He learned baseball during a grim chapter in local history – now he’s still coaching the game at age 92

Mas Sato in his element. Photograph by Jack Freeman

Mas Sato has been helping players learn their form around Sacramento since 1976

By Jack Freeman

Growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, Mas Sato didn’t play organized baseball until he was 10.

“I was born in Woodland, but my dad worked as a farm laborer, so we used to travel around different places in the area,” Sato said. “Before the war, we were next to Oroville, and went to a very small school. I was there for three years, probably the longest time we spent in one place.”

That would all change after World War II broke out. As a member of a family of Japanese descent, he was moved to an internment camp at Tule Lake, around 240 miles from his previous home. There Sato would find his passion for baseball.

“We would go with 11 or 12 of us and just make rules,” Sato recalled. “We just do that for three hours in the morning, then go to the mess hall to have lunch, go back out and play for three more hours. So, I got to be pretty damn good.”

Now, at age 92, Sato serves as the pitching coach for Hiram Johnson High School baseball. He makes it to every practice. With his pitch counter, notebook and blue camping chair, Sato watches each player throw in the bullpen and works with them on issues he sees in their form.

“He knows a lot, he’s fixed a lot of my problems,” sophomore infielder and pitcher James Vallejo acknowledged. “I used to throw down a lot. He’s helped me slow myself down and figure out different pitches.”

As a child at Tule Lake, Sato was surrounded by the sport. He remembers watching his father play his own baseball games with the elderly men at the camp.

“My father was a left-handed second baseman,” Sato noted with a chuckle. “I used to go out and watch the men play on the weekends…I would watch and notice that outfielders and shortstops all threw the ball a certain way.”

Those times spent watching and playing baseball stuck with Sato. After leaving the internment camp, Sato pitched for four years at Hamilton City High School, which was enough to earn him a spot on the team at Chico State.

“I used to pitch two games a week, every Tuesday and Friday,” Sato said of his high school pitching days. “Then in college I didn’t make the varsity my first year, I made varsity my junior year.”

Hiram Johnson

After talking with his counselor at Chico State, the young hopeful decided to enlist in the draft and join the United States Army. Sato’s passion for the game never faded and he spent a year on the army’s regimental baseball team alongside future MLB All-Star John “Tito” Francona, father of Terry Francona.

Sato eventually became a state worker in Sacramento after leaving the army. It wasn’t until 1976 that he started as a pitching coach in Pony League for his nephew’s team. He’s been coaching young pitchers in the Sacramento area ever since.

“One day the coach didn’t show up and someone else coached,” he remembered of his start. “I knew the coach who took over and so I helped him.”

Sato helped lead a Sacramento team representing California to a Little League World Series appearance in 1983, and was recruited by Stephen Hammer to coach at Hiram Johnson. There, Sato would meet Stephen’s son Mike Hammer, current head coach of the Hiram Johnson baseball team.

“He was like my personal pitching coach when I was eight years old,” Mike Hammer reflected. “He’s always looked the same, acted the same, had the same interests. He’s Mas. I call him ‘Baseball Yoda’.”

Sato left Hiram Johnson after one season, but the two would be reunited at Christian Brothers for a short time. After Christian Brothers Head Coach Rich Henning retired in 2018, Sato thought he would follow that pathway into retirement at the age of 86.

“I called Mas, but he was like ‘I think I’m done,’” Mike Hammer said about trying to recruit Sato to Hiram Johnson. “I just told him to keep being you, I’m not going to change anything. We just really clicked.”

One of the biggest aspects that has made Sato so successful as a coach is his calm demeanor, according to Hammer.

“I’ve never seen him mad, never heard him raise his voice,” Mike Hammer explained. “It’s like talking to your dad, a very gentle kind man… it’s not a game with him.”

While Sato might be getting up there in age and coaching a 4-14 Warriors team, he said that he isn’t quite ready for retirement yet.

“I tried to retire one time, but then I started missing being around people,” Sato said. “Talking to the coaches, helping out the kids, it’s about being around people.”

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1 Comment on "He learned baseball during a grim chapter in local history – now he’s still coaching the game at age 92"

  1. Truly an amazing story. One of the best I’ve read in a long time

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