“Chicago embraces so many ethnicities, and it’s a beautiful part of the fabric of our city,” lifelong White Sox fan Kenny Nakai says. “Chicago has a lot of racial lines throughout the city, but sports brings people together. At a White Sox game, you see different people come together.”
Nakai is one of a handful of Asian American notables and community leaders, of whom will be honored on Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Night tonight.
“It’s like a dream come true,” Nakai muses. “The White Sox want to know my story.”
For many Asian American White Sox fans like Nakai, the parable of fandom and heritage weave together, with threads of memories like attending games with family and fondly recalling great moments in Sox history.
Asian American identity is certainly not a monolith, yet the themes of family, hard work and community cohesiveness is a commonly worn garment. The White Sox will take this sentiment quite literally; the first 10,000 fans who enter the ballpark on May 30 will receive an AAPI-inspired Summer T-Shirt giveaway, designed by Filipino American multi-disciplinary artist and native Chicagoan Brian Nevado, aka Mr. Beasy. The black shirt, its back design featuring two golden socks with a traditional Filipino tattoo design crossed over a floret of sampaguitas (the Asian jasmine, the national flower of the Philippines) is a beautiful, synergistic mashup of White Sox fandom and Filipino heritage. “Chicago White Sox” beneath the image, in Nevado’s original designed font, uses blues and reds, and accents of the flag of the Philippines.
“I did my research,” Nevado says proudly. “I had to make sure the patterns accurately represented what I wanted to convey.” The pattern on the socks resembles that of batok, a mostly-decorative form of tattooing that dates from pre-colonial indigenous peoples in the Philippines. (Apo Whang-od, who was recently featured as the oldest woman to grace the cover of Vogue, at 106 years old, is a practitioner of batok to this day.)
Nevado exclaims that he’s living a dream; he was one out of many artists that had applied to be commissioned by the White Sox for the T-shirt design job. “To see anyone rock with anything I designed — it means a lot to 12-year-old me to represent, I’m sure he’d be geeked to know he got to do something official with the White Sox.”
Nevado’s art is an intrepid mashup of pop-culture, hip-hop, comic books, and fashion. He’s the co-owner and art director for Jugrnaut and also runs his own projects Homecoming USA and Design House BE. The son of Filipino immigrants who found themselves on the West Side of Chicago, Nevado’s favorite player growing up was Bo Jackson.
“As soon as the Sox signed Bo, it was all over,” he explains with a fond smile. His favorite teams were that of the late 80’s/early 90’s, with Jackson, Frank Thomas, Wilson Alvarez, and Jack McDowell a few of his favorites.
Filipinos had been migrating to Chicago since 1898, but after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, Filipino immigration surged. Waves of Filipino migration to Chicago in the 1970s and 80s were typically to the North Side, neighborhoods like Lakeview and Uptown. Being from the West Side of the city, at first Nevado found himself at odds with his Filipino identity: “No one really knew who Filipinos were, but as I got older, instead of telling people I was Asian, I started saying, ‘I’m Filipino.’”
Nevado will be honored pregame by the White Sox, along with Nakai. The story of Nakai’s fandom starts last century with his grandparents, who married while at an internment camp during World War II. The camps began to close in the latter years of the war — like many resettling Japanese Americans, they relocated to the South Side of Chicago, where they found a place to begin their postwar lives and start a family.
“I have a photo of my late grandmother in a White Sox jersey, waving a foam finger. I’ll need to bring the print to the game,” Nakai says fondly. The Nakais began to bring their family to White Sox games at Old Comiskey Park for the steep price of a dollar. Years passed, and they eventually relocated up to the north suburb of Skokie — usually Cubs Country, yet the family stuck with their South Side roots.
“I remember my first White Sox game — the last Opening Day at Old Comiskey. I still remember the feeling of walking through the tunnels and seeing the green grass and feeling like, ‘Wow, this is so special.’ It’s a special moment the first time you walk into a ballpark.” Nakai now attends games with a fourth generation of White Sox fans — his children, creating new memories in the process.
Formerly an educator and now an award-winning photographer nationally published in magazines, Nakai has been storytelling through his business, Nakai Photography, since 2007. “I would tell my students, is this what you love to do? I felt like I always wanted to be an artist when I was a kid. So I started doing wedding photography during the summers, and I enjoyed it.”
