The man most know as “Fibber” shuffles down the hallway of a Visalia senior care home, with its purple, green and yellow carpet and aqua-painted walls, and then through an open doorway.
“Hey, you old fart!” is how Satoshi Hirayama greets his friend of seven decades.
Inside the room, propped on a navy recliner, sits Truman “Tex” Clevenger, the former major league pitcher. Framed photos on the walls commemorate Clevenger’s eight-year career with the Red Sox, Senators, Angels and Yankees.
Unfortunately, this weekly reunion of Fresno State baseball teammates from the early 1950s and Fresno County Athletic Hall of Fame members comes with a limitation.
Clevenger, 84, has late-onset Alzheimer’s. He can’t speak and most of the time doesn’t recognize his old friend.
Still, Hirayama makes the attempt.
“It’s Fibber. You remember me buddy? How are you doing?”
“You don’t even know what I’m talking about, do ya?”
“You don’t answer. I don’t blame you. Oh, he’s a character. He’s a character, this guy.”
He’s here every Tuesday. He doesn’t miss a week, even in winter.
Mina Ponce, Tex Clevenger’s caregiver
Hirayama claps hands with Clevenger while he speaks. Their grip is weak at first, but something Fibber says causes it to tighten. What surely must be a smile forms on Clevenger’s face as he tugs Hirayama’s hand closer to his chest.
Neither man is in a hurry to let go. Each passing moment brings a sense of quiet tenderness.
“Truman, I’m going to go to the cemetery now,” Fibber says in a soft voice. “I’m going to see my dad. I’m going to see Sonny, Lenny and Bruce.
“See you next week, buddy.”
Every Tuesday morning, except when it’s foggy, Hirayama climbs into his greenish gray Saturn sedan, exits the northeast Fresno assisted living facility where he’s lived the past nine years and heads toward the Highway 41 onramp at Herndon Avenue.
The 87-year-old Hirayama typically makes the trip solo. Today, though, he has me riding shotgun.
Hirayama, 87, typically makes the trip solo. On this day, though, he has me riding shotgun. As we merge onto Highway 99 south, I joke about how if I’m going to let myself get driven on the freeway by an octogenarian it’s somewhat comforting to be driven by one renowned for his reflexes. The kind of reflexes that allowed him to steal five bases in a game, a Bulldogs record that has stood 66 years.
You still have those reflexes, right, Fibber?
“I don’t know about that,” he replies with a grin.
Hirayama’s family would prefer he didn’t make this drive. They worry. Just as they’ll worry next month when Fibber goes on his annual visit to Japan as a guest of the Hiroshima Carp, the team for which he was a two-time Central League all-star.
But they understand why he does it.
“For him to still be doing that, making that drive every week at his age, is amazing,” says son Brian Hirayama, a Clovis High math teacher. “I’m really proud of the guy. I know it’s got to be tough on him to see his close friend like that.”
We’re trying to talk him into buying a nicer car. He said, ‘No, I don’t know how much longer I’ll be driving.’ So he’s pretty realistic about it.
Brian Hirayama, Fibber’s son
Fibber feels fortunate to still be driving and accepts he won’t be doing it much longer. Seated on a blue cushion, he keeps both hands on the steering wheel, always uses turn signals and glances over his shoulder before switching lanes.
He’s no slow poke, either. As we pass Kingsburg and cross the Kings River, he’s doing 75 in the fast lane.
“I tell ya, it’s scary,” Fibber says after switching lanes to make way for someone doing 90. “I go 75 mph and they pass me like I’m standing still.”
The drive to Visalia is also a journey back in time for Hirayama, who grew up in Exeter on a fruit farm just below Rocky Hill. Any thoughts of an idyllic childhood were shattered in 1942 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when his family was uprooted, their home and possessions sold, and taken to Poston War Relocation Center Two in southwestern Arizona.
Fibber, his father, two brothers and a family friend spent three years sleeping on cots in a one-room shack.
Fibber, his father, two brothers and a family friend spent three years sleeping on cots in a one-room shack – a handful of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. With 75 years worth of perspective, the memories of these years aren’t so pleasant. But to a young teenager, the experience wasn’t a horrible one. He got to play football and baseball pretty much all day. There was little else to do.
