SABR

George Omachi

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

From internment camps to universal respect in the scouting community, it was quite a journey for Hatsuo Omachi. He picked up the American name George and was nicknamed Hats. George’s parents came to the United States from Hiroshima, Japan, sometime between 1912 and 1915 after working for a while in pineapple fields in Hawaii. After arriving in California the family lived at first in Pacoima, in the Los Angeles area. George himself was born on February 17, 1923, in the San Fernando Valley, where his father, Yaichi Omachi, worked at farming. The elder Omachi later went into partnership with another family, farming in the area. Around the time George was ready to go to grade school, the Omachis moved to Canoga Park. George’s mother, Hisayo, raised two boys and three girls.

Like other American boys, George enjoyed playing sandlot baseball. In the 1930s an organization was founded called the Japanese Athletic Union and it organized teams and leagues of players of Japanese ancestry, both native-born and immigrant. George played for the San Fernando Ace Cubs in the JAU and then graduated from Canoga Park High at the age of 17. That was 1940. The Omachi family then moved to Fresno, and four months later they found themselves detained by American authorities, and placed in what was euphemistically called a Civilian Assembly Center right there in Fresno, at the Big Fresno Fairgrounds, which included a racetrack and stables. It was the beginning of a few years of “life behind barbed wire.”i

The Omachis were among up to 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry (an estimated 65 percent of whom were native-born American citizens) who were similarly detained, per order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. One internee, Yoko Mitani, recalled her own arrival at Fresno: “Our family was sent to the Fresno Assembly Center, built on the site of the Fresno Fair Grounds. There were approximately 10 blocks of barracks, 20 barracks in each block. Each barrack was divided into four rooms. Our family of 11, the youngest 4 years old, was assigned two rooms. There was no ceiling between the rooms. Our floors were concrete. Eight-foot fences surrounded the entire camp. There was another, shorter fence inside the camp. There were strategically placed guard towers manned day and night by soldiers with machine guns. At night, searchlights beamed along the fence to deter any escape attempts.”

 

After about six months at Fresno, the entire Omachi family was transported by train to the Jerome War Relocation Center, in Denson, Arkansas. This was a trip that often took five days and four nights. Mitani says, “A contingent of armed MPs guarded us at all times. We slept sitting up in our assigned seats.” After the Omachis arrived at the Jerome camp, George took part in camp baseball, becoming a player for the Denson All-Stars. A photograph of George cracking a line drive appears in Kerry Yo Nakagawa’s book Through a Diamond: 100 Years of Japanese American Baseball. George himself said, “Without baseball, camp life would have been miserable. … It was humiliating, demeaning, being incarcerated in our own country.”

George had skills to contribute to the war effort, however, and was able to find a job outside the camp, working for the Defense Department building machine gun turrets. He and his wife, Alice, moved from Jerome to St. Louis for the work. While there, he coached a semipro team in Maplewood, Missouri, where he met major-league veteran Billy Southworth and was able to add to his knowledge by talking with Southworth.

That Omachi was permitted to leave Jerome for defense-related work should not be surprising. It is well-established fact that the most decorated unit in the history of the United States Army was the 442nd Regiment and attached 100th Battalion, an all-volunteer Japanese-American unit that fought in the European Theatre. These were all young men whose families were interned in the camps due to the xenophobic political leadership. Some 680 were killed in action, and the regiment was awarded 9,000 Purple Hearts and 18,000 individual decorations.

After the war, the family moved back to Fresno in 1946. George took up farming watermelons, cantaloupes, spinach, and radishes for a period of time, and then took work driving long-haul double trailer trucks. He continued to play ball, with the Fresno Nisei team, and also served as an instructional coach with the Fresno Yellow Jackets, a local African-American team. Beginning in 1955, Omachi managed the Fresno Niseis. The team excelled. Kerry Yo Nakagawa says they won back-to-back state championships in 1961 and 1962, and were league champions for five years in a row.