Nakai will be recognized before the game as a part of the Game Changers series, which promotes diversity and empowers underrepresented community groups in sports. Nakai will photograph the game day’s action and spirit, all through his creative perspective. “The White Sox, they’re grinders, they’re hard workers.” Nakai says. “I’m a minority small business owner in Chicago, and I have to work hard for my business to succeed. My own business ethic and the White Sox, there’s a similar vibe: To work hard and be recognized in our respective fields.”
For Nicole Lee, being a White Sox fan was simply a matter of geography. Lee, a lifelong resident of Bridgeport and Chinatown, is the Alderperson for the 11th Ward of Chicago. Lee is the first woman alderperson for the 11th Ward; she also holds the distinction of being the first Asian American woman and first Chinese American on the Chicago City Council.
“I grew up in Chinatown, and our house was just off of Wentworth,” she says. “Our living room faced the south, so I watched the fireworks from Comiskey Park a lot.”
Sports have always been an integral part of Lee’s life, having learned softball from her father, who instilled a love of sports into his daughter.
“Both of my parents worked, so going to ball games was not something we did as a family,” but I learned about the Sox going to elementary school in Bridgeport, at Mark Sheridan Math and Science Academy,” Lee recalls. “Meeting Ozzie Guillén and Tim Raines when they came to visit my high school, and I was the yearbook photographer in 1991 and of course, their 2005 World Series run and victory. Watching the final game on television and simultaneously catching the fireworks out my window was amazing!”
Lee does not take her role as a community leader lightly. “I’m thrilled the White Sox invited me to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for AAPI Heritage Night. I’m excited for what I hope will be a great night for the Sox and for our community. I’m so proud to represent this ward at THIS time in our history,” Lee muses about her pregame first pitch responsibilities.
Being visible as a leader in Chicago has been important in Lee’s 25-plus years of public service. “As 11th Ward Alderperson, I really appreciate the efforts the White Sox Organization has put into recognizing Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The home of the White Sox is also home to the first Asian-majority ward in the city, and I’m hopeful that these efforts lead to more people from the neighborhood coming to the ballpark to enjoy this most American of pastimes.”
Kory Cerjak is a Korean American from Des Moines who was adopted into a white American family. He inherits his fandom from his father, who is originally from Bridgeport; he could “see the fireworks shoot off from his porch after home runs and such.”
To Cerjak, heritage nights have been a way to connect with his Korean identity. “I didn’t really experience a lot of Korean American or Asian American-specific things. We have a CelebrAsian event in Des Moines every year, but I didn’t have the interest to go when I was growing up because everyone around me was white and they weren’t interested, so why would I be?”
But in adulthood, baseball has been integral in helping Cerjak explore his Korean American identity. “[To] hear the Korean National Anthem played before the game alongside the U.S. National Anthem [is cool]. And to see Koreans and Korean Americans do PA announcements, or throw out first pitches or even be on the field of play ... shout-out to my favorite pitcher, Hyun-Jin Ryu.”
Cerjak now lives in Los Angeles, where he attends Dodgers and Angels games when he can, and the occasional White Sox away game. He’s certainly noticed when he is one of many Asians in the stands, for respective Japanese Heritage and Korean Heritage nights. “[Heritage nights] really create a sense of community and belonging for everyone, and lets the non-Asian Americans experience something they perhaps wouldn’t otherwise. Multiculturalism is good, in my opinion.”
A second generation Japanese American (nisei), Samuel Takahiro Dunn calls Highland Park his hometown — his mother immigrated to the United States from Japan. The early 2000s is where Dunn’s fan origin story begins; the goal of supporting Japanese players brought the Dunn family out to ball games in the city: “When Ichiro Suzuki came on the scene, [our family] would go to games whenever the Mariners came into town, which is why we would often go to White Sox games at [U.S. Cellular Field]. I was a very casual baseball fan.”
However, 2005 was when Dunn’s fandom would forever change, as the White Sox signed second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, formerly of the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. And of course, the Sox went on to win the World Series that same year, making Iguchi the first Japanese-born position player to win a World Series. “I was a locked-in fan after that,” Dunn says.
