Stories

Suitcase Sefton: Using Baseball to Explore the American Dream

What is “the American Dream”?

For Mac “Suitcase” Sefton, a roving scout for the New York Yankees, it would be signing the amazingly talented left-handed pitcher he discovers in the Arizona desert to the Yanks’ roster. The pitcher, however, is Jerry Yamada, and the year is 1942. Yamada is imprisoned in an American concentration camp with his family and thousands of other Japanese Americans for the duration of World War II.

As Sefton schemes to arrange Yamada’s release from the camp to play for the Yankees, he learns more about the Yamadas and what they have endured. What has happened to their American dream, now that they have lost everything and are being held behind barbed wire in a barren camp in the desert? As his perspective changes, Sefton’s own version of the American dream undergoes a radical change. He befriends the Yamada family and falls in love with Jerry’s sister, Annie. Just when Sefton assembles a winning strategy to get Jerry out of the camp, the entire family is branded as disloyal to the United States and is whisked away to Tule Lake for their responses on a government questionnaire. What of their dreams now?

Author Jay Feldman, a prolific non-fiction baseball writer, has crafted a baseball novel that is about more than just baseball.

“As our national pastime, baseball is a filter through which you can look at American society. As a writer, I try to use baseball as a vehicle to talk about larger issues in our culture. Many people who might not want to sit down and read a book about the internment might very well read a book about baseball,” says Feldman.

In the highly-readable Suitcase Sefton and the American Dream, historical details about baseball, the Japanese American incarceration and the plight of the “Okies” of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s are woven into the characters’ lives and the events in the novel. For the book, Feldman drew on his own extensive research for an earlier article, “Baseball Behind Barbed Wire,” about baseball in the concentration camps.

“Before the war, baseball was the main recreation in the Japanese American community. In the camps, baseball was the single most important activity in helping to establish some semblance of normalcy in an otherwise disorienting and chaotic time,” says Feldman.

Feldman says Suitcase Sefton and the American Dream is based on the arc of the story of the 1964 Japanese film, Woman in the Dunes (Suna no Onna), directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara. In both the film and the novel, the main character—an entomologist in the movie, a major league baseball scout in the book—starts off bereft of an inner life in a spiritual wasteland. In the course of the story, the character comes to experience redemption through the people he meets and the things that happen to him.

Baseball as a vehicle for larger issues is not a new theme for Feldman. In the 1980s (the decade of the Iran Contra scandal), Feldman traveled through Nicaragua playing baseball and distributing baseball equipment as a gesture of international goodwill and peace with Baseball for Peace, a humanitarian grassroots program he founded to increase understanding between the people of the United States and Nicaragua.

Feldman’s work has appeared in Smithsonian, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, Gourmet, Whole Earth Review, and other publications. He is the author of When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes (Free Press, 2005).

Feldman, who was born in New York, grew up a Brooklyn Dodger fan. He now lives in Davis, California, but says he roots for whichever team his friend Dusty Baker is affiliated with—which makes him a Cubs fan for the time being.

June 2006

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