Issue 9.5: October/November 2006

Red Dirt & Diamonds

story by Jesse Katz
photos by Dana Edmunds

 
Harrison Kam takes batting practice
in ‘Ewa, O‘ahu. The derelict warehousese

in the background serve as a reminder
of region's connection to Hawai‘i's

all-but-defunct sugar industry.

A hundred and seventeen years ago, at a boozy black-tie gala in New York, the great American satirist Mark Twain treated his audience to a memorable, if misguided, riff on baseball and Hawai‘i—a pairing he found laughably incongruous. From Twain’s perch, Hawai‘i was “that peaceful land, that beautiful land, that far-off home of profound repose, and soft indolence, and dreamy solitude, where life is one long slumberous Sabbath.” Baseball, on the other hand, was “the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century.” The budding national pastime, he insisted, was of no use to an ethereal speck in the Pacific: “It’s like interrupting a funeral with a circus.”

The bon mots that evening were occasioned by the feats of Albert Goodwill Spalding, the sporting goods mogul who had just returned from a six-month, 30,000-mile world tour. With a squad that included several future Hall of Famers, he had sought to spread the gospel of baseball, barnstorming across Australia, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Italy, England and what was then the sovereign Kingdom of Hawai‘i. It was an audacious and visionary trip—part marketing ploy, part jingoistic mission—a precursor of the game’s eventual globalization. When the SS Alameda docked at Honolulu on November 25, 1888, Spalding’s entourage was greeted as royalty, feted with leis, bands, parades and a private reception at ‘Iolani Palace with the king. The visitors, though, soon found themselves thrust into a strange political showdown, caught between the waning clout of a native monarch and the wagging finger of Hawai‘i’s white missionary class. Spalding’s steamship, scheduled to arrive on a Saturday, had not come ashore until Sunday—and strict blue laws banned public entertainment on this day of rest. King David Kalakaua insisted that the games be played, if only to assert what remained of his independence. But Spalding abided the haole moralists. That same night, without so much as a pitch having been thrown, baseball’s ambassadors headed back out to sea. “Who knew paradise could be so complicated?” wrote Mark Lamster in the definitive account of the voyage, Spalding’s World Tour.

The irony that the Americanization of Hawai‘i had under-mined Spalding’s opportunity to showcase the new American game seemed to be lost on the dignitaries assembled in his honor under the crystal chandeliers of Delmonico’s. They were treated to a nine-course meal, each dish representing an inning, while an orchestra played Yankee Doodle and a dramatist read Casey at the Bat. Whatever baseball was thought to represent—order, symmetry, discipline, the grit and pluck of an ambitious young country—it was not easily reconciled with clichés of tropical languor. “Baseball is all fact,” Twain reminded the crowd, “the Islands all sentiment.”

Like most generalizations, even those easily disproved, there is still enough right about Twain’s jab to tease out a smile. Baseball is an unlikely fit for Hawai‘i, a land in which sports have traditionally involved sea more than, well, land. The game has a formality—a deliberateness and a uniformity—so different from the bare-skinned communion between surfer and wave. Everything in baseball can be measured, and is: ERA, RBI, LOB, OPS. The official rulebook alone runs 104 pages. What makes Hawai‘i such a treasure is all that cannot be quantified, a color, a smell, a rhythm, a flavor, the world of the senses and the spirit. It may be unfair to reduce this to “sentiment.” But only in Hawai‘i could a college baseball team be known by a moniker as gracious as the Rainbows.


 
Alexander Cartwright's grave
at O‘ahu Cemetery

That said, there was plenty that Twain also got wrong, his sins greater than just hyperbole and condescension. Baseball, by the late 1800s, already had a rich history in Hawai‘i—with roots deeper, indeed, than in much of the United States—and would continue to be a source of pride, even vindication, right up to the present. Three decades before Spalding’s aborted exhibition, another ship docked in Honolulu Harbor, this one carrying a New York banker named Alexander Joy Cartwright Jr. Although his contributions were initially obscured by the sport’s official myth-makers, Cartwright would come to be recognized as the “Father of Modern Baseball,” not to mention the architect of the first baseball diamond in Hawai‘i. As the 20th century unfolded, the game adapted to Hawai‘i’s status as an economic and strategic crossroads. It sprouted in plantation fields and religious schools, among Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos and Portuguese, later boosted by a flood of GIs—some of them conscripted big leaguers—serving in World War II. Thirty Hawai‘i-born players have made it to the majors, according to the Baseball Almanac, from Ron Darling to Benny Agbayani to speedy Shane “Flyin’ Hawaiian” Victorino, hitting over .300 this season for the Philadelphia Phillies. The most famous of them, the big lefty Sid Fernandez, helped lead the 1986 Mets to a world championship. It was no coincidence that he wore number 50 on his uniform.

