Originally appeared in The Vancouver Sun, September 17, 2011:
by Brad Frenette
Imagine yourself on Powell Street on a sunny Vancouver afternoon in 1921, past the tea houses and schools, past Morimoto & Co. Dry Goods, into the heart of bustling Japantown. You would hear things typical in any town across North America at the time: the splintering of the baseball bat, the warm thud of a ball hitting a glove, the proclamations of a confident umpire.
At Powell Street Grounds, now called Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a legion of baseball fans would be crowded around the dirtpatched diamond.
On the field, a remarkable story was starting, starring a band of Japanese-Canadian baseballers called the Asahi.
Birthed in 1914 by Harry Miyasaki, the Asahi assembled the best amateur Japanese players in the area to compete against Vancouver’s Caucasian clubs, at a time when the popularity of the sport was at a frenzy across North America’s West Coast.
Faced with a clear height and weight disadvantage, Miyasaki, a drycleaner by trade, developed a winning strategy dubbed “brainball,” a combination of speed, harmony and a perfected execution of the squeeze play.
“We didn’t have muscle,” says Kaye Kaminishi with a laugh. The Kamloops resident, now 89, is one of only three surviving Asahi. “We usually stole bases and bunted. And squeeze plays. Not too many homers.”
Joining the Asahi as a rookie in 1938 was like being welcomed into the “family home,” Kaminishi remembers. His first hit, a line drive that left the humble boundaries of Powell Grounds, is his favourite memory.
“From first to second base I stumbled. The ball was on the street, so I should have had a home run. All the players gave me a laugh.”
After winning Vancouver’s International League in 1919, the team’s renown grew over the next two decades. Their exploits were praised in the press and by the cross-cultural fan base who packed the humble Powell Grounds.
The field was so small that the Asahi used to break windows in nearby buildings during the games, “so they’d have to pay for a few windows each game,” recalls Grace Eiko Thomson, the former executive director of the National Nikkei Museum & Heritage Centre in Burnaby.
“The bleachers didn’t hold everyone, so there were people all over the place.”
Baseball, notes Thompson, was that rare thing that could close the generation gap between the immigrant parents and Canadian-born children within the Japanese community. It also transcended racial divides. In 1926, the Asahi were voted the most popular sports franchise in Vancouver, at a time when Japanese-Canadians were confronted with rampant and blatant racism: “They responded to the times, and became incredible. When they went home, they didn’t have the right to vote. When they were playing on the field, it gave a lot of hope and pride to the community.” Despite the Asahi’s popularity, there was nothing any baseball team could do against the cause and effect of a world at war. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the Japanese became the enemy, and by proxy, so did Japanese-Canadians. Citizens were forced from their homes and businesses and Japantown soon was emptied.
The Asahi, too, were displaced, sent to internment camps and the “ghost towns” of B.C. and across Canada.
The team’s dominating run ended with their last game on Sept. 18, 1941, but their verve continued. Ex-Asahi, including Kaminishi, soon began to organize games with other interned baseball fans. A makeshift league was born in the camps and by July 1, 1943, a championship series was held in the Slocan Valley, drawing RCMP officers and other white fans and spectators.
The Asahi excelled, says Thomson, because “this was the only place they could level the playing field.”
Despite not being a baseball fan, Thomson’s interest in the team’s story inspired her to curate an exhibit about the team for the museum and in 2006, she petitioned Parks Canada to honour the team. The request was granted a few weeks ago, and on Sunday, a plaque will be hoisted in Oppenheimer Park, 70 years to the day since the team played its last official game.
“Each year it wasn’t easy,” says Kaminishi.
“It wasn’t just playing ball. The fans gave us encouragement – that’s the reason we lasted.”