Hirayama’s athletic skills served him well upon his return to Exeter for his junior year of high school. Despite his compact 5-foot-3, 140-pound frame and nearsightedness, he became a two-sport star and earned a football scholarship to Fresno State as a running back.
It was at Fresno State where Hirayama acquired his distinctive nickname. Originally he was called “Feb,” short for his birth month. It then became “Fib,” which eventually mutated to Fibber.
“When I came to Fresno State I started lying a lot, so they called me Fibber,” he deadpans.
Only because Hirayama detested spring football did he go out for the baseball team. He quickly became a star center fielder for Pete Beiden’s Bulldogs, renowned for his defense, strong arm and speed on the basepaths.
71 career stolen bases for Fibber Hirayama at Fresno State, a record that stood 35 years
In 1952, Fibber’s senior season, Fresno State earned its first NCAA berth. Until Tom Goodwin came along 35 years later, Hirayama remained the most prolific base-stealer in program history.
Unlike Goodwin, Fibber never got to play in the major leagues. Instead, he became a baseball pioneer. Following a three-year Army stint, Hirayama and teammate Kenshi Zenimura became the first Japanese-Americans to play in Japan.
Hirayama spent 10 years with the Carp, where he is credited with bringing a hustling American sensibility to what was then a milder brand of baseball.
Before Fibber Hirayama, Japanese players didn’t run out ground balls, slide hard into second base trying to break up a double play or crash into walls while charging after flyballs. Hirayama did each of these things, and they made him hugely influential with teammates and popular with fans. So popular that the Carp still invite him back every year.
Before Fibber Hirayama, Japanese players didn’t run out ground balls, slide hard into second base trying to break up a double play or crash into walls while charging after fly balls.
“A lot of things I learned in the States I was able to impart to Japan,” he says modestly.
Fresno State will honor Fibber’s rich baseball legacy on Sunday by retiring his No. 3 jersey in a pregame ceremony. He becomes the 11th Bulldog to have his jersey retired and the first since former major league pitchers Bobby Jones (No. 23) and Mark Gardner (No. 28) in 2005. (Clevenger’s No. 18 has been retired, as well.)
“He is a really humble guy. He doesn’t talk about any of this stuff,” says Brian Hirayama, the youngest of Fibber’s three sons. Two live in town, as do four of his five grandchildren.
“But I think he’s enjoying the recognition and being recognized. I think he appreciates it more now than he ever has.”
I don’t think I deserve being honored, but I understand where they’re coming from. I’m very humble about the whole thing.
Fibber Hirayama, on having his Fresno State jersey number retired
After his weekly visit with Clevenger, there’s one more stop to make before Fibber heads back to Fresno. We take Highway 198 east to Highway 65 south and motor past groves of orange and walnut trees before reaching the Exeter Cemetery.
There are four stops to make, and Fibber keeps the motor running. One is to the neighboring graves of his deceased parents. (His mother, Toka, died of cancer in April 1942, months before the family was relocated. His father, Tokuzo, lived until 1967, when he was 91.)
The other three stops pay respects to Lyle Barnett, Bruce Myers and Sonny Galloway – three of his former Exeter High teammates.
“I had some dear friends that I’ll never forget,” Fibber says. “They really took good care of me.”
I ask him what he means by that. Fibber replies by telling me about how he was “really nervous” about returning to Exeter following three years at the internment camp. Old friends welcomed him back with open arms, but that wasn’t necessarily the case when the Monarchs visited other Valley towns.
One night, before a football game in Strathmore, a large group of opposing fans started calling him “Jap” and other derogatory names. They shouted his kind shouldn’t be allowed to play football.
Much to Hirayama’s surprise, six of his teammates, including Barnett, Myers and Galloway, responded by enveloping him in a collective hug.
Which shut everybody up in a hurry.
“I’ll never forget my dear friends,” Fibber says before climbing back into his greenish gray Saturn sedan for the drive home.
Salute to Fibber
Fresno State will honor Satoshi “Fibber” Hirayama by retiring his No. 3 jersey in a pregame ceremony before Sunday’s 1 p.m. first pitch against San Jose State at Pete Beiden Field at Bob Bennett Stadium. Hirayama was a star center fielder for the Bulldogs in the early 1950s who went on to become a pioneer in the Japanese Central League. This is the 11th jersey retirement in program history and first since Bobby Jones and Mark Gardner were honored in 2005.