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A Field in the Desert That Felt like Home
David Davis
November 16, 1998
An unlikely hero sustained hope for Japanese-Americans interned in World War II
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November 16, 1998

A Field In The Desert That Felt Like Home

An unlikely hero sustained hope for Japanese-Americans interned in World War II

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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.

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."

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