Hamilton Nisei Baseball     

Discover Nikkei

We thank Discover Nikkei, a project of the Japanese American National Museum, for permission to publish the following story on Hamilton Nisei baseball by author Norm Masaji Ibuki. Discover Nikkei is a community website about Nikkei identity, history and experiences. The goal of this project is to provide an inviting space for the community to share, explore, and connect with each other through diverse Nikkei experiences, culture, and history.

Norm Masaji IbukiNorm Masaji Ibuki

Writer Norm Masaji Ibuki lives in Oakville, Ontario. He has written extensively about the Canadian Nikkei community since the early 1990s. He wrote a monthly series of articles (1995-2004) for the Nikkei Voice newspaper (Toronto) which chronicled his experiences while in Sendai, Japan. Norm now teaches elementary school and continues to write for various publications. He was recently elected Vice President of the Greater Toronto Chapter of the National Association of Japanese Canadian.

The Hamilton Nisei Baseball League in Canada

By Norm Masaji Ibuki
13 & 20 June 2011

Whenever I get together with Nisei these days to recollect the “old days” that invariably mean the years of internment and immediately after the war, the names, dates and places are, like the sepia-tone pictures, beginning to fade and brown around the edges. The details of our collective story are beginning to be forgotten before they have even really been told, really.

When you look at this team picture from Hamilton, are any of the faces familiar? Do any of these names ring a bell? Ken Hashimoto, Tosh Hashimoto, Mike and Roy Honda, Herb and Mits Izumi, Chester Kariatsumari, Hank, Kirk and Tom Kawamoto, Jim, Hank and Shores Kondo, Kaz Kadonaga, Tim, Kats, Tosh or Mac Oikawa, Basil Shintani, Sam Sonoda, Eiji Suzuki, George and Stumpo Uchida, Wally Fukumoto, “Butch” Nishimura or “Mousey” Matsuda?

Hamilton Nisei
Photo courtesy of Roy Honda

If you grew up in the Hamilton area in Ontario, Canada (50 miles west of Toronto), do you remember the “Hynoters” or “Sophy-Ed” youth clubs? Singer and pianist Katie Oyama? Or what about judo sensei Masato Ishibashi, Frank Kawasaki, the Umetsu brothers or kendo teachers Mr. Kawamoto and George Kumagai?

I have been fortunate to be able to get to know Nisei Jim Koyanagi, 81, over the past couple of years. The retired architect lives in Burlington with his artist wife, Kumiko-san. Jim has been after me for a while to write something about the Hamilton Nisei recreation baseball league, which was one of the ways that the Nikkei diaspora used to deal with the “circumstances” at the time. For a bunch of young Nisei who had been constantly kicked around by their own government and told that they didn’t belong anywhere, really, ending up in Steeltown must have been a bit of a reprieve. On the baseball diamond, at least, they could show off their athletic prowess, being free, to some extent, from the racism that still had a stranglehold on the Canadian consciousness.

Jim was born in 1928 in Eburn, BC, on Sea Island, close to the present-day Vancouver International Airport. George Matsuda, 82, was born in Vancouver. Frank Shimoda was born in 1934 and Tosh Hashimoto was born in 1924.

In the days when there were few Nisei role models, the Asahi baseball team members were idols in the Vancouver community at a time when being Nikkei barred one from many professions even if you went to the University of British Columbia like Tom Shoyama, the future federal cabinet minister in the Trudeau government.

Frank, married to Miyoko, recalls, “During internment in Bayfarm, BC, my three brothers were sent to Angler and spent some time there. The rest of the family and I went to Slocan, New Denver, then Hamilton.” He went to Westdale Secondary School, working for the city’s department of public health after going to Ryerson and getting his degree as an environmental officer.

Jim points out, “Frank’s eldest brother, Bob Yukio, died in a 1956 plane crash. He was very active as one of the leaders of the Nisei Mass Evacuation Group that was a rare opposing voice, at the time, against internment.”

“I was so young then,” continues Frank. “My family came to Hamilton in ‘47-48. We started to branch out more in respect to becoming more integrated. We got so-called hakujin friends and after that we still stuck together in a way because we did have teenage clubs for the Nisei. We had a basketball team, too, that played against hakujin teams. We had a much better life because we didn’t have to worry about settling down and getting a house. My older brother Bob worked at Canadian Porcelain. Two other brothers, Mits and Harold, retired from there. One of my sisters, Amy, was a dressmaker and married a Maikawa, Tak, Mickey’s (the Asahi player) younger brother. Kim married Ron Grant, the Montreal journalist and writer, who passed away in 2009.

Getting back to baseball, Frank adds, “I remember in Bayfarm, there was a version of Asahi team that came to play a Slocan team and I remember everybody talking about a guy, Kaz Suga. He was a pitcher. His brother Ty was a catcher. He was a pretty good hitter too. I think that he played in Quebec after the war. That was awesome to see him play.” There was a diamond there and games were frequent. Kaz was interned at LC (Lemon Creek Internment Camp).

All of the camps had their own teams and some even had their own leagues. Most camps had an Asahi player to organize teams. Kaslo had “Nagy” Nishihara; New Denver, George Yoshinaka; Slocan had several; and LC had Kaz Suga.

