A’AGA: Something to be told or talked about
By Billy Allen
An American politician once said, “Baseball has long been a national pastime that many Americans have cherished,” and so it was with O’otham. Spring baseball welcomes warmer and longer days, perfect to be outside. A baseball field could center a village, community, or district. Some elders recall traveling with families to play in Chandler, Ocotillo, and Guadalupe. When a youngster proved he belonged, he played into a new tribal circle. Teams relied on younger players to step up and play as older players struck out against father time. Some of our communities had two or more teams, and if some villages did not have enough to field a full team, a “gamer” might pop up on a neighboring village’s roster.
Kind of like that baseball movie, “Field of Dreams,” Catholic feast days added a baseball game to the church gathering – If they play it, people will come. Soon games with neighboring O’otham/Piipaash villages and area reservations were taking place. There is history between baseball, O’otham, and area towns. On September 6, 1912, the Casa Grande Grays beat the Sacaton Indians. In 1913, Sweetwater split games with a Chandler team and Sacaton won against Chandler according to chandlerpedia.org. Two of the longest running baseball tournaments are on reservations. Some GRICsters represent us at Salt River in the “Southwest All-Indian Baseball Tournament” which has been held for 57 years. Some community members make the trek upriver to play at San Carlos in the “George Belvado, Jr. Memorial Day Tournament” which has been held for 50 years.
Here at Gila River, baseball was a big deal for Japanese-Americans who were held in “relocation centers” during WWII. What kept the internees from going crazy? One of their anchors was baseball. At Butte camp a 32-team league was organized. Ads were placed to attract semipro teams in the area. (I’ve wondered if GRIC teams played at the camp, but haven’t been able to get any information if so.)
A Black baseball team traveled to the camp to play. The Gila News Courier, the camp newspaper written in English and Japanese, noted the Phoenix team out-hit the internees, but lost the game because of 10 errors. The Nisei Baseball Research Project states this was the only time a baseball game between a Black League team and a Nisei team occurred in a Japanese American camp during WWII. Bill Staples writes about the game in his book, "Kenichi Zenimura, Japanese American Baseball Pioneer.” The Tucson Badgers, a three-time high school state champion, arrived with a record of 52-0. In the 10th inning, that record became 52-1. (Readers might enjoy a YouTube video that focuses on this game: “Baseball Behind Barbed Wire.”) “Without baseball, camp life would have been miserable," said George Omachi, a prisoner who later became a scout for Major League Baseball. Ironically, Takeo Suo, a camp prisoner, likened donning a baseball jersey to wearing the U.S. flag.
Back to O’otham players now. A tribal elder remembered playing teams at Gila Crossing at the St. Johns field next to the tamarisk trees. District 5 supported teams from Casa Blanca, Bapchule and Sweetwater. Sacaton had at least 2-3 teams and played at the old rodeo grounds. Blackwater also supported a team. The games could get intense, but afterwards friendship and kinship took over and all was good.
A South Phoenix O’otham team, the Phoenix Giants, was headed by Archie Russell. Their “home” field was Roeser Road Park. Salt River had a team headed up by Alvino Paul and Lehi also fielding a team. Nearby Mesa fielded a team called the Mesa Indians. They all participated in the “Southwest All Indian Tournament.” I asked the elder what drew him to play and then coach the Santan team. He felt he grew up in the game and his family was a “baseball” family. He shared an old photo of a Sweetwater team. His grandfather, James Harris, is standing on the top left. Date of picture is vague, but it was at Sweetwater. The photo show how players from other villages played with other villages especially if kinship was involved. The building in the back was a church. Play bo:l!
Like extra-innings, this is the third baseball/softball GRIN article I’ve written, but there are still more baseball storylines left to explore. If anyone knows more information, please call the GRIN to forward your contact information to me. Maybe our Huhugam Heritage Center could run with the idea of a baseball exhibit, and time it for “spring training” time in the next few years.