By MIKE FURUTANI
LODI — On a mild summer Lodi morning (85 degrees), the Northern California Japanese American Baseball League had its Opening Day for the 2019 season on June 9.
The Lodi JACL Templars hosted the Fresno Sansei at Tony Zupo Stadium. Pre-game ceremonies celebrated and honored the connection between the Lodi JACL baseball team and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, one of the most highly decorated units in U.S. military history.
“There were several Lodians that were part of this regiment,” said Dwight Ota, Lodi JACL Templars general manager, who played for the team until 2015. “Despite having all their property and possessions taken away and then thrown into internment camps, these men joined the United States Army to fight on behalf of the country that incarcerated them.”
Pre-game festivities included ceremonial first pitches, thrown out by representatives of former Lodi player and manager Mauch Yamashita (Mike Mikasa, former Lodi pitcher from the 1980s and 1990s), team supporter Lloyd Fujitani (Paul Fujitani, nephew of Lloyd) and former player Tets Matsumoto, who is in his 90s.
Masato “Mauch” Yamashita was born in Lodi and was a life-long resident there. He graduated from Rohwer High School during WWII while he was held at the internment camp located in Rohwer, Ark. While incarcerated, he joined the U.S. Army and was awarded a Purple Heart for being wounded in combat and the Bronze Star for heroic achievement in combat.
Baseball played a big part throughout Yamashita’s life. He played baseball while in Rohwer, then continued playing in Lodi on the Japanese American Citizens League team. Later he coached, and then managed the team from 1959 until his death — more than 50 years.
He was generous with his time and support to his team and players, and other community baseball activities. In honor of his contributions, the Kofu Park baseball diamond was named “Masato ‘Mauch’ Yamashita Field” in 2002. He passed away in 2011 at the age of 86.
Lloyd Fujitani was born in Acampo, CA in 1917. In 1942, he and his family were relocated to Rohwer, where his job was preparing food in the mess hall. In 1943, Fujitani enlisted in the U.S. Army and became a member of Company I of the 442nd RCT. He was a little older than most of the guys in the unit, so they nicknamed him “Pops.”
Fujitani spent most of the war guarding German prisoners of war in Italy. After being discharged from the Army, he returned to Acampo.
Weekends during the summer were usually spent with his buddy Mauch Yamashita and watching him coach Lodi’s JACL baseball team when they played both in Lodi and on the road. He and Yamashita would argue like a married couple about memories that neither could remember exactly.
Fujitani passed away on June 9, 2018 at the age of 101, exactly one year before this year’s opening ceremony.
Tets Matsumoto played in 400+ career JACL games after World War II ended. He played center field. During the war, he was drafted by the U.S. Army at age 19. He first served in Florida, and then went to Italy. He served on the European Front for 16 months.
Earning the ranking of staff sergeant, Matsumoto was in charge of an anti-tank gun squad. After the war ended, he helped transfer German prisoners to Austria and Switzerland. Then he returned to his life in Lodi, where he still lives today.
“It’s important for us to pass on the history of the team and the Japanese American community,” Mike Furutani, former Lodi JACL Templars manager, said. “Then hopefully our players now can pass along the history and traditions to the next generation of players.”
“It’s about community and family,” Marty Sakata, current Lodi JACL Templars manager, added. “The players can feel a sense of pride that the players before them perservered through difficult times and gave them the opportunity to play baseball.”
“In their honor, we keep the tradition of Japanese American baseball alive in our local communities,” Ota said.
The Templars are also honoring the 442nd with the unit patch on the side of their caps and the unit’s motto, “Go for Broke,” on the back.
“We want the players to embody the motto, to play hard with an all-out effort,” Sakata said. “Leave it all on the field.”
In the baseball games, Lodi and Fresno split the Opening Day double header – Fresno took the first game, 4-0 behind a strong start by Kyle Yamamoto, who had 15 strikeouts. Lodi came back and took Game 2, 13-2.