A Field of Dreams in the Arizona Desert
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“Some time ago, back in a California town called Livingston, there appeared huge signs of billboard proportion: “No Japs Wanted,” he wrote in the Gila News Courier, the camp’s newspaper. “It was quite some time ago. At any rate, someone, somehow, arranged a game between the Fresno Japanese Baseball Club and a team owned by the big shot of that town called Livingston. The Japanese nine put together enough guts and made the trip – trying especially hard to play clean ball. Soon there were return games and soon enough – sure enough – the signs disappeared. MORAL: The sentiment around Phoenix never was too good for us; it’s worth trying here.”
Personally witnessing baseball’s ability to bridge cultural barriers, it should come as no surprise that two weeks after Zenimura showed up at Gila River in 1942, he began constructing a baseball field.
“Guys from the other blocks asked, ‘What are you doing’?” said Howard Zenimura, son of Kenichi, in an interview with Sports Illustrated. “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.”
With only two suitcases to their name, the Zenimuras had to be resourceful – and clandestine – as this project had not yet been approved by camp officials. But Kenichi knew that his field would not only improve camp sentiment, but also help improve relations between the internees and the outside world. It wasn’t just for recreation; this field was a necessity.
“Using picks and shovels, the workers created two dugouts,” Howard said to Sports Illustrated. “They framed these with wood “borrowed” from a lumberyard during night time forays. They also used the stolen wood to construct a small grandstand, which even had a reserved-seat section.”
When camp officials began constructing a barbed wire fence around Gila River, Zenimura took poles from the construction site to use for support beams. The base lines were made of flour, while bags of rice marked the bases. A tin coffee cup stood outside of the park to raise funds for better equipment. Uniforms were made of mattress fabric. The outfield was made of castor plants – which soon grew to be seven feet tall – and stretched from foul pole to foul pole. Balls hit over them were home runs, and through them were doubles. The pitching rubber and home plate were made of wood.
Zenimura quickly raised enough money to order better equipment from a sporting goods store in Fresno. The Gila River residents even grew Bermuda grass in the outfield, creating a diversion ditch so water would flow from a canal on the other side of camp. By March 7, 1943, with thousands of residents in attendance, Zenimura Field saw its first game – an 8-0 one-hit shutout by Block 28 (Zenimura’s club) against a local team from Guadalupe. Camp Director Leroy Bennett threw out the first pitch.
“The teenagers and the adults would gather every night to watch the games,” said actor Pat Morita to Sports Illustrated. “I had never seen a live baseball game before so this was my introduction to baseball—sitting and cheering with a couple of thousands rabid fans.”
Zenimura had organized a 32-team league, broken down into three divisions, sorted by experience level. Among the area teams who also played there were the Phoenix Colored Nine, the Phoenix Thunderbirds and the three-time high school state champion Tucson Badgers. When the Badgers came to visit Zenimura Field, they had a record of 52-0. When they left, that record was 52-1.
“In the back of our mind we wanted to make up for Pearl Harbor,” said Bernie Weinstein, a player on the Tucson Badgers, during a 2006 reunion of the two teams, arranged by the Nisei Baseball Research Project. “I saw the fence and said ‘God, this is like a prison.’ It was a game that most of us will never forget. I realized that these people were Americans, just like myself. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, what a big mistake we made by putting these people in this relocation camp.”
After the game, the two teams ate watermelon and had a small picnic. Gila River’s Butte High Eagles even showed the Badgers how to sumo-wrestle.
“The two coaches, Kenichi Zenimura and Hank Slagle, were men ahead of their time,” said Bill Staples Jr., author of Kenichi Zenimura: Japanese American Baseball Pioneer. “They were trying to teach their ballplayers the concept of shared humanity. [Zenimura] also made sure that regardless of the outcome of the game, the visiting team would always get the 60 percent of the gate receipts. This is wartime and these guys are making good money to play ball.”
Sadly, after the camp was closed in 1945, the field fell into disarray, and now serves as an olive orchard.