Alongside baseball, Dunn has fortified his Japanese American identity through community service. A member of the Midwest Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, he spends his time helping make Chicago as welcoming as possible to those in the Japanese American community. He’s a member of the Kansha project, which helps provide Japanese Americans ages 18-25 in the Midwest with a trip to California to visit Japanese American community leaders and artists, Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo neighborhood, and the Manzanar Internment Camp. “If I can help find new members in the [Japanese American] community,” Dunn says, “the least I can do is take them to a baseball game!”
A common thread of every fan is a fond recollection of a White Sox player or legend of their respective heritage.
“The White Sox value Japanese players. It was cool to see Japanese Players like Iguchi and Shingo Takatsu,” Nakai says, making the distinction between Japanese and Japanese-American.
Dunn shares a similar sentiment: “I remember when Iguchi left in 2007, and the Cubs signed Kosuke Fukudome the following year. All of a sudden the Japanese American fan base started to grow for the Cubs.”
The recent World Baseball Classic has also pushed Asian American players to the forefront, like Tommy Edman and Lars Nootbar. “My grandfather automatically became a Cardinals fan and ordered a Cardinals hat because of Nootbar’s performance in the WBC,” Dunn says.
The last Asian American to wear a White Sox uniform was Dane Dunning, who is Korean American. Former White Sox players of Asian American heritage include Tyler Saladino (Filipino and Japanese American), Jim Parque (Vietnamese American), and Don Wakamatsu (Japanese American). Gene Honda, a Japanese American, has been the White Sox PA announcer since 1985, and has been the team’s full-time announcer since 1991. Kim Ng, a Chinese American currently the general manager of the Miami Marlins, began her baseball career in the White Sox front office. The first Indian American player to be selected in the MLB draft was Karan Patel, a White Sox draft pick in 2019.
The importance of the White Sox recognizing Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage is certainly felt through fans.
“I feel seen,” Nakai says. “As minorities, we’re often invisible in American society. Even though my parents were born in Chicago, we’re sometimes invisible. If you saw me, you wouldn’t think that I come from a big White Sox family. And it’s not just for me. I feel happy for my parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents. They want to honor and recognize that we are White Sox fans, four generations deep, and they want to see what I see at a game. It feels like the White Sox are bringing visibility to us when I sometimes feel invisible.”
Cerjak finds the elevation of the Asian American experience via baseball to be crucial as well. “I don’t speak Korean. I know barely anything about Korea,” he says. “But being able to see these things at a baseball stadium is just cool to me. The White Sox should follow suit for all the kids and adults who want to feel the same way.”
Lee emphasizes that events like these are important to the AAPI community, especially those who reside in Bridgeport and Chinatown. “My vision for Asian Americans in the 11th Ward is the same for all residents of the ward: For our ward to be a safe and welcoming place for everyone who lives, works and visits here,” she says. “Events like this one are great opportunities to engage and bond over a shared love of the game. I welcome more opportunities like this one to bring people together.”
Asian American history — including a communal love for baseball, is American history.
You can see these stories in action tonight, when the White Sox take on the Angels at 7:10 p.m. CT — specially-priced tickets, including access to an all-you-can-eat patio party, can be found at whitesox.com/AAPI.
Celebrations will focus on AAPI culture and leaders, including:
- National Anthem performed by Ayo Ito, a Japanese and Black American multilingual vocalist and songwriter
- Ceremonial first pitch by Alderperson Nicole Lee, the first Asian American woman to serve on the Chicago City Council
- Pregame performance featuring Lion dancers from the Chicago Guangzhou Association and Hung Ting Association
- Pregame recognition for Japanese American photographer Kenny Nakai and Summer T-Shirt Series artist Brian Nevado
- Filipino American DJ JayFunk, an official DJ for the Chicago White Sox, will perform throughout the game
Fans also are invited to stop by Gate 5 (northeast corner of 35th and Shields) to learn more about White Sox partners offering programming that celebrates the AAPI communities. Tent setups and on-site representatives from five local organizations — Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, Coalition for a Better Chinese Community, Japanese American Service Committee, Midwest Asian Health Association and Project VISION — will be available to discuss AAPI culture, upcoming municipal events and volunteer opportunities, as well as the communities’ rich ties to Chicago history.