By John Sammon
Two of the few surviving members of the old time Walnut Grove Deltans baseball team recalled their “Field of Dreams” glory days when they were rated among the best amateur Japanese American players in all of Northern and Central California.
“Baseball, it was a community effort, and it brought people together,” recalled Bob Matsumoto, aged 91. “We had a nice baseball diamond and bleacher seats, and we had good crowds too, sometimes 300 people—in a small town. We had loyal fan support because we had a real good baseball team. Baseball was very popular back then.”
The diamond and bleachers have long been torn down in the aftermath of the upheaval of World War II. Prior to the war, Walnut Grove, 23 miles south of Sacramento and located just off of Highway 5, had a sizeable population of Japanese immigrant (Issei) residents and their American-born children (Nisei).
In 1914 the downtown listed 67 Japanese owned businesses although most residents of the area were farmers.
“I was born in Walnut Grove and my dad was a farmer,” Matsumoto said. “I went to grade school in a tiny nearby town called Thornton. I went to high school in another nearby town, Galt.”
Matsumoto’s teammate on the Deltans, Fred Uyeno, also had parents who were farmers before World War II.
“I was born in Hood River, Oregon,” Uyeno said. “My dad Satoru farmed an apple orchard.”
Uyeno, who lives today in Sacramento, retired after a career with Caltrans (California Dept. of Transportation).
Matsumoto like his parents became a farmer and grew tomatoes for canning in the Walnut Grove area. Now retired, he had played baseball in high school and said the idea for the Deltans came about in the 1930’s when a group of young men in the community decided to form an amateur barnstorming baseball team.
Matsumoto said the most of the Deltans players were Nisei generation, average age approximately 19 to 25. They provided their own car transport and journeyed afield to play other amateur teams in communities like Lodi, San Jose, Roseville, Loomis and Fresno.
The team was noted for its winning play.
World War II intervened to end it—temporarily. There had long been anti-Japanese American prejudice and racism in California, which is what led to the formation of Japanese American leagues in the first place. Japanese Americans in those days did not have the opportunity to play against or compete with players in regular Caucasian leagues.
Shipped by the government into concentration camps along with their families in 1942, stripped of property and jobs, suspected of potential disloyalty, the players nevertheless kept the tradition alive by forming baseball teams in the camps.
“I was sent to the camp at Tule Lake (Northeast California),” Matsumoto said. “We had a baseball league inside the camp but only the prisoners played. We never played teams from outside the camp. There were about eight teams.”
The camp had teams that played both softball and fast-pitch hardball.
Matsumoto said for the softball team, there were 10 players instead of the customary 9 seen in hardball, and that he played as a free-roving outfielder called a “roving short” in addition to the other three outfielders.
“The camp teams had no names or uniforms, but were titled by their block number, the barracks in which they were imprisoned,” Matsumoto said.
Uyeno and his family were also sent to Tule Lake, but he didn’t play ball there.
“I was 10 years old at the time,” he said. “They had a few teams in the camp and I would watch my older brothers Ko and Hish play baseball.”
After the war and release from the camps, Matsumoto and Uyeno both ended up living in Walnut Grove.
Uyeno, after farming for a time in Spokane, Washington with his family, served in the U.S. Air Force Reserve in 1948 and moved to Walnut Grove because he had friends in the area. He and Matsumoto joined a resurrected Deltans Baseball team composed mostly of new players, with a few from the old pre-war days, again most of them Nisei.
Two teams were formed, one for the more experienced players, and one (junior varsity type) team for younger players. The senior team played for four seasons through the late 1940’s up until 1951.
“When I joined the Deltans it was for fun,” Uyeno said. “We had a good team. We were champs. We won our league in 1950, the Northern California Nisei Valley League champions.”
Uyeno played center field, not because he was a big hitter.
“Because I was fast,” he said. “I was more of a defensive player.”
Uyeno shared outfield duties with Matsumoto, who also said it was his speed on his feet and not so much his hitting that put him in the position.
“I could cover a lot of ground,” Matsumoto said.
One of the team’s premier players was its shortstop Aki Fukushima. Sadly, he died young because of health issues.
Matsumoto said the team traveled around Central and Northern California taking on all comers.
“In Fresno and San Jose we played in semi-professional baseball stadiums, and that was a big deal for us back then,” he said.
Matsumoto hit a triple in one game.
He could recall one mishap as a player.
“One time we played against a team in Roseville,” Matsumoto said. “This was a night game under lights. I had never played under the lights before. A high pop-up was hit and I lost it. I couldn’t see the ball because of the lights. The people in the stands watching were making all sorts of noise. I felt so bad that when we came in I asked the coach to take me out of the game. I was so upset he took me out. But we still won the game.”
Bob Ikegami served as coach of the Deltans and Frank Uda the manager.
Matsumoto said the team depended on donations from the community for equipment.
“We went around collecting donations so we could buy baseballs and bats,” he said. “We went to each family, each farmhouse, and I hated to ask for money—these were mostly country people we were asking. But people in the community were generous and they gave $10 here, $20 there. We were able to buy uniforms.”
Unlike the Japanese American communities in San Jose, Los Angeles and San Francisco, that in Walnut Grove declined after the shock of World War II and an influx of new arrivals including Caucasian, Latinos, Filipinos and others.
“Walnut Grove was once about 99 percent Japanese American,” Matsumoto said. “But today there are only a few (Japanese American) families left, and among the old-timers most of those are all widows. I’m the only widower.”
The Deltans disbanded in 1951. Neither Matsumoto nor Uyeno can recall exactly what the reason for it was. It may have been for economic reasons and the emergence of other competing sports.
“Basketball and football became popular,” Matsumoto said. “Fishing was also popular then. Walnut Grove had mostly farm labor and more of the young people who could have played ball moved to big cities and went to college so they could get good jobs.”
Matsumoto and Uyeno both said they recall fondly the days when they represented the Walnut Grove Deltans.
“It was a very good experience,” Uyeno said. “The friendships and the memories, those are what remain with you.”
The above photograph is available for purchase, the cost is $10 plus $5 mailing/shipping. Checks may be made out to Walnut Grove Buddhist Church (WGBC). Please email Janet Sakata at [email protected] for more information.