Image: The Fresno Athletic Club, led by manager/shortstop Kenichi Zenimura, serve as international ambassadors during their tour of Japan in 1927.
“Baseball’s Bridge Across the Pacific” is perhaps the most important and overlooked contribution of the Japanese American baseball pioneers who were forced to play in leagues of their own due to the discrimination of their times, yet proudly served as international baseball ambassadors for the U.S. across the Pacific — in Japan, Korea, China, the Hawaiian Territories, and the Philippines. All ballplayers who compete in the MLB and the professional leagues across the Pacific are indebted to those Nikkei pioneers who helped spread the American style of play across the globe, and in doing so elevated the level of play across Asia. Below are the most significant events in U.S.-Japan baseball relations since 1872.
1872 The first Japanese to play baseball, the Yeddo Royal Acrobatic Troupe, compete in an exhibition game against major league players in Washington, D.C., on June 7, 1872.
Meanwhile, baseball is introduced in Japan by American school teacher Horace Wilson. By the end of the century, it becomes Japan’s most popular team sport.
1886 Aisuke Kabayama, student at Wesleyn College in Connecticut, becomes the first person of Japanese ancestry to play college baseball in the U.S.
1897 Cleveland Spiders manager Patsy Tebeau attempts to sign a Japanese outfielder known only in the press as “the cousin of wrestler Sorakichi Matsuda”.
1899 The first recorded Japanese American baseball team—soon to be renamed the Excelsiors—is formed in Hawaii by Reverend Takie Okumura. Baseball in Hawaii quickly explodes in popularity, with organized leagues flourishing by the early 1900s.
1903 The First Japanese American baseball team on the mainland is founded by Chiura Obata —the Fuji Athletic Club in San Francisco.
1905 Steere Noda organizes the Hawaiian Japanese American team, the Hawaiian Asahi, which became one of the longest-lasting teams west of the Rockies.
The Waseda University baseball team arrives in San Francisco to begin the first in a series of baseball exchanges with American universities.
A color line against players of Japanese ancestry is acknowledged in the press when an outfielder known as “Sugimoto” attends spring training with John McGraw’s New York Giants.
1906 Members of the Japanese Baseball Club of Los Angeles are hired by promoter Guy Green of Nebraska to form the first professional Japanese baseball team on either side of the Pacific, and barnstorm the U.S. as Green’s Japanese Base Ball Club.
1907 The Hawaiian St. Louis team becomes the first foreign team to play ball in Japan. Keio University is their host team.
1913 The Alameda Taiiku-Kai semipro team is formed.
1914 The Asahi Club from Seattle becomes the first Nisei baseball team to play baseball in Japan.
The Florin Athletic Club is formed.
A steady flow of teams travel to Japan (including Nisei teams) and Japanese university teams regularly travel to the U.S.
1915 The Hawaiian Asahi embark on a tour competing with teams from Japan, Korea, and China.
1915–17 Japanese American baseball teams are forming on the mainland.
1917 Andy Yamashiro of Hawaii becomes the first Japanese American to join organized baseball when he signs with the Gettysburg Ponies of the Class D Blue Ridge League. He competes under the Chinese pseudonym of “Andy Yim”.
1919 The Fresno Athletic Club is organized.
1920 Stockton Yamato Athletic Club is organized.
1920s During this decade the Northern California Japanese Baseball league forms semipro teams and many semiprofessional “A” teams are established. This decade also sees the formation of teams for Japanese American women who make their mark on the diamond.
1922 Herb Hunter’s major league all-stars intentionally throw a game in Japan, disrespecting their hosts and marking the start of a “major league void” in Japan. Nikkei and Negro League teams fill this eight-year void with multiple tours to Japan.
1925 Formation of the Hawaiian Baseball League (HBL).
1927 The Aratani company team, the Guadalupe Packers, is sent on a goodwill tour to Japan.
On a barnstorming tour following their World Series victory, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig play an exhibition game in Fresno including Nisei all-stars, Johnny Nakagawa, Kenichi Zenimura, Fred Yoshikawa, and Harvey Iwata.
The Fresno Athletic Club and the Philadelphia Royal Giants (all-stars of the Negro leagues) compete in Japan for a mythical championship.
