Hide Yamashita, a veteran of Hawai‘i's
highly decorated 100th Infantry Batallion
in World War II, serves as Meija Makule
A version of baseball, introduced by missionaries, was already flourishing at the elite Punahou School. Known as either kinipopo or ‘aipuni, it was played with bats made from kukui branches and balled-up rags. “Bat and ball,” a nineteenth-century Punahou student once wrote, “was the standard game of those halcyon days.” As he had on his cross-country journey, Cartwright continued to champion his guidelines and dimensions, laying out the diamond at Honolulu’s Makiki Park—now Cartwright Field—in 1852. A few years later, in a letter to a former New York teammate, he reported still being in possession of the original Knickerbocker ball. “Many is the pleasant chase I have had after it … on the sunny plains of Hawaii nei,” he wrote. His interests, though, had traveled far beyond sport. Having built a fortune in shipping and insurance, Cartwright fashioned himself into a statesman, his financial advice coveted by the royal family. He was among the founders of the Queen’s Hospital, the Masonic Lodge, the Honolulu Library and the Honolulu Fire Department, even serving as chief. When he died in 1892, he was recognized as a civic patriarch, but no mention was made of his contributions to baseball.
By exiling himself to Hawai‘i, Cartwright had done little to burnish his legacy. But others were eager to camouflage it. One of the propagandists was none other than Albert Spalding, who had economic motives for wanting to market baseball as a culturally pure American phenomenon. He feared that Cartwright’s modifications were still too closely tied to baseball’s British antecedents—Spalding wanted no part of an evolution theory—and so he sponsored a blue-ribbon commission that would concoct one of the sporting world’s most persistent creation myths: That baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday, in Elihu Phinney’s Cooperstown cow pasture, in 1839. Doubleday, a decorated Civil War general, was not alive to debunk the tale. But countless historians have. Even the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, located in the small upstate New York community, has been forced to acknowledge that there is “much doubt about the sequence of events today.” Tellingly, Doubleday was never inducted; Cartwright entered in 1939, credited with carrying baseball to the “Pacific Coast and Hawaii in pioneer days.”
Despite his posthumous recognition, there was nothing at O‘ahu Cemetery to indicate that one of the game’s framers was lying in rest. “I’d known about it casually for a long time,” says Bob Corboy, a Honolulu insurance agent who played baseball for Punahou’s high school team in the 1950s. “But as a kid you don’t really connect the dots that well.” A few years ago, he began visiting the grave on Cartwright’s birthday, joined by a gang of aging sports writers and baseball diehards. They would play catch, reminisce, then retire to a pub. In 2005, they raised the funds to install a plaque, a small reminder of Hawai‘i’s place in baseball’s long, romantic narrative. “When I step on that grass,” Bob says, “I just get a little chilly tingle.” It sounds corny, so he says it again. “I really do.”
A few blocks from the Cartwright plot, down Nu‘uanu Avenue, on the diamonds of Kawananakoa Middle School, a different chapter of Hawaiian baseball history is re-enacted every Sunday morning. There is George Nitta, in full uniform, a sixty-nine-year-old veteran of the famed Asahi squad who plays ball according to the principles of aikido. There is Dick “Big Cat” Kashiwaeda, the star Yomiuri Giants third baseman, eighty-two, but still cheering from the sidelines. There is Hide Yamashita, the umpire of this match, who served in the 100th Infantry Battalion during World War II, playing to ecstatic crowds in Wisconsin as a member of the unit’s “Aloha” team. Outfitted with pacemakers and pills, hearing aids and titanium joints, they are a living museum of Japanese American baseball—or as one hobbled teammate calls them, “the boys of endless summer.”