Book review: “Baseball Saved Us” by Ken Mochizuki
For the past two winters, the San Francisco Giants have been engaged in rumors about Japanese baseball players.
In 2010, they were linked to Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who wound up going to the Minnesota Twins. And just this week, the Giants were rumored to be interested in obtaining Hiroyuki Nakajima of the Seibu Lions, before general manager Brian Sabean squelched the rumor with a flat out denial of such interest.
Oh. And today marks the 70th anniversary of the day that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
All of this got me thinking about Japanese ball players in general.
I mentioned something about the Nakajima rumors on the 22gigantes Facebook page the other day and my middle son, Jordan, who’s now 20, reminded me that “the Japanese are pretty good at baseball. They like it almost as much as you do, Dad.”
Subjectivity aside, it’s entirely possible Jordan gleaned that little bit of information from his subconscious.
That’s because I happened to stumble upon a fantastic children’s book 16 years ago that I repeatedly read to all three of my boys.
Baseball Saved Us (Lee & Low, 1995) is the story of a young Japanese-American boy, whose family is suddenly whisked away to an internment camp after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The story unravels from the eyes of the young boy, who not only learns about the injustices of war in a 1940s America, but also loses his innocence about people in general, as well.
The boy’s father senses the frustration building within the desolate camp when his eldest son confronts a group of the grandfathers sitting around doing nothing. The teenager lashes out at his father when he’s asked to fetch him a glass of water (“get it yourself!”), and the elders in the barracks snap back at the kid about respecting his elders. All the while, the younger brother is watching the scene unfold from the doorway. It’s at this point we can see the cultural fabric beginning to tear between the Japanese immigrants and their American-born descendants.
The father decides right then and there that something is needed to keep everyone busy. And connected as a culture.
So the boys’ father sets about to create his own league, complete with a baseball diamond that would make Ray Kinsella proud. The women show their resourcefulness by using mattress covers to sew uniforms.
As the internees play ball, they learn a bit about themselves. Particularly, the young boy who’s telling the story.
Now segregated, he reflects about how he’s treated differently by his American classmates and neighbors back home in California. (Warning: Mochizuki uses an inflammatory racial epitaph in the book on two separate occasions to emphasize how his characters are mocked by a pre-civil rights era America. Be ready to tell your kids not to use that term themselves.)
It is from this place of hatred, importantly, that the young boy draws his strength.
He can’t help but notice a white prison guard who has been lurking over the camp all this time from atop a watchtower, wearing sunglasses that seem to penetrate the boy’s angry heart with every glinting reflection of the sun. The boy thinks the prison guard is judging him, but when he gets a game-winning hit in a championship game, the guard smiles and gives the boy a “thumbs up.”
It’s this sense of accomplishment that propels the boy to be more confident when he returns home after the war to continue his baseball playing career. He’s once again put in a situation where he must break free from the racial tension that seeks to hold him back. This time, it’s not a prison guard, but a group of insensitive American parents who heckle and mock him as he steps up to the plate in a game-winning situation.
My kids absolutely loved this book. Through its pages, it gave us plenty of opportunities to discuss racism, justice, and the game of baseball. Highly recommended.
22gigantes’ rating: 5 out of 5 balls.
To order Baseball Saved Us from Amazon, click here.