Mas Yoshimura can still imagine the park at 23rd and Welton streets in its prime.
When the 92-year-old closes his eyes, he can see the tall net guarding the short porch in right field and the telephone pole marking the divider between a home run and ground-rule double. Where sidewalks now reside, he remembers bleachers, packed with almost 3,000 fans.
They chant and cheer and sometimes curse in Japanese, even the Obaachans, or grandmothers. A few older men offer him money if he can hit a home run in his next at bat. The smell of teriyaki from the bento, and hot dogs from the concession stands fill the air.
“The whole Japanese community would come out to watch us,” he says. “They had nothing else to do and I guess they were kind of proud of us.”
Back then, the park at 23rd and Welton was a mecca of Japanese American baseball. Teams traveled hundreds of miles to step onto its grass and play ball.
Gazing upon the field now, Yoshimura can’t help but replay the sequence that clinched the Denver Nisei the 1952 Semi-Pro Metropolitan League Championship. It’s a fairly common play. A hard line drive right at Frank Kamibayashi catches the runner too far off first base, and the Nisei shortstop fires the ball across the diamond to Yoshimura for a double play.
Yoshimura had the whole team autograph the ball after the game. Now, seven decades later, he doesn’t know what happened to it.
“I can’t find them,” he said. “I can’t find a lot of stuff.”
Japanese Americans have been playing baseball for about as long as they’ve been in Colorado. According to Robert Fitts, author of “Issei Baseball: The Story of the First Japanese American Ballplayers,” one of Denver’s first all-Japanese American teams, the Denver Mikado, can trace its roots back to Guy Green’s Japanese Base Ball Team — a barnstorming club from the late 1800s.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Japanese American teams had sprung up across the state. Farming communities like Fort Lupton, Greeley and Brighton, and mining camps in the mountains all had teams.
But baseball took off in the Japanese American community during World War II, when it offered those imprisoned in internment camps a momentary escape.
“I think it really affected camp life because it gave us something to do,” said Yoshimura, who was interned at both the Jerome and Rohwer War Relocation camps in Arkansas. “It gave people something to watch, and gather over. There must have been a thousand people to watch high school games, like the whole camp turned up to watch.”
Yoshimura arrived in Denver in 1946. Originally from Florin, Calif., his family was part of a new wave of Japanese Americans who chose Denver as the place to rebuild their lives.
Located away from the West Coast where they had been forcibly removed, and with a reputation for treating Japanese Americans decently thanks to the work of Gov. Ralph Carr, Colorado and Denver became a premier destination for resettlement. According to the Densho Encyclopedia, the state was home to the second largest population of formerly interned Japanese Americans in 1944.
Yoshimura spent his senior year at Manual High School. Through friends at the Tri-State/Denver Buddhist Temple, he heard about the flourishing Northern Colorado Japanese Baseball League. Yoshimura joined the temple team, called the Denver Bussei, and found the community he’d been missing.
“It was a very good baseball league, real competitive, a lot of interest especially in the little towns,” he said. “They had pretty good teams back then because there were a lot of guys that came out of camp.”
On Sundays, the whole community showed up for games, with most taking place at Sonny Lawson Park on 23rd and Welton. Back then, it was a baseball and softball field with strange dimensions — right field was extremely short, while the left-field fence stretched all the way out to 24th. Players tried to hit the ball over the tall fences in right to hit the windows of the furniture store on the corner.
“It was a gathering place on Sundays,” Yoshimura said. “Even the young kids came out so they all knew the ball players. I think it brought us together. They all came out to root for us.”
While the Japanese League drew large numbers of fans every weekend, the Labor Day Tournament was the biggest event. Japanese American teams from across the Rocky Mountain region came to play at 23rd and Welton. Delegations from Colorado, Nebraska, Cheyenne and Ogden, Utah, showed up, with a banquet held afterward.
“They were a big deal,” Art Arita, a teammate of Yoshimura’s with the Denver Nisei, said. “It seemed like the whole Japanese American community came out and it was like a big celebration.”
As the Northern Colorado Japanese Baseball League continued to grow, new elements were added. A softball team was formed, and a few women’s teams emerged.
Soon though, a few players decided to take the next step, combining the Denver Bussei with the rival Denver Merchants to form the Denver Nisei and compete in the Semi-Pro Metropolitan League, a multi-ethnic league. Players didn’t earn paychecks but had expenses covered and received bonuses for hitting home runs or leading the team in batting average. Yoshimura remembers other Metro League teams having college players and even some ex-pros.
The Nisei swept through the Japanese League, and participated in a barnstorming event against a team from Fresno, Calif., in a game billed as the Nisei World Series in 1950. Though they lost the series, two years later, the Nisei finally achieved their goal of winning the Metro League, proving they could compete with the best, no matter the team’s ethnicity.
“There was definitely a pride factor,” Arita said.
But the Nisei weren’t sustainable. The Korean War led to several players getting drafted, and soon it was no longer competitive in the Metro League. The Japanese Leagues kept going, though, and as the generation of Yoshimura and Arita began to age out, new players who grew up watching their fathers play in the ’50s began to take their spots.
That was the case for Dale Kamibayashi, whose father, Frank, made the play to win the Denver Nisei their 1952 Metro League title. Dale went on to play college baseball at Colorado, was drafted by the San Diego Padres and eventually played in Europe.
Dale remembers going to his father’s games as a child and even serving as a bat boy occasionally. He also had a chance to play in the recently formed Japanese Youth Leagues.
“That was fun because they were all Japanese,” he said. “It was like an extension of what my dad was doing, only at the youth level.”
However, the Japanese Leagues continued to die out. As Japanese Americans moved further away from the Larimer corridor which used to be the physical center of the community, it became difficult for many to make the pilgrimage to 23rd and Welton. Additionally, local little leagues began to take precedence.
Dean Tsutsui, another former youth player who stuck around to play in the adult league in the mid-’70s, remembers watching the leagues fall apart.
“There were just so many other things coming into play,” he said. “You didn’t have to play baseball anymore.”
By the end of the decade, the leagues were gone.
Like the old field at 23rd and Welton, there’s very little left of the Japanese American baseball leagues that helped create a community in Denver.
“It’s probably been 40 or 50 years since I last stood in this spot and didn’t just drive by,” Arita said. “A lot’s changed.”
Indeed, the dimensions of the field are no longer the endearingly odd ones created by squeezing a diamond into a rectangle. Fans have less seating room, and new apartments have replaced the furniture store that once had its windows peppered by baseballs.
Yet there are some attempts to preserve the memory of the tournaments and leagues by people like Tsutsui and Alan Suzuki, who document and hold on to photos and memorabilia of the leagues in an exhibit on display via appointment at Sakura Square.
More importantly though, the community the baseball leagues helped build still exists, even if creating one wasn’t their main intention when they took the field.
“It was a kind of release for them,” Dale Kamibayashi said. “It was just a pleasure for them to be out there playing the game they loved.”
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