A local baseball team is celebrating its 100th season this summer. The Lodi Templars started as a form of recreation for local Japanese Americans. It survived World War II internment and thrived for many decades. But with a dwindling Japanese American population in Lodi, this may be its final curtain call.
Long before this run, catch, hit or pitch, a proud Lodi tradition was born. Same game, same team, just different players.
"We went to every game," said Irene Furuoka, who has watched her son, grandson and great-grandson play.
Irene Furuoka may be 95 years old, but she still remembers all the highlights.
"Whenever the Walnut Grove team came, they use to argue a lot," she said, laughing.
At the turn of the century, the Grape City was home to a vivacious Japantown. In 1915, Japanese farmers and their families created their own baseball team, now known as the Templars.
"In the old days, Japanese guys couldn't play all the major sports with Caucasian guys," said Kent Furuoka, current player and team historian.
America's pastime quickly became their pastime -- until a timeout was called by the president of the United States.
Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, sent people of Japanese ancestry to rural internment camps. About 800 families from Lodi, including the Furuokas, were sent to Stockton Assembly Center and then to Arkansas.
"It was so cold," said Irene Furuoka.
Yanked from their homes and relocated to a foreign place, their only escape was the baseball diamond.
"Young people, you know. They had lots of energy. But there's nothing else to do, so they played baseball," Irene Furuoka said.
When the war ended, many families moved back to Lodi, only to find that their homes had been sold, vandalized, even condemned by the county.
It took a few years, but somehow, Lodi's team reassembled.
"It's almost the idea of going back to the way it was, you know… before camp," Kent Furuoka said.
As the younger generations moved out to larger cities, Japanese American baseball teams in smaller towns like Marysville, Walnut Grove, even Stockton, eventually folded.
So how has Lodi survived for 100 year?
Many attribute that to one very special person.
For six decades, the World War II veteran from Lodi never missed a game. A modest but skilled mechanic, he was married to the game of baseball.
Dennis Morita, 73, played with and for Mauch Yamashita. To this day, Morita gets recognized as being a part of Lodi's legendary three-peat championship team.
"We won the state championship in 1962, '63 and '64," Morita said.
For decades, Yamashita did everything to keep the team going -- from recruiting players from nearby cities to paying for all the team's expenses.
The city of Lodi even named the diamond at Kofu Park Yamashita Field.
Four years ago, Mauch Yamashita died. He was 86.
The Lodi Templars were out of a manager, money and hope. But even in death, Yamashita believed in the Templars. The lifelong bachelor had left his life savings to the team.
"Mauch Yamashita left a $100,000 legacy," Morita said.
Money is no longer an issue, but recruitment still is.
This year's 100th season may be its last, unless a new generation of ballplayers come through.
Whatever happens, the players, past and present, say they are ready for their team's fate. For them, it's been an honor being a part of a Lodi legacy.
"100 years of baseball for the Lodi community, the Japanese community, is something to think about, you know? And kind of be proud of," said Thomas Daijogo, who played on the team from 1951 to 1959.
For the first time in eight years, the Templars will host the Japanese American Baseball State Tournament in Lodi on Sept. 5 through Sept. 7. If you are interested in playing for the Lodi Templars, click here.
Thomas Daijogo, 83, retied after working 27 years with a Lodi trucking outfit. He still lives happily with his wife, Barb, in Lodi. After playing on an all-star team from Japan in 1959, he was recruited to play professional baseball in Japan. See why he chose to stay
At 95 years old, Irene Furuoka is still an avid painter. This is her watercolor rendition of the famous Ansel Adams photograph of baseball in Manzanar Internment Camp.
Dennis Morita, 73, still works as a CPA in Lodi. He spills the secrets to winning in the 1962, 1963 and 1964 state championships, along with what made him retire.
Kent Furuoka is Irene Furuoka's grandson, current player and team historian. He recalls some of the funny stories his mentor, Mauch Yamashita, told him.