By Patrick Dillon @PDillon_SGN
EXETER – There are certain dates, whether good or bad, that we as a nation remember. One of those dates happened this past week. A day of remembrance of one of the worst attacks our nation has ever suffered. For many it is a day recorded in the history books, but for a few it is still a day that influenced their lives in profound ways.
On any given Saturday in 1941 it would not be uncommon to see Satoshi “Fibber” Hirayama and his friends playing in the groves that surrounded Exeter. In fact that is more than likely what they were doing on Dec. 6 of that year. They were out enjoying a freedom that would soon, for Fibber at least, be restricted to a camp.
Fibber, who had been given the nickname by his father because of his inability to say the month in which Hirayama was born, and his family were Japanese-Americans. The true magnitude of the events of Dec. 7, 1941 and the ones that followed might have been lost on the 11 year old boy. Still at the same time those events would impact the rest of his life.
Two days after Fibber’s 12th birthday he was declared an “enemy of the state” when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. That moved Fibber, his family and 120,000 other Japanese-Americans further inland to internment camps.
“My father was very upset,” Fibber said. “He viewed his entire family as Americans and thought that the Japanese were being picked on.”
Relocated to Poston, Ariz. for the next three years Fibber lived behind barbwire and below watchtowers as American soldiers watched his every move. What made life easier, for Fibber at least, was the fact that there was no school.
“I really liked that,” Fibber said. “All I did was play baseball.”
That’s exactly what Fibber was doing when the atomic bomb devastated Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Little did he know that a decade later he would help bridge the gap between two nations as an ambassador between the diamonds.
After he was released the internment camp, Fibber spent his junior and senior years back at Exeter Union High School before graduating in 1947. While there he played football and baseball much to the displeasure of some. Fibber recalls during one football game at Strathmore High School some home fans yelling obscenities down at him from the stands. Instead of leaving him by himself Lyle Barnett, Sonny Galloway, and Bruce Myers formed a circle around him in order to protect their friend.
“That meant the world to me,” Fibber said. “They really took good care of me.”
At the same time Fibber excelled out on the football field and received a scholarship to play for Fresno State. The decision to forgo the football scholarship and to play baseball instead was due to Fibber’s dislike of spring practice.
He started off as a catcher in his freshman year for head coach Pete Beiden, but was moved to outfield during his sophomore season. There he became the first Bulldog to earn first-team all-league honors three times. He was also a part of the 1950 conference championship, the first for Pete Beiden. Even Fibber’s mark of five stolen bases in one game still stands to this day.
He was drafted by the St. Louis Browns in 1952 and played 82 games for their Stockton farm club affiliate before being drafted by the Army. After two years in military service, where he played more baseball than anything else, another major league team came calling in 1955. Only this team it was overseas with the Hiroshima Carp.
“I was scared to death because I did not know how they were going to accept me,” Fibber said.
While on the train ride to Hiroshima Fibber had people coaching him on what to say and how to act. All of that guidance made Fibber even more uneasy about him being there, even though he was of Japanese descent. When the train pulled into the station of the still recovering city, all those fears were erased as 10,000 people showed up to welcome the Japanese-American baseball player.
Now all Fibber had to do was play baseball. It wasn’t long before Fibber began to introduce an American style of play in Japan. While Japanese players who hit into a double-play would get out of the way of the relay throw, Fibber would slide hard into second base. At first the Japanese players were offended. Instead of relaying the throw to second they would throw the ball down at Fibber. Even the pitchers got in on the scuffle pegging him during at-bats.
Despite their retaliations, Fibber never let up. Over time the Japanese players and fans began to understand and respect the excitement and intensity that Fibber’s style of play brought to the game.
“In a real small way I feel like I bridged the gap that only a baseball player could,” Fibber said.