By David Yamaguchi
TO WRITE FREELANCE articles for this paper is a mixed bag. Most of the time, I am left free to live my life, during which I jot notes and snap photos when I happen on something interesting that readers might enjoy. This approach involves grabbing the low hanging fruit. An apt Japanese phrase for it is “Hidari uchiwa de kurasu.” It means to live with ease, by fanning oneself—ineptly—with one’s left hand. The implication is that one is too lazy to fan properly, with the right hand.
Occasionally, however, I have to earn my pay when Post manager Misa Murohashi emails to ask if I would be interested in covering an upcoming event. The request she sent on Tuesday, Dec. 4 is typical. Could I cover an evening talk on Nisei baseball last-minute at Ebbets Field Flannels, downtown near First and Jackson, in two days’ time?
When such requests come, I weigh the pros and cons. Sometimes it is easy to reply, “Yes.” At other times, like this one, I vacillate.
There were many reasons to say no. I’m not really a sports guy. I can count the number of pro and university games I’ve watched in Seattle across the past 20 years on one hand. I had never heard of the author, Kerry Yo Nakagawa. It is cold and dark out in wintertime Seattle.
Still, there is something about mostly “just saying yes” for the team. By stepping out of my comfort zone, I might also learn something. And so after replying positively to Misa, Thursday afternoon I found myself heading out to find Ebbets Field Flannels. I picked up
copies of the three International District English papers en route to clue Mr. Nakagawa into the local scene.
FROM THE MOMENT I stepped into the doorway of the tiny shop, I found myself carried aloft by a rush of new things and ideas. The feeling would persist across the next two-plus hours, which included grabbing a bite to eat with Mr. Nakagawa on the way home.
The dream shop of owner Jerry Cohen, Ebbets Field sells newly made historical baseball shirts. In business since 1987, Mr. Cohen has always liked such shirts, and finding them unavailable, decided that he had to make and sell them himself. It is the kind of niche business that works today because local sales can be augmented by those nationally with the help of the internet. What caught my eye were the many shirts on display from Japanese teams.
Moreover, in the back “museum” room where there is tight space for 10-15 sardines, there was an immediate sense among the few gathering there that we were about to see something special. Two large video cameras were set up on tripods in the back. A slinky young woman photographer was shooting candids. Tony Black, whose day job is to report the morning news on KING5, was setting up mics. Mr. Nakagawa was dressed sharply, easily chatting with the arriving guests.
While waiting, I began conversing with Julie Ann Oiye, whose face I know from her occasionally attending dance class at the Nisei Veterans Hall. At any community gathering, I find that it is interesting to see who attends and why. It turns out that Julie Ann is Kerry Nakagawa’s cousin. She had been the one who contacted the Post to let us know that Kerry would be speaking. Julie Ann had the same impression of Ebbets Field Flannels that I did. Moreover, we both agreed that it is important for all of us to venture out of our little boxes, now and then, to see what else there is in the world…
KERRY BEGAN his talk by explaining his local roots, while adroitly interviewed by Mr. Black. Kerry’s mother was born at the historical Neely Mansion, near Auburn, well-described in this paper. His grandpa, Matasuke Fukuda, had owned a dairy farm there until the Great Depression, when he had to pack up the family including 11 kids, and drive to California, to start anew. It was a Japanese-American “Grapes of Wrath” saga.
Long story short, playing baseball has run through the Nakagawa family for generations. Kerry, on finding that the story of Nisei baseball was being left out of the history books, has made it his mission to correct the omission. Along the way, he established a nonprofit—the Nisei Baseball Research Project, wrote two books, and had a hand in producing two films, including “American Pastime” (2007) a fictional account of baseball in the internment camps. In short, Kerry is something like a combined version of our own Ken Mochizuki, Tom Ikeda, and Frank Abe (“Conscience and the Constitution”).
During the next hour, which went too quickly, Kerry gave an overview talk, which will shortly become a podcast on the Ebbets Field Flannels website. What I came away with is that there were countless Nisei baseball players, the top end of whom might well have played in the major leagues, were it not for their color of the skin. They were like black players before Jackie Robinson. Nonetheless, through many goodwill playing trips to Japan and Asia, they did much to promote and develop the level of play in Japan. Their collective story was nearly forgotten, save for Kerry’s efforts.
On hearing Kerry’s tale, I was struck by how it fits with two baseball narratives from my own life. First, it reminded me of a story of a Nisei carpenter from Hawaii, with whom I worked part-time as a high school student in the 1970s, shared with me one day over lunch. He told of how he and his friends—who played in an “old man’s league”—had beaten a local Sansei team—my age peers—and how the Sansei had left the field fuming mad.
“What they don’t understand is how much ball we played as youngsters,” my workmate had said.
Kerry’s talk also reminded me of the obscure but charming film, “MacArthur’s Children” (1984), which I saw at the Varsity Theater as a UW student. It depicts postwar Japan from the viewpoint of rural schoolchildren. It ends with a friendly baseball game between Occupation troops and the kids.
Back to Kerry, despite his ability to spin a great yarn in person, for me the bottom line remains whether or not his books are any good. That is, do they make a reader want to turn the page, whether he is interested in baseball or not? I close with an excerpt, so that readers can judge for themselves if his words pass the test.