Even Behind Barbed Wire, Fresno Baseball Legend Kenichi Zenimura Broke Barriers

Feb 7, 2020


Back in 1927, baseball legends Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig came to Fresno to play exhibition matches, sometimes playing with all Japanese-American teams. One of those players was Kenichi Zenimura, an immigrant from Japan.

 

In a 1999 documentary film about him, “Diamonds In The Rough,” narrator and actor Noriyuki “Pat” Morita says that, “He’ll always be remembered as Zeni, ‘Dean of the Diamond.’” 

Those words, “Dean of the Diamond,” are memorialized on his gravestone. 

 

Kerry Yo Nakagawa, producer of the documentary and director of the Nisei Baseball Research Project described Zenimura as “always was ahead of everyone else in strategy.” Nakagawa adds: “Kenichi Zenimura could have played, I feel, major league baseball.”

 

Zenimura coached and played baseball in Fresno before World War II. He built two fields, and even helped bring Babe Ruth to play in Japan. 

Baseball historian Bill Staples, Jr. wrote Zenimura’s biography. He considers Zenimura a civil rights pioneer. 

“He would go into towns where they had signs that said ‘Japanese not welcome,’” says Staples. “He’d go in and he'd schedule games and eventually they were welcome.”

Zenimura would see those signs in small rural towns in the Valley, like Livingston. His recent nomination into the Baseball Hall of Fame is due to these efforts. He was an ambassador for the sport both in the San Joaquin Valley, and in Japan. 

 

But this was before the U.S. entered World War II, before Japan’s military attacked Pearl Harbor. 

Months later, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, forcing Japanese Americans on the West Coast to move inland into internment camps. At 42 years old, Kenichi Zenimura had to move his family to a camp in the Arizona desert. There, they were fenced in with barbed wire, guard towers, and only allowed a suitcase each.

But even then, he used baseball to connect with the outside world. 

A baseball team of Japanese Americans interned at Gila River traveled to Heart Mountain, Wyoming, another camp, to play. It was one of the few instances that allowed Japanese Americans to leave the camps.
Credit Courtesy of Bill Staples

Staples says he had access to the Phoenix newspaper, and would invite teams to come play at the camp. In exchange, Zenimura offered them a portion of the ticket sales, and thousands of camp residents came out to watch the games.

“He would read about all these great teams on the outside, and so he invited them in to play,” says Staples.

How did he do this in a place so barren, and a place he wasn’t allowed to leave? 

With what little they had, the family built a baseball field. 

“They utilized flour to line the base paths and and the foul lines,” says Brandon Zenimura, Kenichi’s great-grandson.

Back in November, Brandon, 35, visited the camp in the Gila River Indian Community for the first time.

The outfield wall was made of castor bean plants, the bases were bags filled with rice and mattress pads lined the backstop.

“The dugouts were real dugouts, the bleachers were from the lumber that they would steal from the government,” Brandon laughs. He says his family would hide the lumber at night and retrieve it a few days later. “It truly was a field of dreams.”

Kenichi’s son, Howard Kenso, also Brandon’s grandpa, ended up playing in college after being released from the camp.

“My grandfather always talked about how baseball, in a way, saved them. He would have been a juvenile delinquent if he didn't have baseball because it gave him something to do,” says Brandon. 

Howard even played professionally in Japan for the Hiroshima Carps, but Kenichi himself never did. Like many Japanese Americans, Kenichi struggled to find a job after the camps. He managed day laborers until he died in 1968.

Inside the Gila River Indian Community, there’s a monument honoring Japanese Americans who fought in World War II. It’s one of the few indications that a camp ever existed there: the field is gone, replaced by an olive orchard, but the landscape is much the same. 

Brandon says when he stepped out of the car to see the monument, he was reminded of how much his grandfather hated rocks: “He always commented about how many stinking rocks there were, and how many stinking rocks he had to pick up every single day, sack full of rocks!” 

That desert, Brandon says, isn’t the easiest place to build a field, and yet they did, and got away with it.

“It was on the other side by the barbed wire, so why were they not stopped?”

Maybe because baseball is the American pastime, or because the sport lifted everyone’s spirits, including the guards.

“I don’t know, there's something about the grass, something about dirt, a ball, and leather, and a bat, a stick,” says Brandon. “There's something about it that's magical.”

Brandon’s great-grandfather, Kenichi, died in 1968. His grandfather, Howard Kenso, died in 2018. With them gone, Brandon considers himself someone to pass on these memories for his family.

Brandon Zenimura is Kenichi Zenimura's great-grandson. He first visited the camp his family was interned at in November, an experience he called "surreal."
Credit Laura Tsutsui / Valley Public Radio

“As memory keepers, I think it's so important to hold on to these stories,” Brandon says. “I teach for a living, and so to teach story and hold on to stories, it’s special.”

He says he’s keeping these memories for his own daughter, a toddler, with the hopes that she passes them on as well.