By Matt Burkholder
Director of Communications
fresno – A weekend of off-and-on rain that surrounded a highly anticipated matchup to open the baseball season between Fresno State and Oregon had a Monday night finale scheduled to have greater meaning than only the game at hand. It was a game to honor Fresno’s unique role in Japanese-American baseball history, coined a “Night to Remember.”
A special night that came on the heels of the annual Day of Remembrance, which was the 75th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt singing Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942 – a presidential decree that led to the World War II-era incarceration of 120,000 Japanese-Americans.
The baseball gods let it be known that this night would not be cast away by rain. The sun shined on Pete Beiden Field at Bob Bennett Stadium and the current Bulldogs donned throwback jerseys, replicas of the uniforms worn by the legendary Fresno Athletic Club.
“I want to thank Fresno State, athletics director Jim Bartko, all the fans that support our history, especially Coach Batesole and the World Series Champion Fresno State Bulldogs, that are honoring these bridge builders and these ambassadors of American baseball tonight wearing the uniforms the Fresno Athletics Club wore in 1924, 1927 and 1937 as our American ambassadors to this great game,” said Kerry Yo Nakagawa of the Nisei Baseball Research Project. “Tonight I know that these elders and pioneers that are with us in spirit are very proud of you.”
Satoshi “Fibber” Hirayama, a graduate of Exeter Union High School in 1947, and Kenso “Howard” Zenimura, Japanese-American baseball living legends that played for the Bulldogs in the early 1950s, were honored in part of a pregame ceremony in front of 1,814, a ceremony that ultimately led the surprise for Hirayama that Fresno State would be retiring the No. 3 jersey he wore for the Bulldogs.
“We are honored to support the past and the present, and [Fibber] is a great part of our history,” said Fresno State Director of Athletics Jim Bartko. “75 years ago yesterday our lives changed but he never stopped. If you look up behind home plate this number will be retired there forever in perpetuity in honor of this guy right here.”
In 1950 Pete Beiden won his first conference championship with the two gentlemen in front of the crowd at Monday evening’s game. In 1951 Hirayama and Zenimura led Fresno State to 4, and only one of the losses was to a college team. The rest were against professional teams. Fibber was a junior in 1951 and stole a school record 36 bases in 40 games while Howard hit for a remarkable .424 batting average. That 1951 team was not invited to the NCAA postseason that year, but the system was corrected in 1952 and Hirayama led the ‘Dogs to their first appearance in program history the next season, a year he stole 33 bases.
“It’s really a thrill, it really is,” said the 87-year-old Hirayama, who had a birthday last Friday. “I never thought it would happen. It was the last thing in my mind, that my number would ever be retired.”
And with all ill memories that could be tucked away, it’s not at the forefront of what Hirayama reflects on when looking back.
“I don’t think about those bad things anymore”, said Hirayama. “Because you can only go so far with something like that. Whereas the good memories like this tonight, I’ll never forget this, it’s really a thrill.”
But history cannot be forgotten and in 1942 when Japanese-Americans on the west coast were forced to relocate to internment camps further inland, baseball was what deflected the bad that surrounded the situation. That bad situation cost Hirayama his first two seasons for the Monarchs.
When Hirayama was at the age of 12 he and his family was relocated to Poston, Ariz. to a relocation camp until WWII was over.
“I really enjoyed camp at first because all I did was play baseball and football,” said Hirayama. “Never went to school or anything. So I really enjoyed it.”
When Hirayama returned to Exeter in 1945 he set the athletic fields on fire for the Monarchs during his junior and senior seasons. Hirayama’s hustle on the baseball field as well as the football field is what grabbed the attention of Fresno State Scouts. That hustle also led the Monarchs to a great deal of wins and championships.
“Having Fibber out there today was fantastic,” said head coach Mike Batesole. “What a beautiful man and a gentleman. What he’s been through and to come out smiling on the other end of it … that says a lot.”
After Hirayama’s Fresno State career was over he signed with a St. Louis farm team, the Stockton Ports. But after only competing for one season Hirayama served two years in the army.
Then in 1955 Hirayama journeyed to Japan to compete for the Hiroshima Carp, where he became a two-time all star. During his time with the Carp Hirayama was known for his aggressive style.
After ten seasons competing for the Carp Hirayama and his wife decided to raise their sons in America. Hirayama became a teacher and eventually rose to the ranks of a district level administrator in Clovis. But baseball was not far from Hirayama’s life as he scouted for the Carp as well as the California Angels.
– Contributed by the Foothill Sun-Gazette staff.