Coffey: A field of dreams in the Arizona desert

From Alex Coffey at on May 4, 2017, with mention of SABR member Bill Staples Jr.:

The Gila River Indian Community of Arizona has a land area of 583.749 square miles. Sandwiched between the San Tan Mountains to its North and the Sierra Estrella Mountains to its West, the community’s arid land goes on as far as the eye can see, marked by sagebrush, cactus and greasewood. Today, it has a population just above 11,000 people.

But 75 years ago, Gila River quickly became home to Arizona’s third largest city – and one of its most important ballparks. And a piece of that history is now preserved at the Hall of Fame.

On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, thereby forcing thousands of Japanese-Americans to sell their belongings and move into one of 10 relocation centers across the country. Although about 70 percent of those interned were American citizens, xenophobic sentiment was rising in the United States after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and drastic measures were taken.

Surrounded by barbed wire, a watchtower and barracks, life at Gila River Internment Camp was far from comfortable. Internees complained that there was nothing to do all day, and they often grew exhausted from living in the stifling heat of the desert. But while some saw Gila River as a barren wasteland, Kenichi Zenimura saw a field of dreams.

Zenimura, who was born in Hiroshima in 1900, spent the majority of his childhood in Hawaii. At the age of 20, he moved to Fresno, Calif., where he made it his mission to foster the Japanese-American baseball scene there. Zenimura founded the Fresno Athletic Club, and organized games between his team and Negro Leagues clubs, Pacific Coast Leagues clubs, California Winter League clubs and even an exhibition match against Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth during their 1927 barnstorming tour.

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Originally published: May 4, 2017. Last Updated: May 4, 2017.