I think of Mas Inoshita often – especially each December. We’re both December birthdays, born 50 years apart – he in 1919 and me in 1969. For many who support the JACL community, we do so to honor the memory of pioneers like Mas. With that, I’m honored to serve in two roles that he once held – as chapter president and as the caretaker of Kenichi Zenimura’s wooden home plate. I am pleased to share that the cherished relic that Mas first cared for is returning to Arizona in 2023. The Arizona Historical Society (AHS) is developing a new exhibit, Rebuilding Home Plate, that debuts on January 25, at the Arizona Heritage Center. In honor of Mas’ legacy, I’d like to revisit the wonderful Arizona Republic article from 2000 that celebrated Mas and his role as the caretaker of Zenimura’s home plate. Enjoy.
Photo: (left to right) Mas Inoshita and Bill Staples, Jr. at the Rivers Honor Roll Monument at the Gila River Indian Community in November 2005. Photo by Kyra Newman-Staples.
PLATE SYMBOLIZES HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS
Diamond found in the desert shines light on “very dark period” in lives of 120,000 Japanese-Americans put into camps
Home plate haunts Mas Inoshita. When he lifts the strange-looking base – chunks of two-by-fours held together by rusty, wobbly nails – dirt crumbles to the ground. A few blades of old, dried grass stick in the cracks. He embraces the home plate, and the sounds from across the years echo in the 80-year-old’s mind — the cracking sound of bat on ball, the cries of spectators and the shadows of barbed wire fences corralling 13,348 Japanese-Americans like Inoshita at the Gila River Relocation Center. The plate leaves traces of dust across his white sport shirt, which could look like scars from a half-century ago. He remembers how Americans scorned him and locked him away on a desolate patch of land on the Gila River Indian Community.
In 1942, a stroke of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pen initiated mass removal of 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. They were forced out of their homes and into internment camps until 1946. There was not only one war on, but two. There was World War II, wherein the United States was fighting foreign enemies, some of them Japanese. And there was the war that many Japanese-Americans were fighting to hold on to hope in the internment camps.
Photo: Mas Inoshita in 2000 holding the home plate from Zenimura Field at the Gila River Relocation Center. This symbol of the dignity maintained in WWII incarceration camps will be the focus of the 2023 exhibit “Rebuilding Home Plate.” Photo by Angela Cara Pancrazio.
Though Inoshita didn’t play baseball, he holds tight to the very thing that helped the prisoners maintain their dignity. This home plate was central to their game, their lives, emblematic of one of the greatest paradoxes of the great American pastime, all of which unfolded in the desert. It is a part of life many Japanese-Americans would rather forget. Inoshita surrenders to time and shuts his eyes. His skin is as golden as a lifeguard’s; he’s shrunken and stooped. Years, decades, can mute the harsh memories. “This was built,” he said, “in the spring of ’43.” And it was rediscovered decades later by a Sansei, a third generation Japanese-American. For years, Midori Hall, who was the first child born at the camp, would revisit the relocation center, walking through the remnants of barracks. She was a toddler when the war was over and her family returned to California. Midori must have visited the camp a half-dozen times in the 10 years she lived in Arizona. Hall, 58, was on one of those trips more than a decade ago when she and her father and one of her sons, Steve, walked among the ruins of the camp. They became disoriented when they began to cross a large, open field. Then, Steve stumbled across the home plate. It was so rooted to the desert that when he pulled it out of the ground, the grass came with it. Steve Hall knew he unearthed a chunk of history, but what he didn’t know is that this home plate was the cornerstone to Zenimura Field – one of the most elaborate baseball diamonds, not only within the camp itself, but within the whole system of internment camps.
Photo: (left to right) Bill Staples, Jr., Mas
Inoshita, Midori Hall and Steve Hall
gather at the historic site of Zenimura
Field on the Gila River Indian Community
in November 2005. Photo by Kyra
For years, Steve Hall held onto the home plate, moving it as he moved, storing it in a cardboard box. Then three years ago (1997), a newspaper blurb seeking memorabilia from camp appeared in The Arizona Republic. Midori and her son, Steve, donated the home plate … to the Japanese American Citizens League. And for the past three years, Mas Inoshita and the Japanese American Citizens League have taken care of the home plate. Every so often, Inoshita ships it off whenever it is needed by the traveling baseball exhibit, “Diamonds in the Rough, Japanese Americans in Baseball.” He wraps it in foam and packs it tightly into a cardboard box, securing memories of a field carved out of the desert that helped ease fear and anger and loneliness, if only for nine innings. What better way to prove – if to no one but yourself – that you are indeed an American, than by playing the national pastime? Those memories are bittersweet for James Tomooka, who, so long ago, reached down to the Arizona desert with his lanky arms and picked away the rocks. To this day, the 5-foot-10 78-year-old can feel pride in the middle of his living room in Glendale, as he recalls his game-winning hit against a team from Heart Mountain, Wyo. From his couch, he watches his hard line drive speeding to right center field inside his living room. “It was a low pitch,” remembers the left-handed hitter, “I like to hit low balls.”
With men on second and third, the Gila River Guadalupe team won, 3-2, a shining moment for Tomooka. As glorious as that moment was and still is,
the fire behind a young man’s eyes retreats to the cloudy, cataract-covered eyes of a man that has seen suffering. Sadly, his mother never witnessed his glorious moment.
She would die in camp. “She didn’t get to see me play,” Tomooka said. “She was bedridden.” Inoshita loved baseball, too. However, he barely had
time to get to know the players. Within three months of arriving at camp, he discovered another way to prove his loyalty to his country, a way, he thought, that would give a better impression of Japanese-Americans. Inoshita enlisted in the Army as an interrogator and interpreter. Inoshita gets ready to pack the home plate away one more time. He lifts it away from his chest, and a little more dust falls out. But he doesn’t want to put a hammer to the nails or even glue the plate’s point back on. The base is sacred. Just like the land that it once gripped. “You figure fellows like me,” he says, “went out of their way, in spite of the fact (they) were put behind barbed wire. In spite of the fact they abandoned all they had in the world and packed up in one bag.” The fellows he speaks of are Zenimura and Tomooka. “It’s a triumph,” Inoshita said, “over a very dark period in their life. An attempt to bring sanity to what was truly insane.”
Photo: James “Step” Tomooka, shares a photo of himself as
a member of the Guadalupe YMBA team in 1943 at Gila
River, AZ. His jersey will be featured in the “Rebuilding
Home Plate” exhibit coming to Arizona in 2023. Photo by
Angela Cara Pancrazio.
Help fund “Rebuilding Home Plate – Baseball
in Arizona’s Japanese American
Incarceration Camps.” Your tax-deductible
gift supports homerun programs that celebrate
the stories that shape our past and guide our
future. Visit: arizonahistoricalsociety.org.
Click here to
watch the oral
with Mas Inoshita.
Original article by Angela Cara Pancrazio. Arizona
Republic, Sep. 10, 2000.