1928 Bozo Wakabayashi joins an all-Nisei team from Stockton en route to a goodwill tour in Japan. As a result he stays in Japan to attend school and becomes a professional player for the the Osaka Tigers.
1930s The Golden Age of Nisei baseball continues as the Japanese Athletic Union is founded and important teams such as the San Fernando Nippon (later renamed the Aces) and the Nisei Athletic Club in Oregon are formed.
1932 Kenso Nushida becomes the first Japanese American to play professional baseball in the U.S. above the “D” level when he signs with the Pacific Coast League Sacramento Solons (Senators).
1934 Matsutaro Shoriki forms Japan’s first pro team the Yomiuri Shimbun Professional Baseball Team.
1935 Shoriki renames his professional team the Tokyo Giants at a suggestion from Lefty O’Doul and the Tokyo Giants make their first tour to the United States to play semipro and professional teams.
Four of the Tokyo Giants players are offered contracts to play in the U.S. Only one player, Hawaii-born Jimmy Horio, is eligible to accept an offer. The other three (Sawamura, Starfin and Tabe) are banned from playing in the U.S. due to restrictions set in the 1924 Immigration Act.
1937 The Alameda Kono All-star team makes its last tour to Japan, Korea, and Manchuria.
1942 More than 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent are relocated into detention camps and they immediately form Assembly-center teams. Later in the year when Assembly-center internees are reassigned to permanent camps, the first thing they do is to build baseball diamonds and form teams.
1943 The Brooklyn Dodgers are the only major league team to offer tryouts to Japanese American ballplayers incarcerated behind barbed wire during WWII.
Kay Kiyokawa becomes the starting pitcher for the University of Connecticut.
1944 Former L.A. Nippon slugger Jack Kakuuchi, playing third-base for the Camp Grant Army Team, records a hit in three at-bats, and scores the deciding run in a victory against the MLB Chicago Cubs.
1945–55 Postwar, many new teams and leagues are formed such as the Little Tokyo Giants, the LA Tigers, the Nichiren Orions, the Stockton Asahi, the San Francisco Traders, and the Sacramento All-Stars.
1947 While Jackie Robinson breaks the MLB color barrier and joins the Brooklyn Dodgers, two Japanese Americans become pioneers crossing racial lines in other major sports leagues: Wally Yonamine with the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL, and Wat Misaka with the New York Knicks in the NBA.
1949 Lefty O’Doul’s San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League arrive in Japan for a ten-game series.
A game marks the appearance of the first all-Nisei battery in U.S. professional history when Jiro Nakamura and Hank Matsubu signed contracts with the Modesto Reds, a Pittsburgh Pirates farm team.
1951 Wally Yonamine becomes the first foreigner to play professional ball in Japan when he signs with the Yomiuri Giants.
1952 Fibber Hirayama is signed by the Stockton Ports and plays for one year in the farm system of the St. Louis Browns. He senses that professional baseball in post-WWII America does not welcome players of Japanese ancestry, so he decides to go to Japan and play with the Hiroshima Carp.
1953–56 Major league teams such as the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers travel to Hawaii to play teams in the Hawaiian Baseball League.
1954 Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe arrive in Japan for their honeymoon and a series of batting clinics.
1955 Bozo Wakabayashi is hired as a scout by the New York Yankees to recruit star players from Japan. Manager Casey Stengel is not supportive of the move, as he feels his roster is already loaded with the league’s best players.
1961 Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League are purchased by Nick Morgan and move to Honolulu as the Hawaiian Islanders. Over the years they serve as a farm team for several major league teams including the Chicago White Sox, the Washington Senators, and the San Diego Padres.
1964 Bozo Wakabayashi is the first American Nisei to be inducted into the Japan Hall of Fame.
1965 Masanori Murakami becomes the first Japanese national to play in the major leagues by signing with the San Francisco Giants.
Frank and Henry Ota each captain the baseball team for their class at Dartmouth.
1967 Mike Lum joins the Atlanta Braves becoming the first Japanese American to play in the major leagues.
1968 George Omachi joins the New York Mets as their California scout.
1974 Hawaiian Asahi upsets world champion Cuba in an exhibition game in Tokyo.
1976 Mike Lum, now with the Cincinnati Reds, becomes the first Japanese American to play in the postseason (he does not appear in a World Series game).
