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“Extraordinary People: The Baseball Reliquary
Induction of Josh Gibson, Kenichi Zenimura,
and Fernando Valenzuela”

 Keynote Address, July 23, 2006
Samuel O. Regalado, Ph.D.

State University, Stanislaus

        “Extraordinary people reveal extraordinary truths,” so said historian Jules Tygiel. Today, we have to celebrate three “extraordinary” people who through their actions revealed character flaws in our ideals and, by their presence and courage, helped to make us a better people in the advancement of those ideals. Indeed, our entire history as a nation is one awash in ideals. Ideals such as fairness, tolerance, and justice; ideals such as freedom, privacy, and expression; we are the “City Upon a Hill” pronounced John Winthrop in 1630; a beacon of opportunity. Our ideals are found in our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, and even at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty where, on a plaque, it reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

           Baseball, too, has been a symbol of those ideals. In pursuit of patriotism, its aficionados in the 19th century promoted the game in nationalistic terms. Touted for the first time as our “national game” during, oddly enough, the 1860 presidential election, the game gravitated in its popularity driven both by its attraction as a “fast” game and its model of American democracy, fairness, and integrity. After all, so they said in this era, “it is not whether you win or lose, but it is how you play the game.” And baseball, former Pennsylvania governor John K. Tener proclaimed during World War I, was “the very watchword of democracy.” But reality, I submit, has a nasty habit of trumping our myths and ideals. And as fair and as tolerant and as “democratized” as we were apt to promote ourselves, the historical record indicates otherwise. 

          Black Americans, for the better part of our history, for instance, lived outside of the American ideals. Democracy was there for them, as long as they “stayed in their place.” Indeed, even after Jackie Robinson’s heralded achievement of 1947 – breaking the major league color barrier – for many blacks outside of baseball, Jim Crow, not Communism, was a direct threat to their security.
          And much was the same for people of Japanese heritage living in the United States, particularly in those years prior to World War Two. For many of them, America was a land of broken promise, or as one scholar noted, “[they] lived underneath America.” Victimized by nineteenth century Asian prejudice, Japanese Issei – first generation – could live in the United States, just as long as they did not purchase land, vote, and otherwise try to make a living outside of the narrow scope of their enclaves.
          Moreover, Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals, too, encountered barriers. School segregation, limited opportunities in the workplace, stereotypes depicting them as being lazy and non-progressive, and national policies, like a 1930s repatriation program and 1950s “Operation Wetback,” all spoke to the notion that these contributors to our national picture were nothing more than unwanted stepchildren.

           And what of baseball’s role? The so-called “watchword of democracy,” in reality, did little to advance it when it came to these aforementioned groups.
          To be sure, baseball’s segregated policies are well known. For many young black ballplayers born well before 1947, thoughts of participation in the major leagues were not even realistically considered. As such, their America, in all respects, was that of a secondary nature.
          Japanese American baseball fortunes, at the amateur level, were not much different. Scouts from around the country never seriously considered Issei or Nisei as professional prospects. The prevailing notion was that they were too small, inexperienced with the game, etc. And in the eyes of many, they simply were not “American.” Mostly, the ignorance of mainstream Americans when it came to the Japanese bled over to their misconceptions of the Japanese baseball prowess.
          And while Latinos did find opportunities in the major leagues, the media ridiculed them, organizations did little to acculturate them, and the baseball echelons ignored their concerns. Standout players like Orlando Cepeda, Felipe Alou, and the great Roberto Clemente fought hard to overcome the myths that had burdened both they and their brethren, but with few satisfactory results. As such, in spite of their accomplishments, by 1981, Latins in the major leagues were, in the words of Carey McWilliams, a “forgotten people.” 

          But three extraordinary people, through their actions, revealed extraordinary truths. Josh Gibson toiled in a baseball world – the Negro Leagues – that existed not because of lack of merit on the part of its members. But because of the racial discrimination which spoke not of American ideals, but of an American truth.
          Kenichi Zenimura promoted and advanced America’s national pastime because he loved the game and he believed in its ideals. But, in truth, the “Dean of the Diamond” promoted the American myth of opportunity while denied the right to attain citizenship, solely because of his Japanese birth.
          And Fernando Valenzuela, who personified the classic Horatio Alger figure – a person of humble origins who, through hard work and perseverance, found success in the land of opportunity – also had to overcome questions about his age, criticisms of his physique, and the general American stereotypes that any Latin success in the United States was fleeting.
          But these extraordinary ballplayers – men who played the game with dignity and grace, and whom conducted themselves with integrity – undermined the stereotypes, myths, and misconceptions about their people.
         Josh Gibson’s legendary dominance in the black leagues transcended his life and helped to unleash the truth about race and taught us about the courage to overcome it. Kenichi Zenimura’s prominence in the world of Japanese American baseball not only provided guidance to the younger Nisei in the pre-war period, but his baseball activities helped to give his people needed inspiration while they endured an unjustifiable incarceration in America’s concentration camps. And Fernando Valenzuela’s success in 1981 – a success that sparked “Fernandomania” – proved to be instrumental in bridging gaps between mainstream Americans and the Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals. Jaime Jarrin was right, “Fernando [was] the pole to whom everyone gravitated.”
          Extraordinary people do reveal extraordinary truths. And as a result of these three extraordinary players who are to be enshrined today, we, as a people are, because of them, a much better society.

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