Friday, October 19, 2018

Nisei vs. Negro League baseball ... behind barbed wire, 1943

Top: 1940 Arizona Compress; Bottom: 1943 Guadalupe YMBA

On this day 75 years ago, the Gila News-Courier headline read "Phoenix Colored Nine Smashed by Butte, 11-3." According to the Nisei Baseball Research Project, this is the only time a baseball game between a Negro League team and a Nisei team occurred in a Japanese American incarceration camp during WWII.

This historic match up was detailed in my book, "Kenichi Zenimura, Japanese American Baseball Pioneer." The excerpt from the Zenimura biography is featured below. Click here to read the original article from Oct. 19, 1943.


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Chapter 5. Relocating and Rebuilding Hope (1942–1943), (pgs. 141-142)

"It was a common practice for Zeni to sweeten the pot to encourage visiting ball clubs. Shortly after the T-Bird series he placed ads in the Arizona Republic seeking more outside teams to play.166 Another former Arizona state champion accepted the offer and within days Zenimura had a contest booked against a ball club that called themselves the “Phoenix Colored Nine,” which appeared to be the Western Compress ball club with some new players. The visitors’ line-up included: catcher Hamilton; catcher-Manager James Searcy, first base Fisher, second base Fulice, shortstop Lewis, third base Brakeen, left-pitcher Williams, center field Westbrook, right field Harris, pitchers Meyers, Bonner, utility Harol and Coach Eli.167

The outcome of the October game was a trouncing of the visiting team, with Butte smashing the Phoenix Colored nine, 11–3. The all-star for Phoenix’s black squad was Leon “Sugar” Westbrook, an outfielder and pitcher in the Texas Negro Leagues, Arizona semipro leagues, and the West Coast Negro Baseball Leagues. Westbrook was considered a tough out and a solid hitter who could spray the ball to all areas of the field. He was described as both a tough competitor, yet someone who made the game fun by telling jokes or performing trick catches in the outfield. 168

Cornell Fisher, Arizona Compress ballclub, 1941

Another star on the Phoenix Negro nine was 22-year-old Cornell Fisher, an all-state football and baseball player from neighboring Mesa, Arizona. With the decline of black baseball in Arizona after the breaking of the color line by Jackie Robinson, Fisher moved on to competitive softball, as did most African Americans in Arizona. According to the Arizona Softball Hall of Fame, between 1948 and 1965 Fisher was one of Arizona’s finest catchers and most powerful hitters. He was named to the All-State team eight times and was always among the leaders in home runs and runs batted in. He won several batting championships in major competition in Mesa. His 17-year softball career spanned three decades and earned him recognition as one of Arizona’s all-time greats.


Years later Cornell Fisher Jr., who was only age 5 at the time of the Butte All-Star vs. Negro Nine contest, recalled his father returning home from the Japanese American internment camp at Gila River with a baby pig.169

Perhaps not too coincidental, just a week before the game the Gila News Courier reported the start of a new livestock class to offer students the opportunity to learn how to handle livestock. Among the animals were an estimated 100 pigs kept at a hog farm a few miles away from the Butte Camp.170 It’s quite possible that Fisher, after receiving his earnings from the game at Zenimura Field, bought a piglet on his way out of the camp. By the end of the 1943 the hog population at Rivers was an estimated 1,700.171

Kenso Zenimura

Kenso Zenimura has fond memories of the game and the comedy displayed by the black ball team. “They committed a lot of errors,” recalled Kenso, “but most of them were because they were acting silly; trying to catch the ball behind their backs, making trick catches and throws.”172

Kaz Ikeda

Catcher Kaz Ikeda remembers more of the strategic mind of Coach Zenimura than the comedy act of the visitors. “Even though I was the catcher, Coach Zeni called every pitch and pretty much controlled every aspect of the game from the dugout,” said Ikeda. “He [Zeni] had a great knack for analyzing hitter’s strengths and weaknesses in just one at-bat,” said the Butte backstop. “If a player got a hit in his first at-bat, Zeni would be sure he never saw that same pitch again. He was a great coach.” Ikeda then reflected on his coach’s legacy. “By 1943, I never saw him play at his most competitive level, so I don’t know if he could have ever played in the majors. But there’s no doubt in my mind that Zeni would have made a great major league manager.”173

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Sources:

166. “Phoenix Colored Horsehiders to Appear Sunday,” Gila News-Courier, October 14, 1943, 6.
167. “Phoenix Colored Nine, Butte Pick-Ups Cross Bats Tomorrow,” Gila News-Courier, October 16, 1943, 6.
168. “Phoenix Colored Nine Smashed by Butte, 11–3,” Gila News-Courier, October 19, 1943, 6.
169. Interview with Cornell Fisher Jr., September 2008.
170. “Livestock Class Offers Experience,” Gila News-Courier, October 12, 1943, 3.
171. “Three Hundred Hogs Arrive,” Gila News-Courier, December 23, 1943, 5.
172. Interview with Kenso Zenimura, February 2008.
173. Interview with Kaz Ikeda,September 2008.

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