The Greatest Game Ever Played Behind Barbed Wire
Imprisoned in a WWII internment camp, these Japanese-American teens held tight to their love for America’s pastime—building a diamond in the desert, and fielding a championship team for the ages.
Our entire team at Narratively is extremely proud to publish this story, the Grand Prize Winner of the inaugural Narratively Profile Prize! Congrats to Lisa Heyamoto, whose dramatic and inspiring piece was selected as the very best out of hundreds of submissions. We hope it makes you think about our country’s complicated history and imagine the countless untold stories of those who’ve called it home — it certainly compelled us to do so.
The pitcher’s mound at Zenimura Field was a hand-packed pile of dry earth, rising a regulation 15 inches above a dusty patch of Arizona desert. Tets Furukawa stood at its summit with the weight of the game on his sloped teenage shoulders. The ninth inning had just ended. The score was tied at 10-10.
Tets’s fingers flexed in his left-handed glove, its Tony Lazzeri signature worn thin with daily use. A crowd of thousands was spread out in a half moon before him, placing last-minute bets on an uncertain outcome. The desert sun blazed on the arid field. The clouds draped like cobwebs across a cobalt sky. It was April 18, 1945, and a team the Tucson newspaper had derisively dubbed the “Jap Nine” was threatening to unseat the Arizona State champions.
Tets’s teammates stood ready behind him, cleats gripping the earth, while his coach sat in the dugout, arms folded on his five-foot, 105-pound frame. There was no need for guidance at a moment like this. Tets had to deny his opponents an 11th run or his team would lose what they would later regard as the most significant baseball game of their lives.
Few would have predicted it would come to this. The Tucson High School Badgers had been steamrolling teams all over the state, and the trophies were piled as high as the praise. They’d gone undefeated for three straight years, and the college recruits were already knocking.
Tets’s Butte High School Eagles were a very different team. Though they were also undefeated, their games weren’t the kind that made the newspaper. They were the official high school team of the Gila River Relocation Center, prisoners of the United States government. They didn’t even have matching uniforms.
But Tets Furukawa wasn’t thinking about that. Tall by Japanese-American standards at 5-foot-8, he stood on his home field mound in his hand-me-down jersey, his baseball cap shading his smooth, open face. He was preparing to face his 42nd batter of the day, and this was the one that counted the most.
Ganbare, he told himself. Don’t give up. His name meant “steel” in Japanese, and he would have to be that strong right now.
So with the crowd falling silent and the batter at the plate and an unthinkable victory within his reach, Tets cradled the ball between hand and glove, drew both arms above his head, rocked back on his heel to wind up for the throw and in one fluid movement, unleashed the ball.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial