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The multicultural Modesto Reds

The notion of a professional baseball roster being a cultural melting pot is so accepted it's taken for granted.

On this year's edition of the Modesto Nuts, you'll find players from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Canada and Taiwan playing alongside American players of multiple ethnic backgrounds.

But in the post-World War II California League, indeed at every level of the game, the ball and the players were nearly entirely white.

In 1949, it had been only two years since Jackie Robinson became the first black athlete to play in the major leagues, and another baseball-loving group, a young generation of Japanese-Americans, was trying to find its way into the game.

The Modesto Reds supplied a bold-faced footnote to that history 60 years ago Saturday. For their game in Bakersfield, the Reds fielded a starting lineup that included pitcher Jiro "Gabby" Nakamura and catcher Henry "Hank" Matsubu, whose high school years were spent in an Idaho internment camp during World War II.

They were the first Japanese-American starting battery in American professional baseball history.

Nakamura grew up in Mountain View and pitched for San Mateo Junior College. He pitched one season of professional baseball as a 19-year-old and then disappeared into history.

Matsubu, who grew up in Oregon, played in the low minors for four seasons before leaving the game to get married and start a family. He settled in Seattle and opened a grocery store.

"I felt I wasn't going to become a major league baseball player because the competition was so stiff," Matsubu, 80, said recently by phone from his Seattle home. "I decided to retire from baseball and get married. We've been in Seattle ever since."

Fond memories of Modesto

The baseball part of this story was that Matsubu got a hit in his first at-bat on July 11, 1949, but Nakamura retired only eight batters and was the losing pitcher in a 9-4 loss to the Bakersfield Indians.

For Matsubu, getting there was the whole story. It's a much deeper tale than the fact the Reds' team bus crashed into a truck on Highway 99 in Livingston en route to Bakersfield.

"I didn't remember that crash," Matsubu said. "There are a lot of things I don't remember now, but I do have fond memories of my time in Modesto."

Matsubu said he didn't remember hearing or feeling any anti-Japanese sentiment during his baseball years, but it certainly was present in immediate post-war America. According to Kerry Yo Nakagawa, a Fresno writer and historian, it was common to pull into a Central Valley train station and be greeted by signs proclaiming "No Japs Allowed!" and for Japanese-Americans to be refused service in restaurants.

"Roughly 70 percent of this country still doesn't know that Japanese-Americans were put in internment camps," said Nakagawa, author of "Through a Diamond: 100 Years of Japanese American Baseball."

"Not only did they have to go into these desert purgatories," he said, "but most had to come back to their own communities to hatred and hostility for years because they were hated as aliens."

Displaced as a teen

Matsubu's family was removed from their home in Corbett, Ore., to the internment camp in Minidoka, Idaho, during his sophomore year in high school.

The Minidoka camp, which operated from August 1942 to October 1945, consisted of 600 buildings on 950 acres, although the entire protected area covered 33,000 acres on the Snake River Plain, 15 miles north of Twin Falls.

At an elevation of 4,000 feet, Minidoka was subject to extreme temperature swings, but that didn't stop the U.S. government from sending more than 9,000 people to the camp, which grew from a desolate outpost to Idaho's third-largest city within seven months of opening.

The residential area was 36 blocks that covered three square miles, with families as large as 10 members cramped into single rooms.

"If you wanted to live in hell, that was it," Matsubu said. "We were out in the desert and they didn't have fences around us because they knew we couldn't run away. There was nowhere for us to go, and there were rattlesnakes and scorpions out there. They were our fence."

Even in those conditions, the internees found a sense of community. They formed a government, planned regular social events, built gymnasiums and ball fields, and opened two elementary schools and a high school.

Matsubu became a camp star on those fields, throwing two no-hitters for his high school team. After high school, he spent 19 months in the Army at Fort Lewis, Wash., and was a member of the base team that won the Sixth Army championship.

He went on to the College of Idaho, where he batted .300 and caught the eye of Pittsburgh Pirates scout Dave Herman.

"Hank was the real deal," said Nakagawa, the author and historian. "He could have been one of the first Japanese-Americans after the war to have great success playing in Japan."

If not for a mistake by the U.S. Postal Service, Matsubu could have become the first American-born athlete of Japanese heritage to play professionally in postwar Japan.

He was being scouted by teams in Tokyo, Kobe and Hiroshima, and all three sent letters to Matsubu with offers. But instead of being delivered to Matsubu in New Plymouth, Idaho, the letters were sent to North Plymouth, Mass., finding their way to Matsubu two months later.

By that time, Matsubu recalled, it was too late for him to respond.

Pittsburgh offered him $2,000 to sign, a huge bonus in the mid-1940s. But Boston also wanted Matsubu, and he was able to use that leverage to get an additional $1,000 signing bonus with the Pirates.

"I spent the money on a car," Matsubu said. "My mom worked so hard and I spent the money on myself. I didn't give her anything, and I still feel bad about that. I should be spanked for that."

A guy 'who didn't like me'

Modesto was his first professional stop.

"I loved Modesto," he said. "I never felt any discrimination there, but there was one guy on the team who didn't like me. After I started a game at catcher, my mitt went missing and I'm sure that guy took it but I could never prove it.

"I had to buy a new one. It wasn't broken in and I looked like a real bad rookie that first game back. I wrapped it up at night and soaked it in water, but it took a while to break in. I think he was just mad that I took his spot."

But at least two Modesto fans took a liking to Matsubu and Nakamura.

"There were two Japanese gentlemen who came to the games, and there was no other players around for them to root for so they invited Jiro and I to be their guests, and they took us out for sushi," Matsubu said.

Matsubu appeared in 55 games for Modesto in 1949 and hit .236. Nakamura pitched in 15 games for the Reds that season and does not appear again in baseball records.

Even after leaving the game as a player, Matsubu retained his love of baseball. He and his wife, Edna, sold their successful grocery story in 1981, leaving ample time for golf, bowling, fishing and following their beloved Seattle Mariners.

A longtime Mariners season ticket holder, Matsubu was honored by the team in an on-field ceremony before a game in 2007, giving him a chance to meet and chat with Ichiro Suzuki, the most successful Japanese player in American major league history.

Matsubu said it was a thrill to meet Suzuki, but Nakagawa pointed out that the thrill should have been Suzuki's.

"I look at players like Hank as guys who were five-tool players with passion who never really got the chance to play," Nakagawa said. "I hope the guys from Asia playing now realize they're standing on the huge shoulders of guys who never got the chance."

The reporter would like to thank Matt Matushefski of Sonora for his generous research help.

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at bvanderbeek@modbee.com or 578-2300.

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