Just read a heartwarming story about Japanese-American baseball — its origins dating back to the early 1900s, continuing through the internment camp years during WWII, and ending with today’s stars like Ichiro Suzuki — all told through the life of 84 year old Chi Akizuki.
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.
He celebrated his 19th birthday on Feb. 2, 1942. On Feb. 19, President Franklin D. Roosevelt 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.
“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.”
“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.”
For the adults, the internment camp baseball culture became a bright spot in the night.
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.
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.
Excerpted from Times Select
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