Block 20 Baseball

October 25, 2012 by Admin

By Kazuko Iwahashi

“Ready to go to the baseball game?”  Yae asked me when we met at the end of our barrack.

“Okay.  Let’s go!” we shouted then walked over to the other side of our block, block 20, to pick up Grace and Sets. All of us were 12 and 13 years old at the time.

The four of us didn’t have didn’t far to go, just across the road from where block 21 might’ve been constructed. Other than the players, we were often the first ones there. The baseball field was the open space in our backyard and was called diamond #21.  On the opposite side of our camp (known as Topaz) was diamond #16.  Each block in Topaz had a baseball team as long as enough players were interested. All the games were played on one or the other of the fields.  Later, there were baseball fields, I believe, in the center of camp. When the block teams played against each other, we saw our friends from the opposing team and competed in cheering for our teams – screaming out words of encouragement, “Come on! You can do it!” and sounds of disappointment, “Oh no!” when something went wrong.

Originally, the dusty fields of fine dirt had been pounded down and scraped flat by machinery, and then later by our walking, stomping, and running.  Each field contained three bases and a home plate — the so-called “baseball diamond.”  In retrospect, I wonder what the bases were made of–were they special ordered by mail and, if so, from where?

Because the baseball field was so close and available, we girls and our friends would go out and play on our own, using equipment from our “rec” (recreation) hall. Before going to Topaz, I had never been exposed to baseball; I didn’t play the game at Washington Grammar school or in the few months at Burbank Jr. High school, at least not that I can remember. I was not the most talented at catching or throwing the ball and couldn’t be counted on to hit the ball!  I think we all felt the same way at one time or another because of our inexperience.   Yet somehow, someplace (maybe in our Topaz Jr. High gym class?), we learned the basics of baseball enough to play and enjoy the game; swinging the bat, throwing the ball, or making a catch, we had our own fun playing the game in our backyard.

Yae, Grace, Sets, and me (l to r, front to back) at Block 20 mess hall. Topaz, 1943.

Yae, Sets, Grace and I followed our team to whichever diamond they would be playing to root for what we called our “champion block 20 baseball team.”  In fact, they did win the title of League Champions at least once. I wonder if our block held a celebration to honor them–I don’t remember but surely something must have been done, even if this great accomplishment was only announced in the mess hall that evening.

We were proud of our two “core” players–pitcher Sus Ota and catcher Ted Iida.  I remember thinking those guys were cool (I don’t think that was the term we used in those days!). They couldn’t do anything wrong; both of them never used crude language; they seemed unperturbed no matter what batter they faced, what kind of ball was thrown, or what play they needed to make. Ted and Sus were older and seemed disinterested in us gangling, giggling pre-teens.  But we were among their most ardent fans.  We could be heard yelling and screaming, “Too high!” “Keep running!””Go, go, go!”and all kinds of other crazy rantings.

I remember Sus’ form, his back straight as he brought his pitching arm back to throw the ball to the waiting batter. “Slug,” his nickname, had a very cool demeanor when he had possession of the ball; he never looked frazzled or nervous.

The pitcher-catcher duo of Sus and Ted was something to see.  Ted with his catcher’s mask behind home plate constantly chattered in a way that was friendly towards yet intimidating to the opposing teams’ batters; even though I can’t recall the words, I can still feel the power of his voice.  Quick on his feet when the ball slammed into his mitt, he seemed to know where the players in the field were and made his moves quickly.

I also remember Ken Nobe in centerfield, leaping up into the air and making a beautiful catch.  From where we stood, we called it a “stag jump” because he looked like a deer.  It was awesome. (Again, I don’t think this work was in our vocabulary at that time, but that’s what it was: awesome.)

We became ecstatic, cheering and clapping loudly, when we heard the umpire say, “You’re out!” to the players on the visiting rival team.  We would often laugh at the fact that we would become hoarse cheering, which often happened at our block basketball games, too!

Our block 20 team had us, the four avid fans who faithfully followed, watched, and cheered them on — win or lose. For all of us block spectators, baseball and basketball were community-supported and bonding events, that allowed us to fell a part of something bigger, and provided a respite from the dull routine of camp life. We looked forward to each game, our hands poised to clap, our mouths ready to shout and scream. Yes, the four of us were in Topaz seven decades ago but Sus’ whistling pitches, Ted’s scanning eyes and Ken’s graceful leaps all remain vivid in my mind.

In the aftermath of World War II, more than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry – roughly two-thirds of whom were American citizens – were released from forced imprisonment in U.S. concentration camps. But released to return where, after being taken from their homes along the West Coast? When they were finally allowed to leave the internment camps, they faced a new challenge: How do you resume a life so interrupted.
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