His Talent Was Buoyed by Hope

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Nisei Baseball Great Howard Zenimura Dies at 91

After World War II, a wave of Japanese Americans signed to play baseball in Japan partially due to racial tensions in organized baseball in the U.S. In 1953, Kenichi Zenimura was instrumental in negotiating the contracts for (from left) Kenso Zenimura, Ben Mitsuyoshi, a pitcher from Hanford, and Kenshi Zenimura, to play with the Hiroshima Carp. (Courtesy Nisei Baseball Research Project)

FRESNO — On Dec. 13, Howard Kenso Zenimura passed away at the age of 91. He went peacefully, surrounded by his family.

The Nisei Baseball Research Project remembered him as “a Nisei baseball pioneer, one of the founding members of the NBRP, and a good friend to many in our community.”

Zenimura was born in Fresno on May 16, 1927 to Kenichi and Kiyoko Zenimura and was the middle son of three. Long before he could walk or talk, he held a baseball in his hands. Kenichi taught young Kenso, a natural righty, to bat left-handed so that he could get down the first-base line quickly.

Zenimura played on teams with his brother Harvey Kenshi and his father up and down California.

In 1942, Executive Order 9066 removed the Zenimura family from their home, first to the Fresno Assembly Center, then to the War Relocation Authority camp in Gila River, Ariz., where they were kept for three years.

Zenimura was among the incarcerees who helped his father build a baseball field. The Block 28 diamond (aka Zenimura Field) provided a sense of hope for the community unjustly held behind barbed wire.

Upon the family’s return, Zenimura enrolled at Fresno State University and became a star player under legendary coach Pete Beiden. In 1951, his team-leading .424 average carried the Bulldogs to a 36-4 record and the conference title.

Kenso Zenimura represented his father at his induction into the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals in 2006. He is flanked by former butte High Eagles pitcher Tets Furukawa (left) and baseball historian Kerry Yo Nakagawa. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

His success, along with his brother’s, earned them both contracts to play professionally for the Hiroshima Carp in 1953. The following year, Zenimura married his wife of 64 years, Betty. When his career in Japan came to an end, he returned to Fresno and taught history for Fresno Unified School District, retiring after 37 years.

Although his playing days were over, his passion for the game never ended. In 1982, he started and coached the Fresno USA Baseball Team, a team of 14-to-15-year-old all-stars, to play in International Boys League tournaments in the U.S., Japan, China, South Korea, Mexico, and Brazil. The team is still active, driven by the same principles of providing an experience and developing friendships across all boundaries.

Kenso Zenimura with a painting of his father, Kenichi, by Chris Felix. (Courtesy Nisei Baseball Research Project)

Zenimura was inducted into the Fresno State Baseball Hall of Fame as both an individual player and as part of the 1951 team.

“Kenso was a man of many families — his wife, kids, Kobe, grandkids and great- grandchild Zea; his Gila River Eagles, Fresno State baseball family, Hiroshima Carp, International Boy’s League; and his inner circle of close friends,” said Nisei Baseball Research Project founder Kerry Yo Nakagawa. “He is the last of his generation and will be missed physically and historically. Kenso was part of the ‘greatest generation’ but the Zenimura baseball legacy will continue on with the many books, articles, documentaries and movies about their lives and ambassadorship in Asia and the world.”

Kenichi Zenimura passed away in 1968 and Kenshi Zenimura in 2000.

Kenso Zenimura is survived by his children and their spouses: Kathy and Randy Yano, Cheryl Zenimura, Alan Zenimura and Debbie Tingley, Kirk and Teresa Zenimura; five grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.

Funeral services will be held at Fresno Buddhist Temple/Family Dharma Center, 2690 E. Alluvial Ave., Fresno, on Saturday, Dec. 22, at 11 a.m.

On March 7, 2013 in Arizona, the Oakland A’s celebrated the legacy of Japanese American baseball on the 70th anniversary of the opening of Zenimura Field at the Gila River WWII incarceration camp. Participants in the first-pitch ceremony included former ballplayers from Gila River and Oakland’s new players from Japan. (From left) Hiroyuki Nakajima, Masao Irayama, Kenso Zenimura, Tets Furukawa, and Hideki Okajima. (Photo by Teresa Zenimura)

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