Omachi coached the Fresno Niseis until 1970, and even pitched that year to lead the team to the State Nisei Athletic Union championship; George was named MVP.  

Omachi’s son Roy commented, “Baseball was basically my dad’s life. Because we were raised with him, that was pretty much a part of our lives when we were kids. He got involved with some of the high-school players, some of the Little League teams and so forth. Anything to do with baseball in the local level, he was involved with that. If he’d get a call, he’d just leave the house! That was his life. He breathed it. It was in his blood.”

Omachi suffered a car accident – he was rear-ended – that left him on disability, but he maintained his love of baseball and remained active, particularly working with young people.  

Roy understood his father as first and foremost a teacher. “He was really good at teaching, at translating as a teacher, coaching. That was his gift. He didn’t really even care about watching it that much, but boy, he sure loved coaching and teaching and watching guys prosper. He loved it. He helped a lot of ballplayers in that way.” As working with the Nisei’s wound down, in large part because there was more integration and less of a separate status for Japanese-ancestry children, George formed the Omachi All-Stars team, which combined Fresno County players of all racial backgrounds.

Overlapping his last couple of years coaching the Niseis was work for the New York Mets, with whom he began as an associate scout in 1968. As is the case with many scouts, Omachi spent periods of time with different major-league operations, and he had stints with the San Francisco Giants, Pittsburgh Pirates, Milwaukee Brewers, and Houston Astros as a Central California scout.  Nakagawa called him “the surgeon general of the Nisei baseball experience,” explaining:

“His analytical approach and passion for the game is unparalleled. The Astros organization referred to Omachi as ‘The Doctor.’ He would strip the potential major leaguer down to his essentials and study his form with special concentration pertaining to muscle groups and mechanics. He was the only scout who could be trusted on verbal recommendations towards players. Any player having problems offensively or defensively received special attention from Omachi. The only criteria were a willingness to learn and a passion for the game. Players from the major-league level to Little Leagues benefited from his wisdom.”

Omachi also worked in a number of other community programs. In the early to mid-1980s, he was, for instance, the Western U S regional director for the Continental Amateur Baseball Association. He won the Golden Bat Award from Fresno High School in 1984, and in 1986 was the winner of the annual John Euless Award of the Greater Fresno Youth Foundation for service to youth baseball. When the Olympic baseball team from Japan came to the United States for the 1984 Olympics, Omachi was selected as their co-host and accompanied the team throughout Stateside training and through their stay at the Olympic Village in Los Angeles – interrupted only to take a group of 16-year-olds to Columbus, Ohio, for the World Series of the Continental Amateur Baseball Association, an organization he had helped found.

A few years later, while coaching for the California League Fresno Suns in 1988, George suffered a stroke that left him unable to walk or even to speak, but he battled back over a six-month period to be able to resume his scouting and community coaching work.

In his scouting work, “Hats” impressed those who worked most closely with him. One of his closest friends was Rick Schroeder, a scout with the Astros.  Schroeder talked about the way he would break down the game: “He was unique in his teachings, how he taught baseball to kids, the simplest little fundamentals. If they were a pitcher, he’d have them come just wearing shorts. ‘I don’t want long pants, just shorts.’ And what he would do is when the kid would lift the front leg up in the delivery, and he’d say, ‘Wait, wait. Too much tension.’ He’d grab his knee and, ‘Hold it right there. Easy. You could lift that leg 100 and some times in a game. You’ve got to do it with ease.  Lift it with your hip, not your thigh and your muscle in your leg.’ Little simple things, to make things so much more efficient. He was in that mode, very sharp. That’s just one example of the way he’d pick things apart.”

When Fresno State was looking for an assistant coach, and minor-leaguer Schroeder was looking for work after being released by the Giants, he was directed to George and wound up living with Omachi for most of a year. “He was like my father,” Rick remembered. “He took care of me. George became my best friend.”