Tosh Hashimoto was born in Vancouver, went to technical school in Vancouver; J-school too. He chummed around with older Nisei and when the evacuation tore the community from the Pacific coast, he went to a friend’s place “voluntarily” in Salmon Arm, BC. for a couple of months. When asked to leave, he went to Vernon which was a restricted area for “commando soldiers.” The RCMP found out we were there so we were sent to Hastings Park again. Tosh recalls widespread diarrhea problems, asking his parents to send food and receiving onigiri from his mom every day.

“The Vernon farmers went to bat for us and told the BC Security Commission that we were needed there as apple pickers,” he recalls, “so we were allowed to return there. After 3 to 4 years there we were allowed to join our parents in the Slocan or wherever they were.”

George Masuda was born in Vancouver in 1928. After completing Model Elementary school, he went to King Edward High School and was in grade 9 when the war started. The family was first interned in New Denver then Tashme. The family settled in Hamilton in 1946. After finishing high school, George worked as a metallurgist with Stelco Steel. Married to Carol, he has two daughters: Kathy who passed away young and Marcia who lives in Port Elgin, Ontario. He has two brothers, Roy (Thunder Bay) and Glen (Hamilton).

In post-war Hamilton, there were a lot of Nikkeijin in the area of York Street between Queen and Dundurn. Another ghetto was on John St. North, between MacNab and John St., north of Barton and walking distance to International Harvester.

Tosh, married to Kim, remembers that his family arrived in Hamilton in 1946. “We had a heck of a time finding places to stay. Only the Italians and Germans opened their homes up to us. Finally, we found a place on the third floor of an Italian owned place. I remember the summer being so hot with no air coming in. Finally, we saved enough to buy a house that cost $6,000 and we were worried sick about how we were going to pay for it.”

“It was pretty hard getting a job back then too. Making the transition from wartime to peace time, everybody was getting laid off,” Tosh remembers. “Then somebody told us that Harvester International was hiring people so I went down to get a job. After a couple of weeks, the baseball season started. I was used to going back and forth filling these 80-pound moulds with liquid steel. So I said, after doing that for eight hours I was pooped and had to play ball again. I said ‘holy moly,’ I’ve either got to quit one or the other, so I quit Harvester!”

The Hamilton Nisei Recreation Sunday Baseball League started around 1948 by Bob Shimoda, Kats Oikawa, ex-Asahi player “Nagy” Nishihara, Charlie and George Tanaka, and Yuki Uno. The league lasted until the mid-‘50s. The manager of the all star team was former Asahi star Roy Yamamura. He eventually moved to Toronto. The all stars from the league played in the Halton County League that included Milton, Acton, Fergus, and Georgetown.

There were four teams: Sox, Cubs, Giants, and Tigers. They would play twice a week: Friday night, then either Saturday or Sunday night. “Everybody would show up on Friday night at Eastwood Park on the waterfront,” recalls George. “There were bleacher seats for about 500. Hakujin, white people, used to come out to watch us, too. They were ‘Northenders’,” adds Tosh. They were surprised that the Nisei spoke any English at all.

What was the rivalry between the Hamilton and Toronto Nisei teams like?

Frank remembers going to play the Toronto Nisei all star team at Christie Pits. “We always wanted to win but they had a larger pool of players,” he recalls painfully. “If we lost one or two players, they were hard to replace.”

Any special memories?

“I remember going to the Six Nations (Indian Reservation) to play,” says George with a smile. “The Indian ladies came around to watch us play. They were really interested in the Nisei. I don’t know how we got the invitation. We played them and walloped them. We went once to Caledonia. I still remember playing in Christie Pits in Toronto. It was the Nisei League and Basil Shintani was pitching for us. He was really good.”

“We had two good umpires,” chuckles George, “I still remember Eichi Goto because when it was warm in the summer time he would go shirtless! He was a really colourful guy. Norm Oikawa (who became an important Redress activist) was there too. They were religious about umpiring.”

Jim attended the University of Toronto in the 1950s for architecture, rooming with the now famous architect, Raymond Moriyama, and went to Japan to work after graduation. “I first met (Asahi player) Roy Nishidera in 1960 in Tokyo when I was working for a Japanese architectural firm,” Koyanagi says. Roy worked for Takenaka Komuten, a large construction company that did a lot of overseas work. He was one of the gambariya resisters who spent time in Angler and Petawawa P.O.W. camps. “Roy and his wife were upset with the Canadian government’s treatment of the Japanese and returned to Japan after the war. Through my brother’s father-in-law, I met other repatriated Nisei then, like Sally Nakamura, Shinobu Higashi, Kazuo Sato, and others through the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Tokyo,” says Jim.

So what has kept this group of Nisei together for more than 50 years? Simple. Golf. “We weren’t ‘couch potatoes’,” says Koyanagi. “We were active. There is that continuity to some extent. I went to a tournament in BC. What they still do in Vancouver is have 30 golfers and their wives take 3 or 4 days and play different courses. The wives who don’t golf go to the casino.”

“Most of the Nisei were involved in the community in one way or another,” adds George. “The Sansei and Yonsei don’t have that sense of community anymore.”

© 2011 Norm Masaji Ibuki