As a major league catcher, Don Wakamatsu was a footnote: 18 games for the Chicago White Sox in 1991. But he could say proudly that he played baseball at every level.
Wakamatsu’s true distinction might have been overlooked but for his surname. He was a minority twice over, not just the great-grandson of a Japanese dairy farmer, but also one of the few Asian-Americans to play in the major leagues.
“My failures put me in a position to be where I am now,” Wakamatsu, 45, said. “One of my goals as a player was to bring recognition to my heritage. Since that didn’t come to fruition, I’m especially fortunate to be where I am now.”
When he was introduced last month as the Mariners’ manager, the first of Asian descent in the majors, Wakamatsu talked about serving as a metaphorical stepping stone for other Asian-Americans in sports.
“I dived into my past, going back to visit my grandma, learning more about my family,” he said by telephone from his home in Texas. “They went through a lot of things. It meant something, and I thought I ought to know more about it since I wasn’t exposed to it much as a child.”
The implications of his heritage first struck him when a government check arrived in the mail in the late 1980s, his father’s share of reparations for the internment of Japanese-Americans in the 1940s. Wakamatsu’s father, Leland, was born in the Tule Lake camp in California, just south of Oregon.
“I didn’t understand what the check was for,” Wakamatsu said. “You don’t study that stuff in school. My grandparents never talked about it. I remember my dad’s reaction, that it was all too little, too late.”
Wakamatsu’s paternal grandparents, James and Ruth, lost their home when they reported to Tule Lake. Ruth worked in the mess hall; James was a carpenter.
After the war, Wakamatsu’s grandparents and their children moved into a pickers’ cabin, then a converted barn. James started to build a house nearby out of salvaged panels, which he bought off a truck from a man who said they came from the barracks of an internment camp, perhaps even Tule Lake. They live in that house to this day.
Over the years, Wakamatsu’s curiosity about his heritage has grown along with his influence in baseball, the sport closest to the hearts of Japanese-Americans. From a friendship with the baseball historian Kerry Nakagawa came detailed descriptions of Japanese-Americans who played organized baseball in the internment camps. Wakamatsu imagined the game he loved played behind coils of barbed wire, and wondered just how little he knew about his past.
Wajanatsu was an all-conference catcher at Arizona State for three seasons, but only after he left did he learn that the university’s first baseball coach, Bill Kajikawa, was Japanese-American.
Kajikawa, he learned, served in World War II, as did several of Wakamatsu’s great-uncles, with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the mostly Japanese-American battalion that was among the war’s most decorated units. Wakamatsu often talks about “those who came before me,” the men in his family, Kajikawa and other forebears like his boyhood idol, Lenn Sakata, perhaps the most successful Asian-American baseball player.
“I love the game, but I’m not in the game just to say I was a big-league manager,” Wakamatsu said. “I want to see how many players I can help.”