In May 1995 George Omachi was killed in an automobile accident. He had just wrapped up a full day of scouting, working with Astros scout Greg Whitworth, who was staying at George’s house. Houston scouting director Dan O’Brien, Jr. had asked them to give an opinion on a player on whom they had mixed reviews. The pair had spent the morning at the California state junior college tournament at Fresno City College, and then moved on to Fresno State for the Western Regional Tournament.  George lived only about a quarter of a mile from Fresno State. They were heading back to his house in his old Caddy when a speeding Chevy Camaro slammed head-on into them in Clovis, T-boning them and striking Greg’s side of the car. “There’s no way I should be alive right now,” Greg recalled in February 2011. “I broke the seat belt. That’s a hard thing to do. Broke two feet, broke a collarbone. Left side was torn causing intestine to protrude under skin so surgery was needed to insert a surgical screen. Broken teeth, broken right collarbone. Left ACL, complete tear. Hips. One of the rings in the pelvis had two breaks and the other had one. A couple of other things.” But Greg was the lucky one. George Omachi lost his life.

Hats Omachi influenced any number of players at all levels of baseball.  Among the players he helped one way or another were Tom Seaver, Ryan Bowen, Bobby Jones, and Rex Hudler. George and Alice Omachi had five children. Their eldest daughter, Janice Yokoyama, remembered one protégé in particular: “Geoff Jenkins came here to train with George several times before he went to the majors.”   Kerry Yo Nakagawa has written, “In 1989, Omachi helped pave the way for Cecil Fielder to play for the Hanshin Tigers in Japan's Central League. Fielder was fed a steady diet of curveballs and adjusted quite well. The following year he hit 50 home runs for the Detroit Tigers. He also helped Masanori Murakami's mechanics when he played for the Fresno Giants (A ball), before Murakami went to the SF Giants in 1964. He was one of few scouts – like Buck O’Neil – who could give a verbal recommendation of a player and the team would sign him. He worked passionately and intensely with his players, on every level. Rain or shine, Omachi was always available.”

George himself told the Fresno Bee how heading to Japan helped Fielder. “He was a weak curveball hitter. But we also knew he would hit the long ball. In Japan, they’ll show you how to hit the curveball. Now, he’s crushing the sliders. It’s all because of Japan.”

Rick Schroeder gave the eulogy at George’s funeral. “In fact, I had to wear his shoes that day. I came all the way from San Jose, got there early. I was at the house most of the morning. Then I got to thinking, ‘Oh, my God. My shoes. I don’t have my shoes.’ One of his daughters said, ‘Ricky, we’ve got shoes here. What size shoe do you wear?’ I said an eight. She said, ‘Well, these are seven.’ Or something like that. So I ended up wearing his shoes. Boy, they were tight. I remember saying at the eulogy, ‘You know, it’s amazing. I could never really fill this guy’s shoes, but today I am.’ ”

 

Sources

Matsumura, Ken. “America’s Concentration Camps” International Socialist Review Issue 13, August-September 2000

Interview with Roy Omachi, February 9, 2011

E-mail from Kerry Yo Nakagawa on April 14, 2008, more or less recapitulating part of what he had written in his book Through a Diamond on p. 130. (San Francisco: Rudi Publishing, Inc., 2001). The book features a foreword by Tom Seaver.

Interview with Rick Schroeder, January 2, 2010 

Interview with Greg Whitworth, February 10, 2011

E-mail from Janice Yokoyama on March 9, 1911

E-mail from Kerry Yo Nakagawa, April 14, 2008

Saito, John Jr. “Top Scout,” Fresno Bee, August 25, 1994

Interview with Rick Schroeder, January 2, 2010 

Thanks to Roy and Nancy Omachi, and Roy’s two sisters, Janice Yokoyama and Sally Kodoya. Thanks as well to Kerry Yo Nakagawa, Rick Schroeder, and Greg Whitworth.

 

Notes

i The phrase borrows the title of a book by Angelo Spinelli and Lewis H. Carlson built around Spinelli’s secret photographs taken as a prisoner of war of Germany in World War II. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004)

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