Fresno State Bulldogs to Celebrate JA Baseball History

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By PAUL LOEFFLER, Voice of the Bulldogs

FRESNO — On the evening of Monday, Feb. 20, Fresno State baseball will conclude a four-game series against the Oregon Ducks by honoring Fresno’s unique role in Japanese American baseball history with a “Night to Remember.”

Head coach Mike Batesole’s Bulldogs will sport special throwback jerseys, replicas of the uniforms worn by the legendary Fresno Athletic Club. Founded in 1920 by Kenichi Zenimura, the Fresno Athletic Club was considered by many to be the premier Japanese American team in the country. In addition to multiple journeys to Japan to compete against that nation’s best, the squad also brought big baseball names to Fresno for exhibitions.

Most famously, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, just after the Yankees’ victory in the 1927 World Series, came to the San Joaquin Valley for an exhibition with Zenimura’s All-Stars. With the Japanese Americans from the Valley divided between teams led by the two Hall of Famers, Fresno saw Zenimura and Johnny Nakagawa help the Larrupin’ Lous defeat the Bustin’ Babes 13-3.

The “Night to Remember,” however, is about much more than baseball. It will come on the heels of the annual Day of Remembrance, observed nationwide on Feb. 19, marking the 75th anniversary of a presidential decree that led to the World War II-era incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans. The Central California District Council of the Japanese American Citizens League will hold its Day of Remembrance ceremony at Fresno State’s Madden Library on Feb. 19, officially launching the library’s collaborative exhibition of multimedia materials documenting the Japanese American camp experience.

American-born Nisei Satoshi “Fibber” Hirayama, left, with New York Yankees manager Casey Stengle. In 1955 the Yankees traveled to Japan. Hirayama’s claim to fame was getting a base hit off of Whitey Ford, the Yankee Ace. Hirayama also played with the Stockton Ports in the Pacific Coast League prior to Japan. (Nisei Baseball Research Project)

After President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, Japanese Americans on the West Coast were forced into “relocation centers” further inland. In addition to losing their freedom, many lost property they would never regain.

One thing Zenimura did not lose was his love for baseball. Confined to the Gila River camp in Arizona, he quickly constructed a diamond and soon was organizing a league made up of 32 teams from among different camps. Among the teenagers playing baseball in the camps were Zenimura’s sons, Howard and Harvey, as well as an Exeter native named Satoshi “Fibber” Hirayama. After regaining their freedom, all three would compete for the Fresno Athletic Club, and all three would go on to play at Fresno State.

“Night to Remember” festivities at Pete Beiden Field at Bob Bennett Stadium will feature special recognition for Hirayama, often referred to as the greatest pound-for-pound athlete in Fresno State history. At just 5-foot-3 and 140 pounds, he was a dynamic offense, defense, and special teams star for the Bulldog football team. On the diamond, despite saying he only came out for baseball to avoid spring football, he would become a record-breaker. Beiden’s 1951 Bulldogs produced the greatest winning percentage in program history, finishing the season 36-4, with three of those losses coming against professional competition.

Hirayama, who turns 87 on Feb. 17, set a then-school record with 36 stolen bases that year, including a record five in a single game, a mark that still stands today. His exploits with the glove and a surprisingly strong throwing arm also helped make him a fan favorite. The 1951 Bulldogs had been left out of college baseball’s postseason, despite that gaudy record, but as a senior in 1952, Hirayama led Fresno State to its first NCAA bid. Fibber finished his Bulldog career with 71 steals, a record that lasted nearly 40 years before being broken by future major-leaguer Tom Goodwin.

Signed by the St. Louis Browns, Hirayama was off to a promising start in his pro career when he was drafted into the Army. After two years of military service, he went to Japan with the Zenimura brothers, becoming a two-time all-star for the Hiroshima Carp. That all-star status even gave Hirayama the privilege of playing exhibitions against MLB standouts like Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial. A catastrophic collision with an outfield fence curtailed Hirayama’s playing career, but he remained involved in the game for decades as a coach and a scout.

The incarceration was a dark, painful chapter in U.S. history. In the midst of suffering and uncertainty, baseball offered Japanese Americans a ray of hope and a semblance of normalcy. Fresno was at the heart of that uplifting story, and no one personifies that triumph-out-of-tragedy theme better than Fibber Hirayama and Kenichi Zenimura.

Take advantage of a special $5 general admission ticket price and join Fresno State for a “Night to Remember.” First pitch is scheduled for 6:05 p.m. To purchase your tickets in advance, call the Bulldog Ticket Office at (559) 278-DOGS.

“Just the Ticket to Build Our Community” – The Bulldog Scholarship Fund gives Bulldog alumni, fans and friends the opportunity to support Fresno State Athletics and the student-athletes who inspire them. For information about how you can support the Bulldog Scholarship Fund, visit www.bulldogscholarshipfund.com or call (559) 278-7160.

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