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Exhibit showcases a Japanese American player who brought baseball to Arizona incarceration camps

During World War II, Japanese Americans living along the West Coast were forced to move into incarceration camps.

Many yearned for a way to find normalcy and some turned to America’s national pastime — baseball.

The Phoenix area, home of spring training for over seven decades, is well known for baseball. People descend each spring to soak up sunshine and beer at intimate stadiums all over town. 

But there was a different kind of baseball experience during World War II, and a different kind of baseball star Kenichi Zenimura, a Japanese prisoner known as the “Dean of the Diamond.”

Zenimura was one of 120,000 Japanese Americans held at incarceration camps across the country, including in the Arizona desert. Despite hardships, Zenimura organized a robust baseball league inside the fences of the Gila River War Relocation camp about 30 miles southeast of Phoenix. 

A new exhibit, “Rebuilding Home plate — Baseball in Arizona’s Japanese American Incarceration Camps” at the Arizona Heritage Center captures pieces of this history.

Before the war, Kenichi Zenimura’s All-Star club, the Fresno Athletics, won the Japanese American state championship three years in a row. Zemimura’s teams were so well known that when the New York Yankees traveled to Fresno, to play an exhibition game, Zenimura was picked to play with the team. 

Once he was incarcerated, Zenimura’s sportsmanship took a different turn. He built a baseball field from nothing in a remote, arid location.

The Show spoke with Elizabeth Kapp, the Arizona Heritage Center curator of the exhibit designed to showcase this forgotten sports history. 

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Sativa Peterson is a journalist, librarian and archivist.From 2017-2022 Peterson worked as the collection manager for the Arizona Newspaper Project and the Arizona Historical Digital Newspaper Project, special collections of the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records.Between 2017-2019 Peterson was the project director for a National Digital Newspaper Program grant awarded to the state of Arizona through a partnership between the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Peterson helped digitize over 100,000 pages of historic newspaper content for the Chronicling America and Arizona Memory Project websites.Her work has appeared in local and national publications such as New Times, BUST and Modern Loss and she has hosted the workshop, “Time Travel Through Historic Newspapers,” at Valley bookstore Changing Hands.Peterson’s short personal documentary, “The Slow Escape,” originally released in 1998, is now on the Criterion Channel.Peterson’s first job in high school was at KINO 1230 AM in her hometown, Winslow, Arizona. Peterson worked afternoon and evening shifts spinning county music in the high desert.