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We are proud to celebrate 40 years!

Japanese-American baseball players will bring the game back to a WWII camp

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's a famous photo that renowned photographer Ansel Adams took during World War II. In it, a group of Japanese American men play baseball, men who were being held at the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California's Mojave Desert. Manzanar was one of the camps where the federal government incarcerated 125,000 Japanese Americans during the war. Baseball was a part of life there. And now, eight decades later, the old ball field is getting a new life, as NPR's Adrian Florido reports.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: After World War II ended and Manzanar closed, its ballfield, like most of the camp, was disassembled and consumed by desert wilderness. Today, it's a historic site run by the National Park Service, which is constantly working to restore parts of it. It recently got started on Manzanar's main baseball field.

DAN KWONG: So, folks, come on over here. And grab a tool, and grab a canvas bag.

FLORIDO: It's a cold, dry, windy morning. And not far from the old guard tower and the barbed wire that still surround the desert camp, Dan Kwong directs a small crew of volunteers.

KWONG: So we're at the old World War II baseball field here at Manzanar. And we have about 20 people on their hands and knees in the dirt, digging tumbleweed roots out of the dirt.

FLORIDO: Kwong's a longtime volunteer. He's leading this project. The plan is a doubleheader this fall with teams from California's Japanese American leagues, the first games on this field since incarcerees played on it 80 years ago. When they were shipped off to camps during the war, Kwong says, baseball was an escape.

KWONG: People were brought out here in the middle of the desert. They lost their businesses. They lost their homes. They lost their lives. And baseball was one of the things they got to keep. It was one way they could experience being a normal American.

FLORIDO: Kwong and other volunteers started working on the field a few months ago, first clearing away all the overgrown tumbleweed.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDPICK SCRAPING)

FLORIDO: Today John Konno is using a handpick to pry out those old root stubs, which could make a ground ball take a bad hop. Konno's great-grandfather was incarcerated.

JOHN KONNO: Something that he never talked about. My grandfather doesn't talk about. My dad doesn't talk about. So for me, it's kind of like a way to piece together my history.

FLORIDO: Cory Hayashi's grandparents were also sent to a camp. He wants to honor their experience by volunteering here. Also, he loves baseball.

CORY HAYASHI: It'll definitely be a lot more satisfying when you see a grounder come up the middle and have it have two hops and see the second base and make an easy play, you know, knowing that I had a part in that.

FLORIDO: Aside from restoring the field, Dan Kwong has been making furious plans to rebuild the backstop, the bleachers and the announcer's booth. There's not a lot to go on other than a few old photos, including that one from Ansel Adams.

KWONG: So it's doing a lot of this detective work for how to rebuild it the way it was.

FLORIDO: An archaeological dig helped clear up where things should go. Jeff Burton is Manzanar's archaeologist.

JEFF BURTON: The main backstop - we found post remnants, wood pegs that held the bases in place, are still there. And yeah, and it was just amazing to still find them.

FLORIDO: If all goes to plan, everything will be ready to play ball in September with 1940s uniforms, 1940s baseball equipment. Kwong wants it to feel like going back in time.

KWONG: In this former place of sadness and pain, we're going to do something joyful and hopeful.

FLORIDO: He knows many players and spectators will be thinking of their ancestors who were incarcerated and hopes coming to the games will help them feel closer to them. Adrian Florido, NPR News, Manzanar, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF AKEMI FOX SONG, "SO FINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.