of 14. More than 250,000 men were required to register with the post office and carry their registration cards with them at all times reporting any changes of address or work. Females were instructed to do the same the following year. Over 6,000 aliens were arrested. Thousands were investigated. Just over 2,000 were incarcerated in camps throughout the war.
During WWII President Roosevelt issued Proclamation 2526 and Executive Order 9066. The Proclamation allowed more than 2,000 German nationals and German-American citizens in the USA to be detained and put on a government watch list. In the early days of the war, the FBI had identified just over 4,000 German nationals that were ripe for deportation with just under 15% of them having ties to the Nazi party. Those people were first deported to Department of Justice camps in Latin American countries and then expelled to Germany following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Nearly 300 Italians were also detained and questioned under these same orders.
The Executive Order allowed for the detention of over 120,000 Japanese American citizens during WWII and it came on the heels of the bombing at Pearl Harbor. Many of the enlisted men in the US army had family members being held, by their own government, in these camps.
Inmates designed and built baseball diamonds mainly during 1942, the first year in the camps. Kerry Yo Nakagawa told the Mercury News, “They kept the all-American pastime alive from behind barbed wire.” Four of the ten camps allowed players to participate in games outside their camp.
It was President Roosevelt’s belief that the game itself was a good break from wartime tension. Perhaps that is why he approved the travel expenses, upwards of $1,000 USD ($15,600 today)/game. The residents had formed these leagues nearly immediately as a distraction from the realities of imprisonment and it is likely the government looked at their adaptation as a healthy release for all.
Nisei league baseball was filled with second-generation Japanese-Americans. It was a league similar to the Negro Leagues during the same decades in the early 20th century. They not only played in the US but, much like the MLB does in Europe today, served as ambassadors of the game, bringing their professionals to the homeland to serve as instructors and educators. This eventually led to the creation of professional baseball in Japan in the late 1930s. Older league players, along with teens from the camps, began to play competitively during their incarceration.
As early as 1943, smack in the middle of these wartime activities, Dodgers owner Branch Rickey was already looking to break barriers. The same man that brought you Robinson in ‘45, openly invited three Nisei players to attend tryouts stating, “The fact that these boys are American boys is good enough for the Brooklyn Club.” While none of the men made the team, Rickey did make his point.
This book is a short, wonderfully illustrated telling of a very difficult time in American history. It is a story few know and more need to understand. The internment camps are America’s wartime shame. While condemning the actions of strangers abroad, the young nation’s own hands were not clean where it mattered most, at home. The land of the free and the brave was giving in to fearmongering. Restitution and apologies for lost dignities and assets were eventually made but that was decades too late and far too quietly.
The book brings you into a moment and out of the same without strong resolution so you need to have an older reader, someone in the 5-8 year old range, and be prepared for follow-up conversations. That makes this is a great starter history book for this age range. The illustrations are beautiful and the attention to historical accuracy in both the writing and the art, is exceptional.
Like his parents, Mochizuki was born in Seattle, Washington. His grandparents had emigrated from Japan at the turn of the century. Following university he headed to California to become an actor. His biggest role was a one-episode appearance on M.A.S.H. as “Ham”, a man about to be drafted into the Korean army, in 1979. It would seem even then America was not embracing their Asian neighbors closely enough to notice the differences between them. Of course the cold war was still brewing pretty warm at the time. It is perhaps then a reflection of the country’s historical histrionics, the McCarthy era for example that led to their continued willful ignorance.
This book came to life in 1993 after Mochizuki received a magazine clipping concerning internment camp baseball during World War II.
He was inspired to become a writer by two Japanese authors who came before him. In University he read No-No Boy. According to his biography this book is “…regarded as the greatest work by an Asian American author.” The 1957 novel features a protagonist who gets trouble from both sides for his responses to a loyalty questionnaire he completes while in an American camp during World War II. Mochizuki said of the book, “When I reached the last page, I was blown away. Not only from the power of the words, but also the power of his truth, that Seattle author John Okada dared to portray Japanese Americans in a realistic and often unflattering way.”
One of Mochizuki’s early mentors was someone he turned back to as he undertook his first children’s novel. During the 1940s Yoshiko Uchida wrote a series of children’s books featuring Japanese subjects. Those stories were the inspiration of Mochizuki’s childhood dream to become a writer. Included in her works was her own experience at one of the camps. Mochizuki writes in his bio, “If she were still around, I would tell her: ‘Thanks for helping to make my dream come true.’”
Since the book was first published in 1995, more than half a million copies have been sold. A musical for kids was created for the Seattle stage with Mochizuki penning all but the music.
As these stories of the connectivity between America’s sport of the century and the largest wars of those decades continue to emerge we can’t help but wonder. How many kids today, in countries across the deserts of the world, will become basketball players or football fans in the later half of the 21st century? Then again, nearly every culture in history has a stick and ball game so perhaps America’s past, pastime will once again reign supreme. If it takes continued unrest across the world, we hope that it forever stays relegated to 3rd place.