When Shohei Ohtani first entered the home clubhouse at T-Mobile Park, he was curious to find out where Ichiro Suzuki used to sit.
Ichiro has established a legacy that extends beyond the Mariners’ stadium. On the 2025 Hall of Fame ballot, he will undoubtedly be elected, perhaps unanimously. His departure from Nippon Professional Baseball in 2001 marked a turning point for the game because MLB teams began to actively scout and sign players from Japan as a result of his breakthrough performance as the combined Rookie of the Year and MVP that year.
At the All-Star Media Day on Monday, players like Ohtani expressed their awe for Ichiro.
“I remember the first time I came here [to T-Mobile Park],” he said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara, “Oh, this is the location I always watched on television, I thought.’ Therefore, it was really unique.”
But that exchange between Ichiro and Ohtani is only a small portion of the history of baseball in Japan. Standing on the shoulders of baseball’s first Nikkei players are the storied leadoff man and the incredible two-way player. In a fascinating exhibit about 2,000 feet from where Ohtani sat, the story of these athletes—who were shunned, forgotten, and in some cases, imprisoned—is being told during All-Star Week.
The exhibit, titled “Baseball’s Bridge Across the Pacific: Celebrating the Legacy of Japanese American Baseball” is a part of This week, Lumen Field will play host to PLAY BALL Park, an interactive fan festival. The Nisei Baseball Research Project founder Kerry Yo Nakagawa and Bill Staples Jr. are leading the initiative., president of the Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League in Arizona.
The exhibit’s panels and artifacts inform baseball fans about an often-overlooked but increasingly significant part of the game’s history. It follows the development of Japanese baseball from its introduction to Japan in the early 1870s through the first Japanese American teams in 1903, the early tours in Asia that helped launch the start of pro baseball in Japan in 1936, and up to the present day, when Shohei Ohtani turns the sport on its head.
The exhibit was first pieced together by Nakagawa in the 1990s, and its inclusion in All-Star Week this year represents a significant advancement in his work.
“For 26 years, we’ve been trying to join what I call the ‘baseball history bus,’ with the All-American Girls [Professional Baseball League], the Latinos in baseball and the Negro Leagues,” Nakagawa said. “In a way, this year is a baptism because Major League Baseball has never before invited us to take part in this PLAY BALL Park.”
The undertaking is personal for Nakagawa. He is the nephew of Johnny Nakagawa, a left-handed pitcher and home run hitter who played for the Fresno Athletic Club in the 1920s and 1930s and scheduled games against the best players from the Pacific Coast League, California Winter League, Major League, Negro League barnstormers, and visiting teams from Japan. A wonderful colorized image of Johnny Nakagawa and other players from that Fresno team posing with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in October. 29, 1927, is prominently displayed in the exhibit.
“We had, in the 1920s and ’30s, some great players that could have played and raised the bar at the Major League level,” Nakagawa said. “They had the resources and the enthusiasm. Quite simply, they were denied the chance.”
Both the terrible internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and segregation at the Major League level had no effect on these pioneers’ ability to play the sport they loved.
Baseball players were forcibly relocated and imprisoned along with tens of thousands of other people of Japanese descent, many of whom were citizens. They continued playing behind barbed wire, as horrifyingly depicted in the exhibit. Women tore mattress ticking to make uniforms in each of the ten camps, which were dispersed throughout the American west and Arkansas. Games were also held to raise spirits among players and spectators. around Gila River, Arizona, in camps., Jerome, Arkansas, and Heart Mountain, Wyoming., games were even scheduled against the top high school, college and semi-pro teams from surrounding cities — a rare respite from confinement.
The exhibit’s component that depicts the layout of an internment camp next to a baseball field, according to Nakagawa, has caused grown men to cry. It drives home just how humiliating it could be at that time to be a Japanese person living in the United States.
Compare and contrast that scene with Ohtani being unquestionably the star of the show at Media Day, with a large crowd of people and cameras present for his interview.
Without the passion for the game that compelled those of Asian descent to take up the sport and spread it, you wouldn’t have Ohtani or Ichiro. No MLB teams visited Japan from 1922 to 1931. The Japanese Professional Baseball League, which served as the forerunner to Nippon Professional Baseball, where Ichiro and Ohtani played, was founded in 1936 thanks to the efforts of Japanese Americans and their Negro League counterparts who conducted goodwill tours during this time.
Established Major Leaguers like Larry Doby and Don Newcombe were among the first to switch to the NPB, further legitimizing a league that would later repay the favor by providing MLB with some of its biggest stars. Baseball played a significant role in mending relations between Japan and the United States after World War II.
The value of those who came before Ohtani increases as his legend does.
“I hope he feels that these are his ancestral godfathers,” Nakagawa said. “In spirit, I know they couldn’t be prouder of Ichiro and Ohtani and the ones who will keep coming. I can’t speak for them in person, but I know they are.”
For the exhibit to become a regular stop on the historical traveling baseball circuit, Nakagawa has high expectations. Naturally, he has high expectations that Ohtani will one day take the tour by himself.
Because of his enormous celebrity status at this All-Star Game, Ohtani was currently overburdened with demands. But in response to a question regarding the significance of his baseball ancestors, he praised a bridge that is still being constructed.
“I’m not sure how the American people feel, but I definitely feel all the history of the guys that came before me who opened the door for me to be able to play over here,” Ohtani said. “And one of my objectives is to make it possible for other guys to come over here and play in the future.”