Kiyoshi Suga, a Story of Baseball and Hope

Texte de Bill Young, publié en 2005 sur le site de SABR-Québec

Text by Bill Young, originally published in 2005 on the SABR-Quebec website

Kiyoshi Suga, a Story of Baseball and Hope

Kiyoshi Suga is a friend of mine, and while you might not realize it if you were to meet him on the street, he is also a part of Canada's baseball history. These days, Kiyoshi lives quietly in Ile Perrot, on the outskirts of Montreal, with his wife Margaret. But once, he was a member of the fabled Asahi baseball team of Vancouver, a distinction that has taken him all the way to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, where the Asahi were inducted in 2003.

Kiyoshi Suga is a survivor of the "Ghost Towns" of British Columbia, the internment camps to which Japanese-Canadians were exiled at the start of World War II, and by his very being, he tells a story of Canada. His is a story of triumph and great loss, a story of disinheritance and redemption, a story of hope. But, at its core, it is a story about baseball.

Kiyoshi Suga was the youngest of three brothers associated with the Asahi, a team comprised of Japanese-Canadians that dominated senior baseball on the west coast throughout much of the early Twentieth Century. Perennial champions, their skill and their style of play were mesmerizing, their fame legendary.

Mr. Suga's siblings, Ty and Kaz, were regulars on the Asahi, excelling both as pitchers and in the field. Because he was too young to join them, Kiyoshi became the Asahi traveling secretary, keeping the important pieces in place.

The Asahi's final triumph - and it truly was final - came in the fall of 1941, only weeks before December 7, when Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Nothing would ever be the same again.

A stark, haunting photo of the 1941 Asahi teams reveals twelve young men basking in the fullness of their lives, confident, happy, and to the last fiber of their being - baseball players. Who could have ever imagined the life altering changes ahead?

Following Pearl Harbor, the government of Canada declared war on Japan and immediately decreed all Japanese-Canadians to be enemy aliens. During what Kiyoshi calls, "the darkest period of my life," everyone of Japanese origin on the west coast, residents and citizens alike, including every member of the Asahi baseball teams, was sent inland to internment camps, what the residents called 'Ghost Towns'. Families were spilt up, with their possessions confiscated and practically given away at public sales.

Conditions in the Ghost Towns were unimaginable. No running water, no proper facilities, makeshift shelters barely keeping out the snow and the cold. "We would have to scrape the frost off our windows - from the inside," recalls Kiyoshi Suga. "It would be an inch thick, or more." Death from pneumonia was commonplace, especially among babies and the aged.

Nevertheless the community proved to be resilient, and as daily living established its own rhythms, internees started to play baseball. Gloves and uniforms and hats were pulled out of dusty suitcases, grounds were prepared, and teams drawn up.

Informal matches, often captained by former Asahi members, became common occurrences. Baseball, which had brought such joy and satisfaction to the community before the war was once again serving, this time to offer up a restored sense of pride - and hope renewed.

At war's end the internees were given a bitter choice- move east or go 'back' to Japan: the stalwart West Coast Japanese- Canadian Society, along with its beloved Asahi, simply vanished.

Kiyoshi Suga moved to Montreal to join brother Kaz who had begun a lengthy career playing baseball in Quebec*, but not before stopping for a year in Vernon, where he met his future wife, Margaret - and was the catcher for a local team.

In Montreal, Kiyoshi helped establish the Nisei baseball team in the City League. Based in Lafontaine Park, this popular Japanese-Canadian squad won the league championship in 1949, and Kiyoshi was named to the league All-Star squad. The Nisei club was also the first to play a night game at Lafontaine Park, following the installation of floodlights in the early 1950s.

As Kiyoshi and Margaret strove to make Montreal their home and raise a family, baseball receded into the background. Adherents of Japanese Buddhism, Kiyoshi had the honour in 1952 of organizing and hosting an official visit to Montreal by the Lord Abbott, or Head, of their faith. Kiyoshi still has the photographs

And the story of the Asahi baseball organization and its significance fell from view. Until recently.

Principally due to the efforts of survivors and their families, the saga of the Asahi is once again becoming known, and this in turn, is drawing new attention to the reality of the internment camps.

An Asahi reunion took place in October 1972, opening the door to other activities. A book, Asahi: A Legend in Baseball, by Pat Adachi, followed, and then a film, Director Jari Osborne's moving Sleeping Tigers: The Asahi Baseball Story. In 2002, the team was both celebrated by the Toronto Blue Jays at SkyDome and feted by the Japanese-Canadian Cultural Centre.

The greatest honour was yet to come. In 2003, along with major league stars, Joe Carter (Blue Jays) and Kirk McCaskill (White Sox), the Asahi team was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. When, with great dignity, the few surviving Asahi members took the stage - the sparkle of their playing days still glistening in their eyes - participants were moved to tears. It had taken sixty years for the accomplishments and example of this outstanding formation to be recognized, but finally the Asahi were to become enshrined among the legends of our game.

Kiyoshi Suga was selected to accept the nomination on behalf of the team. A powerfully eloquent representative who keeps alive the fullness of victory, tragedy and wonder that shaped the great Asahi, he spoke passionately about the significance of the moment

To the question, did he still have faith in Canada, Kiyoshi Suga declared, "Yes! Most definitely yes! Canada is the greatest country in the world in which to live!"

* * *

There is a postscript to this story. On Thursday, April 28, 2005, the Ashai were officially inducted into the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. And later this summer, in Vancouver, a new Asahi Baseball team exhibit, Levelling The Playing Field, The Legacy of the Asahi Baseball Team, will be unveiled. It promises to be something to behold.

*Kaz Suga played with the 1947 St-Jean Braves.