By John Sammon
Players for the Lodi JACL (Japanese American Citizens’ League) Templars baseball team said this year will be the 100th anniversary of the team’s existence, a joyous, yet somber occasion—the season will also be the team’s last.
“Buddhism teaches us nothing lasts forever, things change,” said team pitcher and KSBW Sports Anchor Mike Furutani.
“But we want to go out with a bang.”
Furutani’s teammate and co-manager on the Templars Matt Dingess said he promised the team’s legendary coach Mauch
Yamashita just before his death in 2011 that he would continue the Templars play as long as he could.
After Yamashita’s passing Dingess and Furutani shared coaching duties.
Japanese American League baseball teams are fewer in number these days in Northern California. Teams in Hanford, San Jose and Watsonville folded, leaving only Lodi, San Francisco, Florin (Sacramento) and Fresno to continue the tradition.
Similar teams in Southern California however remain more numerous.
Japanese American amateur baseball became popular in the early part of the 20th century. Anti- Japanese racism in California prevented players from competing in regular Anglo leagues, so they created their own leagues and teams. During World War II when 115,000 Japanese Americans were locked up in concentration camps across the Southwest, suspected of potential disloyalty, the ball players, now prisoners, organized teams in the camps.
Some resumed play in their hometowns after the war, but the popularity of Japanese American League baseball declined in the 1960’s through 1980’s as Japanese Americans migrated from farms to cities. There were also competing sports like football and basketball attracting athletes.
Furutani has broadcast sports news for the Central Coast of Monterey County on weekends over TV Station KSBW in Salinas for nine years. For 20 years he commuted to the Central Valley to play on the Lodi Templars team. He said the baseball experiences gained him not only priceless friendships, but the discipline to deal with tight deadlines and the often impromptu uncertainties of reporting sports during a live news broadcast.
“I had a background in baseball and from there I learned about other sports,” Furutani said. “I got to know them inside and out. If you believe you know your subject well it gives you confidence. You still get butterflies and the news is live so mistakes happen, maybe a tape won’t roll. But like in baseball, if something goes wrong—-you shake it off and move on.”
When he isn’t broadcasting sports Furutani works as a recruiter at a semiconductor electronic parts supplier in San Jose, Xilinx Inc. His path toward becoming a broadcaster watched by thousands of viewers could be described as roundabout.
“My dad Sadao was born in Japan near Osaka and he was in the country during World War II,” Furutani said. “He was about 15 years old and the government tried to indoctrinate him. They taught him how to shoot a rifle and stand guard.”
Furutani said his father had five brothers living in the United States during the war and some of them were interned in the Tule Lake Concentration Camp in Northeast California.
“After the war my dad came to the United States where he got a farm job in North Dakota flipping baby chickens (chicks) upside down to see if they were male or female,” he said. “He decided to leave and come to Los Angeles where he became a gardener.”
Furutani was born in the Los Angeles area and grew up in the San Fernando Valley where he attended regular school and a Japanese culture and language school on weekends. He learned to speak fluent Japanese in the school and played baseball in the Japanese Leagues as a youth.
“My parents wanted me to carry on the culture and my mom (Yoshiko), if she yelled at me, wanted me to understand what she was yelling,” Furutani said.
After a term at the University of California at Berkeley, Furutani decided to join the U.S. Marine Corps. He took part in the first Desert Storm action in 1990 and graduated from Cal with a degree in Legal Studies.
“I also started playing baseball again in the Japanese Leagues,” Furutani said.
In addition, he played baseball in regular men’s adult baseball leagues. Through his sports involvement he met Dennis Lehnen, a sports anchor at KSBW. Lehnen needed a part-time sports broadcaster.
“He (Lehnen) asked me if I knew anybody for the job and said they badly needed to fill the post,” Furutani said. “I didn’t know anybody to suggest, but said I’d be willing to help out. Lawton Dodd, the news director at the station, came and told me Dennis Lehnen would train me for the job. He said, ‘you’re not obnoxious, you’re perfect.’”
Furutani said he had no on-the-air experience when he started.
“I was not shy,” he said. “I had learned to talk loud in the Marines and yell at other baseball players during games.”
In 2008 Furutani was asked to fill in and report on sports for a solid week.
“It was a trial by fire,” he said.
Ever since then he has been an integral member of the KSBW news team.