1983 Lenn Sakata is the first Japanese American to compete in a World Series, helping the Baltimore Orioles win the championship.
1991 Don Wakamatsu becomes the first Yonsei to play in the majors when he is called up to the Chicago White Sox.
1995 Nomo-mania! Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo joins the Los Angeles Dodgers. While helping MLB win fans back after the 1994 strike, he’s named the starting pitcher for the National League in the All-Star game, and wins the National League Rookie of the Year.
1996 Diamonds in the Rough exhibit opens in Fresno. And, the first major league tribute to Nisei baseball is conducted at Candlestick Park by the San Francisco Giants.
1997 The Los Angeles Dodgers honor Nisei legends including teammates Al Sako and Tom Tomiyama who are reunited for the first time in seventy-five years.
1998 The National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown displays the exhibit, Diamonds in the Rough: Japanese Americans in Baseball and honors surviving Nisei baseball pioneers.
1998 Don Wakamatsu is named Class “A” Minor League Manager of the Year with the Diamondbacks organization.
1999 The Japan Hall of Fame in Tokyo honors Nisei ball players with the opening of the Diamonds in the Rough exhibit at the Tokyo Dome.
2001 The Ichiro-era begins
2002 Don Wakamatsu, Anaheim Angels coach, becomes the first Japanese American to win a World Series in a leadership role.
2004 Ichiro breaks George Sisler’s 84-year-old season-hit record (257), establishing a new mark with 262 hits.
2006 Kenichi Zenimura, the Father of Japanese American Baseball, is elected into the Baseball Reliquary Shrine of the Eternals with Fernando Valenzuela and Josh Gibson.
2007 Warner Brothers releases the major motion picture American Pastime, detailing the importance of baseball to the Japanese American incarceration camp experience.
2008 Don Wakamatsu is named the skipper of the Seattle Mariners, and in doing so becomes the first Asian-American manager in MLB history.
2010 Travis Ishikawa of the San Francisco Giants Ishikawa joins Lenn Sakata as just one of two Japanese American ballplayers to play in, and win, a World Series.
2014 In the National League Championship Series, Travis Ishikawa bats .385, including a 3-run walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to clinch the pennant for the Giants and their third World Series appearance in the past five seasons.
Jeremy Guthrie, Yonsei (fourth-generation Japanese American), of the Kansas City Royals, becomes the first Nikkei pitcher to record a victory in a World Series game.
2018 Christian Yelich, Gosei (fifth-generation Japanese American), of the Milwaukee Brewers, wins the National League Most Valuable Player Award.
2019 Kurt Suzuki, Yonsei (fourth-generation Japanese American), earns a World Series ring with the Washington Nationals.
2020 Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers becomes the first manager of Japanese ancestry to win the World Series.
2022 The Los Angeles Dodgers honor the legacy of Japanese American baseball, the 150th Anniversary of U.S.-Japan Baseball relations, and the 80th Anniversary of Executive Order 9066, at Dodger Stadium during the All-Star Game.
2023 Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) partner with the Nisei Baseball Research Project (NBRP) to develop the exhibit, “Baseball’s Bridge Across the Pacific: Celebrating the Legacy of Japanese American Baseball,” at the 2023 All-Star Game fan experience PLAY BALL Park in Seattle, WA. When asked about the exhibit, superstar Shohei Ohtani said, “I definitely feel all the history of the guys that came before me who opened the door for me to be able to play over here.”
by Kerry Yo Nakagawa & Bill Staples, Jr, Nisei Baseball Research Project
Castrovince, Anthony, “Japanese baseball exhibit showcases bridge to Ohtani at ASG,” mlb.com, July 10, 2023.
Fitts, Robert K. Remembering Japanese Baseball: An Oral History of the Game. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.
Mukai, Gary. Diamonds in the Rough: Baseball and Japanese-American Internment. Stanford, CA: Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE), 2004.
Nakagawa, Kerry Yo. Through a Diamond: 100 Years of Japanese American Baseball. San Francisco, CA: Rudi Publishing, 2001.
- Staples Jr, Bill. Kenichi Zenimura: Japanese American Baseball Pioneer. McFarland, 2011.
- Sayama, Kazuo & Staples Jr, Gentle Black Giants: A History of Negro Leaguers in Japan. Fresno, CA: NBRP Press, 2019.