Bases as Bridges: Baseball from Japan to Washington

BaB-Web-Banner(RGB)“First-generation Issei near the beginning of the 20th century planted the seeds of Japanese American baseball. As baseball grew in popularity, many were both baseball players and baseball fans of the newly established Seattle League. As the Issei began to form families, their second-generation Nisei children found baseball to be a sport that both their parents and their peers could embrace as they grew up. Baseball became an integral part of the Japanese American community, as teams formed in the cities, on farms, and at rural lumber and mining camps – essentially wherever there were enough Nikkei to form a team. Leagues spanning multiple states were established in the 1920s and 1930s. Even through the hardship of World War II incarceration, baseball maintained as an intergenerational activity.” – Northwest Nikkei Museum, “Bases as Bridges: Baseball from Japan to Washington”

Though the golden years of Japanese American baseball has passed, the Northwest Nikkei Museum’s current exhibit, “Bases as Bridges,” shows how this sport still has the power to bring people together across cultures, generations and understanding.  Baseball reflects the inclusion and exclusion of American society that Japanese Americans experienced. Today, many Sansei and Yonsei have heeded the wishes of their parents to pursue college and even collegiate sports. This has opened the doors for Nikkei to enter the world of Major League Baseball and continues to inspire the future generations of Japanese Americans and their dreams to make it in the big leagues.


Player Biographies

Darwin Barney (Chicago Cubs; 2nd Baseman and Shortstop; #15)


Darwin Barney, photo courtesy of Joel Dinda

Darwin Barney is a Sansei from Beaverton, Oregon and is currently the Second Baseman for the Chicago Cubs. He took Southridge High School to its first state championship in 2002 and attended Oregon State University. There, he led the Beavers to back-to-back College World Series championships in 2006 & 2007. He was drafted in the fourth round by the Chicago Cubs in 2007. He also had a short acting career in 2007 when we played a small role in the film “Calvin Marshall” alongside actor Steve Zahn. He has posted a career .246 batting average with the Cubs, and 16 career home runs in his baseball career so far.

Travis Ishikawa (Pittsburgh Pirates; First Baseman; #3)

155949429_8792438945Travis Ishikawa, photo courtesy of LeeAnn Heringer

Travis Ishikawa is a First Baseman in the MLB and currently plays for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Ishikawa grew up in Seattle, WA and attended Federal Way High School, where he led his high school to the Washington State Class 4A title as a junior and to the title game as a senior. He was drafted in the 21st round of the 2002 amateur draft by the San Francisco Giants and made his major league debut in 2006 for the Giants. His current career stats include a .253 batting average with 19 home runs and 111 RBIs.

Ishikawa is a Yonsei from his father’s side. His great-grandparents immigrated from Japan to work on railroads and settled in Chicago. Travis never asked his grandparents about the Japanese American incarceration camp, “They never give you an opening to talk about it,” he says. “My father has never talked about it. I think it’s a cultural thing. There are some things you just don’t talk about.”

Kurt Suzuki (Minnesota Twins; Catcher; #8)

Oakland Athletics catcher Kurt Suzuki (8)

Oakland Athletics catcher Kurt Suzuki (8), photo courtesy of Keith Allison

Kurt Suzuki is a Japanese American catcher in the MLB and currently plays for the Minnesota Twins. Suzuki grew up in Wailuku, Hawaii and played for the Cal State Fullerton Titans baseball team. He helped lead the team to a 2004 College World Series Championship and won the Johnny Bench Award for the country’s top collegiate catcher. Suzuki was drafted in the second round of the 2004 MLB draft by the Oakland Athletics and made his major league debut for them in 2007. Suzuki now plays for the Minnesota Twins after being traded to them in 2012. His current career stats include a batting average of .253 with 67 home runs and 359 RBIs.

Don Wakamatsu (Kansas City Royals, Bench Coach)


Don Wakamatsu, photo courtesy of Jane Gershovich

Born in Hood River, Oregon in 1963 and raised in Hayward, California, Don Wakamatsu was the first baseball player in his family. He played at Hayward High School and Arizona State University where he earned All-Pacific 10 honors as a catcher. He was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 1985 and got the chance to play in the major leagues in 1991 for the Chicago White Sox, but then continued playing in the minor leagues till 1996. Wakamatsu became a minor league coach and manager for several organizations, until he became a bench coach in the major leagues for the Oakland Athletics in 2008. Don Wakamatsu was widely known around the Pacific Northwest when he became the first Nikkei to rise as a Manager of an MLB team with the Seattle Mariners in 2009. He became a bench coach for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2011 and now is currently a bench coach for the Kansas City Royals.