Furutani also continued playing baseball, for a San Francisco team called The Sting in 2009, and as a pitcher for the Lodi
JACL Templars in the Japanese Leagues beginning in 2000.
One of his baseball highlights came in 2005 when Furutani was asked to translate Japanese into English for the Big League Oakland A’s so they could communicate with a pitcher imported from Japan, Keiichi Yabu. In 2013 he translated for another pitcher import, Hideki Okajima. Okajima has since returned to Japan and plays for the Yokohama DeNA BayStars.
The Oakland A’s during spring training in 2013 held a ceremony commemorating Nisei (first generation Japanese American) players from the old days of the Japanese American Leagues. Staged by the Nisei Research Baseball Project, a nonprofit, three players were honored who had been imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II and who made significant contributions to the sport.
Dingess played for the Templars in right field and later at first base after being introduced to the team in 1990 by a Lodi baseball player, Todd Okamura, while the two were attending college at the University of California at Davis. Today Dingess lives in Australia where he serves as project manager for Visa Company.
“I ran into Todd at a fraternity party and learned he was graduating and had been playing baseball on a team in Lodi in the Northern California Japanese American League,” Dingess recalled. “Being half Japanese, I was curious. Todd took me to a team tryout and gave me a (Templars) hat as a parting gift. I am eternally grateful to him for introducing me to the team I would play on for 24 years.”
A season in the Japanese League starts after Memorial Day and consists of 16 games, fast pitch hardball just like in the major and minor leagues. Games are usually held on weekends and in the case of Lodi, under the lights on Saturday nights.
The Templars play other Japanese American teams from all over Northern, Central and Southern California.
State tournament playoffs are held between the best teams at the end of the season.
“We have two home fields we play on,” Furutani said. “The Tony Zupo Field which is a former minor league stadium, and the Yamashita Field in Lodi’s Kofu Park, named after our team manager.”
Masato “Mauch” Yamashita, considered for years as “Mister Baseball” in Lodi, has become something of a legendary figure in the annals of Japanese American baseball. Sent to a concentration camp at Rohwer, Arkansas at the beginning of World War II, Yamashita volunteered for the 442nd Infantry Combat Team and fought for the United States, seeing some of the toughest action of the war in Europe.
He played baseball and eventually coached the Lodi JACL Templars. When Yamashita passed away at the age of 86 in 2011, he left behind an endowment fund generated from the proceeds of an auto parts store to fund Japanese League baseball in Lodi.
Masato Mauch Yamashita Field was named for him in 2002.
Dingess said the overwhelming reason he played on the Templars was because of Coach Yamashita.
“He funded the team by himself, $6,000 a year,” Dingess said. “He paid league fees, field rentals, umpire fees, equipment, uniforms, and tournament fees. He was a generous man who loved the game like no other. He was a lifelong bachelor, married to the game of baseball.”
Dingess also credited the work of player Dwight Ota for managing administrative details for the team and for recruiting players to fill empty spots over the years, some of the players Hawaiians of Japanese ancestry.
Ota said he played for the team for 34 years.
“I had just started a teaching career, when a friend from high school asked if I would be interested in a Japanese heritage league,” he said. “The league had a high level of play. There were many ex-college players and a few former minor leaguers.
Competing in baseball again and enjoying the camaraderie was something that I had missed.”
Japanese League Baseball is open to anybody aged 16 to 60.
“Most of the players are in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s,” Furutani said. “I’m 47.”
Dingess said one of things he has enjoyed most about the league was its comradery.
“In most cases we played against the same opposing players for 10 and sometimes 20 years,” he said. “The banter was fun and the competition healthy and vibrant.”
The Templars, founded in 1915, will pass from existence because not enough younger players have come forward. A 100th anniversary celebration for the team will likely be held at the end of this summer at the JACL Hall in Lodi located at 210 E. Elm St.
“Thanks to Mauch (Yamashita) and his love of the game, the Lodi players were able to play hard, well and most importantly, have a great time playing a game we love,” Dingess said.
Furutani added he would always be grateful to his father for getting him started in the sport.
“My dad didn’t play organized baseball, but he would practice with me every day, playing catch, using up every ounce of daylight to teach me the game,” he said.
A Facebook page on the Templars is available at www.facebook.com/LodiJACLTemplarsBaseball. The site includes information and period photographs dating from as early as the 1920’s.