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Vancouver Asahi--Canada's baseball legends

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Vancouver Asahi--Canada's baseball legends

by Rob Smaal (Apr 9, 2011)

When Canada declared war on Japan on Dec. 7, 1941--after the Japanese Imperial Navy's attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor--it effectively brought to an end a thriving ethnic Japanese community on the British Columbia coast.

All people of Japanese heritage living in Vancouver were rounded up and transported to internment camps deep in the interior of the province as Canadian officials feared they might still harbor loyalties to their ancestral homeland.

More than 20,000 Japanese-Canadians were stripped of their homes and possessions and had their lives turned upside down, almost overnight. Fishermen lost their boats, cars were confiscated, businesses and homes lost.

Among the casualties of this decision by the Canadian government was the Vancouver Asahi baseball team, a regional powerhouse in the sport at the time.

Formed in 1914 by dry cleaner Matsuhiro "Harry" Miyasaki, the Vancouver Asahi ballclub blossomed into not only a great team, but also a source of immense pride for the local Japanese population, who were treated like second-class citizens back then.

"In those days, we were really proud to join the Asahi team," recalled Kaye Kaminishi, now 89 and a former third baseman with the Asahi. "Even just sitting on the bench or being the batboy, really proud. When I received my uniform in 1939, I couldn't sleep all night, I was so excited. Everybody looked up to us as a baseball team, especially the Japanese people. They treated us like gods."

Almost always much smaller than their opponents, the Asahi would perfect a brand of baseball they called "brain ball" that emphasized speed, skills and precise execution. Lacking the power to go deep, they often utilized the bunt, and it was not uncommon for them to squeeze in two runs at a time--the runner from third and the man from second.

"We were always stealing bases, and we perfected the bunt," said Kaminishi, whose Asahi career was cut short when he was sent to a camp in Lillooet at age 19. "We couldn't hit the big one so a lot of squeeze plays, that was the main attack for our team. Third pitch you have to squeeze the runner in, whether it's a high ball or low, you just better bunt it. That's the way we did it."

The Asahi players rarely made any errors on defense and they used their speed and smaller frames to their advantage against much bigger opposition.

"We drew a lot walks," remembered Kaminishi. "We were smaller so we had a smaller strike zone, and then we'd crouch down to make it even smaller. It's hard to pitch to that."

One opponent, interviewed for a 2003 documentary on the team by Jari Osborne called "Sleeping Tigers," characterized them as "chess masters" on the diamond and likened their bunting skills to "a fella shooting snooker." Another eyewitness said some of the players were so adept with the bat that one of them "could bunt with a chopstick."

They became so proficient at playing small ball that they once won a game 3-1, without getting a single hit. They relied on walks, bunts, stolen bases, and a technically sound defense that made very few errors.

The Asahi used this formula to capture several trophies, among them four straight Terminal League titles and five Pacific Northwest Championships from 1937-41. The Asahi were named Vancouver's most popular team in 1926, the year they first won the Terminal League, quite a feat for a team of "Japs," as some of the locals had called them.

The club had toured Japan and also played several exhibition games in Vancouver in 1935 against the Tokyo Giants, whose lineup at the time featured future Japanese Hall of Fame pitchers Eiji Sawamura and young Russian Victor Starffin, who would start playing for the Giants the following year on his way to winning 300 games.

The Asahi were a staple of the Vancouver sports scene.

But that all changed with the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the declaration by the government that Canadian residents of Japanese origin were now deemed to be "enemy aliens." The Asahi were broken up as the players were sent to various internment camps in the interior.

It was a harsh winter that first year, as Kaminishi recalled on a recent visit to Japan.

"It was so cold, 30-below (zero)," he said. "I could hear the pine trees splitting. It sounded like big guns going off, a cannon or something. We had a real rough time. We had built (flimsy) shacks--and at 20-below zero you had to go outside to use the toilet."

But the people in the camps were determined to make the best of it. To help pass the time and lift the spirits of the internees, the former Asahi members formed baseball clubs at the various camps, resulting in a four-team intercamp championship in 1943.

In Lillooet, the camp Kaminishi was sent to, he formed a softball team that would play against local RCMP officers and townspeople on weekends.

"We had about 400 people in the settlement in Lillooet," said Kaminishi, who was nicknamed "the Vacuum Cleaner" due to his defensive prowess at third base. "We were on the east side and the town was on the west side (of a river). We couldn't go to the town over the bridge. Every month the police would come and check on the Issei people. I told this one policeman that we have a pretty good team on our side, why don't you guys make a team and we can play an exhibition game. Let us go to the town one weekend and you guys come to our east side camp the next weekend. This policeman was a real sportsperson and he said that's a good idea, but he would have to ask city council.

"Anyway, it was agreed to start playing so we were allowed to go into the town and they'd come to play us. It broke down the barriers a bit between the town people and our people. After that (relations) were good. If we had a party on the east side, we'd have to invite the townspeople or they would get mad [laughs]."

When the war ended and the camps were finally closed, the internees were given two choices--either go east in Canada or get on a boat back to Japan to be repatriated. With the Asahi players now spread out across the land, the team would never reform.

In 2003, the Vancouver Asahi were inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, along with former Toronto Blue Jays star Joe Carter, in a ceremony attended by Kaminishi and the four remaining Asahi players at the time. Some of the Asahi players were also honored before a Jays' game at SkyDome, where they threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

"I was kind of shocked at first," Kaminishi said. "We were a noted team, but still, the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame--that's high-class stuff."

Looking back on his life, Kaminishi says he only played on the Asahi club for three years, but it was a time he will never forget.

"I was the youngest player on the team," he recalled. "They always called me Baby Asahi. I'm 89 now. Over 80 players in 27 years played for the Asahi, and there's only three left now. Putting the Asahi uniform on was the biggest moment of my life."

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