Saturday, June 23, 2007

Baseball’s Japanese Roots Survive Test of Time and Will

By WILLIAM C. RHODEN
Sports of The Times
June 23, 2007

Chitoshi Akizuki wasn’t sure whether he would travel from San Jose to San Francisco this weekend to watch Hideki Matsui and the Yankees play the San Francisco Giants. But he will be there in spirit.

He always is.

Chi Akizuki is hardly a household name, though he is a baseball hero in San Jose. He is part of a Japanese-American semiprofessional baseball culture that flourished in California beginning in the early 1900s. These players and their leagues built the road that has become a super highway for players like Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki. Akizuki’s journey through baseball, and his connection with the game, is a salt-of-the-earth story.

At a time when Major League Baseball is being forced to look into its soul, Akizuki, 84, illuminates the spirit of eternal optimism at the game’s core.

Akizuki was a freshman at San Jose State on Dec. 7, 1941. His basketball club team, comprising Japanese-American players, was participating in a local tournament when the news came that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor.

He celebrated his 19th birthday on Feb. 2, 1942. On Feb. 19, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the removal of about 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans from the West Coast during World War II.

Along with thousands of other families, Akizuki, his parents and his three younger sisters were sent to the stables and paddocks of the Santa Anita Race Track, which had been hastily converted into a relocation center. Santa Anita was a temporary center for Japanese-Americans throughout California. The families were soon transferred into a camp at Heart Mountain, Wyo., for the duration of the war. “The notice came from the government that we were going to be rounded up,” Akizuki said in a telephone interview earlier this week from his home in San Jose. “All the people of Japanese descent, even American citizens, were told that we had to leave the area where we were living and go to Santa Anita.”

Akizuki did not play organized baseball at San Jose High School or in college at San Jose State. He was a sprinter on the track team and a basketball player.

At the relocation center, he was recruited as a center fielder. He originally played for Asahi, one of the oldest Japanese-American semipro teams. But he became part of a new team, the Azucars, named for the winner of the first Santa Anita Handicap. When he went to Heart Mountain, Akizuki joined the Zebras.

For Akizuki and his friends, the camps were a new adventure. They became a social network that brought together Japanese-American families throughout the West Coast. Baseball provided a measure of freedom, and his team played against other camp teams. On one trip, they traveled from Wyoming to Arizona.

“For me, it was kind of exciting,” he said. “We had things to do, like playing baseball, basketball, even football. There were social clubs. The girls had their own clubs, and the boys had their own clubs. They had dances. For the young guys, it wasn’t bad.”

For many adults, internment was a devastating blow and represented an unspeakable violation. Thousands of Japanese-American families lost homes and businesses virtually overnight.

“Our parents were the ones it hit hardest,” he said. “They didn’t talk, hardly at all, about what happened to them. Most of the families were like that.”

Akizuki met his wife, Kimiko, who was from Los Angeles, in the camp. They married in 1950 and had three children.

For the adults, the internment camp baseball culture became a bright spot in the night. There was a deep and passionate enthusiasm for organized baseball among Japanese-Americans who played in semipro leagues that traversed the West Coast and Pacific Northwest. The game kept them connected to the American ideal; baseball allowed them to keep their faith in that ideal at a time when it was hazy, at best.

Akizuki never returned to San Jose State, and the prospect of playing major league baseball seemed out of the question for him and many others.

Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play modern major league baseball, in 1947. The first Japanese-born player, Masanori Murakami, didn’t reach the majors until 1964, with the Giants. After the war, Akizuki worked in packing houses, loading vegetables on trucks. He got a job with the Postal Service, where he remained for 30 years.



Chi Akizuki has taken the baseball journey of a lifetime. He was 11 in 1934, when Babe Ruth led a team of major leaguers to Japan for an exhibition against a team of all-stars. That all-star team became the Tokyo Giants, Japan’s first professional baseball team.

He was 12 when those same Giants traveled to California and lost a landmark game against the San Jose Asahi. He was 19 when he entered the internment camp and 65 in 1988, when President Reagan signed legislation apologizing for the internment on behalf of the United States.

In his life, Akizuki has seen Japanese baseball players become stars in the United States.

“It makes you proud,” he said. “These players from Japan, they all want to come and play in the major leagues.”

I wondered if young Japanese players were aware of their Japanese baseball predecessors in the United States. “They probably don’t know about us playing baseball in camps,” Akizuki said. “I don’t think they know.”

His life in baseball and the legacy it represents are part of a timeless essence: Baseball heals; baseball unites.

Chi Akizuki may not see Hideki Matsui in San Francisco this weekend, but he will certainly be there in spirit.

He always is.

E-mail: wcr@nytimes.com

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