YOSHINAKA email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-12-12 published
A sleeping tiger of baseball
Founded in 1914, the Asahi team made history. This year, largely because of the efforts of its catcher, the team made the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame
By Tom HAWTHORN, Special to The Globe and Mail Friday, December 12, 2003 - Page R17
Victoria -- Ken KUTSUKAKE was a catcher for the storied Asahi baseball team of Vancouver, which disbanded when its Japanese-Canadian players were interned during the Second World War.
Mr. KUTSUKAKE, who has died in Toronto, aged 92, helped keep the team's memory alive over the years. He organized an Asahi reunion at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Don Mills, Ontario, in 1972, ending, if only temporarily, a diaspora of the diamond that had seen players sent to work camps, ghost towns, sugar-beet farms, and, in a handful of cases, Japan.
Earlier this year, the amateur club was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in Saint Marys, Ontario Mr. KUTSUKAKE attended the ceremonies in June, even taking part in a golf tournament.
The Asahi roster shortens with each passing season. Mr. KUTSUKAKE is the third player to die since the induction. He was predeceased by outfielder Bob HIGUCHI, 95, of Pickering, Ontario, and pitcher George YOSHINAKA, 81, of Lethbridge, Alberta. The Asahi are disappearing like runners left stranded at the end of an inning. Only six players and a team official are believed to still be alive, the lone survivors as the club approaches the 90th anniversary of its founding in 1914.
The Asahi drew their players from the Little Tokyo neighbourhood surrounding their home field at the Powell Street Grounds (today's Oppenheimer Park) in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. The Asahi were physically slight compared to their opponents, among whom were beefy longshoremen, so they depended on slick fielding, larcenous base running and hitting so precise that it was said they could bunt with a chopstick. They were nimble Davids competing against slugging Goliaths.
The team (asa for morning, hi for sun) sometimes won games in which they failed to record a hit. Their style of play, which came to be called Brain Ball, earned them a following among discerning Caucasian fans. In Little Tokyo, they were gods in woolen flannels.
"We were the toast of the town," Mr. KUTSUKAKE told me earlier this year. "To be an Asahi ballplayer meant lots to a lot of people."
It all ended so quickly. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, it was heard around the world. In British Columbia, all people of Japanese ancestry were ordered removed from the coast as enemy aliens. A neighbourhood team lost its neighbourhood and the Asahi never played again.
Kenneth Hisao KUTSUKAKE was born in Vancouver on May 25, 1911. The Asahi had deep roots in the community and he joined the club's youth team when he was 12 as a Clover (Go-gun). Blessed with a strong throwing arm even at that young age, he was taught to play the sport's toughest position. The neighbourhood boys gave him the sing-song nickname, "Catcha-Catcha- KUTSUKAKE."
He moved up the Asahi ranks over the years. From 9-to-5, Mr. KUTSUKAKE worked for a company making boxes. After work and on weekends and holidays, he could be found on the baseball diamond. Finally, in 1938, Mr. KUTSUKAKE became the starting catcher for the parent club.
Adept at blocking wild pitches, he was known for his throwing arm, a disincentive for rivals eager to mimic the Asahi on the base paths.
On September 18, 1941, he went 0-for-2 before being pulled for a pinch-hitter in his team's final at-bat in a 3-1 loss to a club sponsored by The Angelus, a hotel. It would be the Asahi's final game.
A few months later, his home was seized, as was his family's Powell Street rooming house.
In 1942, Mr. KUTSUKAKE was ordered by Canadian authorities to leave his birthplace for the crimes of his ancestry. On that terrible winter day, when he had to reduce 31 years of life to a single suitcase, Mr. KUTSUKAKE packed for an unknown life in a relocation camp. Alongside family photos, he placed his cleats, shin guards, catcher's mask, chest protector and his Asahi uniform.
For Mr. KUTSUKAKE, the equipment was a daily reminder that while authorities could seize his home, deny him his job, and compromise his freedom, no one could stop him from playing baseball.
He was sent to Kaslo on Kootenay Lake in the British Columbia Interior, where he was joined by Asahi pitcher Nag NISHIHARA. One of their first acts in the camp was to form a baseball team, an action that was also occurring in other ghost towns and internment camps.
(Mr. KUTSUKAKE's father, Tsugio, had complained when he was ordered to leave behind his wife and daughters. The senior Mr. KUTSUKAKE was instead sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Angler, Ontario, where inmates wore dark uniforms with large circles on the back, a bull's-eye target for sharpshooters should any try to escape.) On Dominion Day, 1943, four teams of interned players met in a one-day showdown in Slocan City, British Columbia Lemon Creek beat New Denver 13-2 for the championship, while Slocan and Kaslo, featuring a battery of Mr. KUTSUKAKE and Mr. NISHIHARA, were eliminated earlier in the day. More than 500 spectators watched the tournament.
"Ahhh," said Mr. KUTSUKAKE, still sore about a loss 60 years earlier, "Lemon Creek had the most Asahi players. They should have won."
After the war ended, those of Japanese ancestry were forbidden from returning to the coast. Mr. KUTSUKAKE wound up in Montreal, where he played for the semi-professional Atwater team in 1947.
He moved to Toronto the following year, where he could be found behind the plate at Christie Pits. He also had great success as a coach and manager, winning a West Toronto minor championship with the Westerns midget team in 1950. He later won a city championship with the Bestway Nisei, a team comprised of the Canadian-born sons of Japanese immigrants.
In 1956, he managed Honest Ed's Nisei, a mixed-race team, to a senior city championship. A delighted Ed MIRVISH feted the players with a lavish banquet and presented each with a commemorative wrist watch.
Mr. KUTSUKAKE worked for many years at Iwata Travel in Toronto. Until recently, he volunteered at a seniors home, providing prepared Japanese lunches for residents.
Mr. KUTSUKAKE rejoiced in the belated recognition afforded his old team. He threw out a ceremonial opening pitch at a Toronto Blue Jays game at SkyDome in May, 2002, and was deeply touched by induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
"Naturally, I'm honoured," he said. "It was a big surprise. I never expected such recognition."
Mr. KUTSUKAKE also appears in the recent National Film Board documentary Sleeping Tigers, which recounts the history of the Asahi team and its players. The photographs he saved during the evacuation have been displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum and included in Pat Adachi's 1992 book, Asahi: A Legend in Baseball.
Mr. KUTSUKAKE died in his sleep on November 22 at Toronto Grace Hospital, where he was attending his second wife, Rose, who has been diagnosed with a brain tumour. His wife of 50 years survives him, as do sisters Satoko and Eiko, both of Toronto. He was predeceased by brothers Sekio and Ray, an Asahi pitcher. A first marriage ended in divorce.
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