Don Wakamatsu discovered his personal connection with Japanese American history after his father received a reparations check from the government in the mail. His family, along with thousands of other Japanese Americans, was sent to a Japanese American Concentration Camp during WWII. His family never discussed about the hardships that they endured until he confronted his grandmother about it. His great-grandmother, Hsia, first immigrated to the U.S. as a picture bride in 1911 from Hiroshima, Japan. His Nisei grandparents were sent to the Tule Lake Relocation Center where his father was born there as a Sansei. His family was taken from their home in Hood River, put on a train downtown and shipped to a camp in Portland, Oregon. There they went to California, then Arkansas, and finally Colorado, where in 1945 they were finally released. He had nine members that were incarcerated and three uncles who served in the 442nd regiment. Some of the family decided to stay in Colorado, while Wakamatsu’s grandparents and father moved back to Hood River. Once there, they found out that their property was leased to another family, so they stayed with friends until their land was given back.

Lenn Sakata (Retired; New York Yankees; 2nd Baseman; #11)


Lenn Sakata #14, photo courtesy of Dave Nelson

Lenn Sakata was born in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1954. He is a Yonsei from his father’s side and a Sansei from his mother’s. Sakata attended Kalani High School where he led the school to the state championships, winning in 1970 alongside future MLB pitcher Ryan Kurosaki. Sakata was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in 1972, but decided to stay in school at Treasure Valley Community College in Oregon. After two seasons, he received a baseball scholarship at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Lenn was a second-team All-American in 1974, leading the Bulldogs to the Big Sky Championship during his junior year, with a batting average of .379. MLB clubs continued to pursue Sakata until he was finally drafted 10th overall in the 1975 MLB January amateur draft by the Milwaukee Brewers. After bouncing between the minor and major leagues, he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles. He had his best year in the 1982 season with a batting average of .259 with 31 runs batted in. He remained a useful reserve player for the Orioles in 1983 with a batting average of .254. Lenn played in one game of the World Series against the Phillies, being the first Japanese American player to play in the World Series. He spent time with the Oakland Athletics, as well as the New York Yankees before moving on to coaching and managing baseball in 1988.

Ryan Kurosaki (St.Louis Cardinals; Pitcher; #40)

Ryan Kurosaki was the first Japanese American to play in the MLB. He grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii and played for Kalani High School alongside Lenn Sakata. Kurosaki was part of the pitching staff going 6-0 with a 1.68 ERA, helping lead the team to a state championship in 1970. After high school, he went on to play at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln for three years and signed with the St. Louis Cardinals as an amateur free agent in 1974. Kurosaki was brought up to the majors in 1975 and played seven games, before returning to the minors to complete his seven-year career. In the majors, he posted a 7.62 ERA in 13 innings pitched.



– Baseball –

Batting Average: A baseball player’s batting average is the probability that the batter will be able to get a hit. It’s calculated by taking the batter’s total number of hits divided by the number of times the batter has been at bat. Batting averages are recorded on a three decimal scale of 1.000 (a batter gets a hit every single time at bat) to .000 (a batter never gets a hit).

ERA: Earned Run Average (The statistic that measures the pitcher’s runs given up per nine innings pitched. It’s calculated by multiplying the amount of runs a pitcher gives up by 9, and dividing it by the number of innings he pitched.)

MLB: Major League Baseball (The professional baseball league that consists of teams from the United States and Canada.)

Pennant: A race to win the pennant means the race to win the division or league. If a team takes the pennant, it means they won the division or league.

RBI: Runs Batted In (A statistic that credits the batter when the outcome of their at bat results in a run scored.)

– Japanese Generational Immigration –

Issei: First generation Japanese Americans who first immigrated to the United States

Nikkei: Japanese emigrants from Japan and their descendants who reside in a foreign country. While some definitions of Nikkei do not encompass the Issei because they retained Japanese citizenship, we include them in our definition of Nikkei because Issei in the United States were prohibited from becoming American citizens until 1952.

Nisei: Second generation Japanese Americans. The children of the Issei.

Sansei: Third generation Japanese Americans. The children of the Nisei.

Yonsei: Fourth generation Japanese Americans. The children of the Sansei.