Then there are the boys of ‘Ewa Beach, the surprising, fearless, charismatic middle-schoolers who came from behind to beat Curacao last year in the Little League World Series—the first Hawai‘i squad to win the crown. Third baseman Alaka‘i Aglipay still remembers the whispers he heard during the tournament, the Mainland kids who refused to believe that a team from Hawai‘i had the moxie for hardball. “They were like, ‘Don’t worry about those guys—they’re just a bunch of surfers,’” he recalls. What the doubters could not have known was that ‘Ewa Beach coach Layton Aliviado was so protective of his players, so accustomed to being underestimated, that he forbade them from entering the ocean all season. On the road to Williamsport, Coach Layton even barred them from the hotel swimming pool. “We’re an island,” he says, by way of explanation. “We’re always trying to prove ourselves.”

Outside Waikiki, up the Pali Highway, through the lush Nu‘uanu Valley, generations of baseball pilgrims have made the trek. Behind the walls of O‘ahu Cemetery—in Section 5, Lot 184—they kneel before the pink granite marker, a six-foot-tall slope of stone that is the most visited of the graveyard’s 30,000 plots. Some of the travelers are legends themselves. Babe Ruth, lei draped over his suit and tie, was photographed here, paying his respects, in 1933. Most, though, are mere fans, amateur students of the game, fathers and sons for whom baseball has become memory and ritual and time. Some leave offerings. A faded cap. A splintered bat. A ball with its hide knocked off, revealing a tattered bundle of yarn. The inscriptions are simple: “Thank you, Mr. Cartwright.”

Like many a prophet, Alick Cartwright never lived to reap the accolades he would come to inspire. When he founded the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in a meadow at the foot of Manhattan’s Murray Hill in 1845, the game was still in its infancy, played haphazardly across New England, often in a form that resembled the British ball-and-bat sports of cricket or rounders. Without fanfare, Cartwright codified a new set of rules, imposing a more rational, geometric structure that has remained undisturbed ever since. He dictated that each team should have nine players, that each inning should consist of three outs, and that each field should have bases ninety feet apart. “He introduced adultness and complexity to a directionless kiddie pastime,” wrote Harold Peterson in his biography, The Man Who Invented Baseball. But Cartwright did not stick around to see the sport professionalized. Lured by reports of gold in California, he ventured west by wagon train, stopping along the way to teach his game to miners and barkeeps and Indians and cavalrymen—“a Johnny Appleseed of baseball,” Peterson wrote. By the time he reached San Francisco, Cartwright was sick with dysentery. A friend recommended Hawai‘i. Cartwright set off in 1849, intending to return to New York via China once he had regained his health. He never left his new home.


 
Hide Yamashita, a veteran of Hawai‘i's
highly decorated 100th Infantry Batallion

in World War II, serves as Meija Makule
League umpire.

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.”


 
Harold Sasahara (front) and
Clinton Tanimoto (waving)

“The next place we’ll be playing, says Walter Ifuku, the green-pinstriped, seventy-nine-year-old coach, “is the cemetery.”

The Meija Makule League has been hosting softball games at Kawananakoa for the better part of a century, a tradition borne of Hawai‘i’s colonial, class-riven past. With sugarcane ruling the economy and large immigrant workforces confined to company towns, Sunday baseball was once the catharsis of plantation life. The crowds were huge, the games like “wars between rival kingdoms,” according to one oldtimer. Some of the Japanese workers suspected that the competitions were being used as a “strategic means” to keep them in place, notes Michael Okihiro, a retired neurologist who has written about baseball for the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. In fact, the opposite proved to be true. Steeped in baseball, many of the laborers went on to form AJA leagues—Americans of Japanese ancestry—which, albeit segregated, offered new opportunities for travel and education. Every Nisei kid on a Hawai‘i sandlot dreamed of playing for Asahi, the Yankees of the AJA circuit. For years, the club was the lone Japanese representative in the semi-pro Hawai‘i Baseball League, which was formed in 1924 along racial lines. There was a Portuguese team (the Braves) and an Anglo team (the Wanderers), as well as Chinese, Filipino and native Hawaiian squads, but it was Asahi that had rattled off four championships by 1930. With each community vying for bragging rights, packing the rickety bleachers of Honolulu Stadium, “this was the heyday of baseball in Hawai‘i,” says Michael, who played on an AJA team, as did his son, growing up in Kane‘ohe. As color barriers tumbled in the post-war years, the notion of racially exclusive teams became harder to justify, “which is as it should be, of course,” he adds. But without those rivalries to sustain it, the Hawai‘i Baseball League eventually faded, too.

Even now, Hawai‘i’s complicated place in the world—isolated, annexed, foreign, American—hinders its entry into the larger baseball market. When the Hawai‘i Islanders joined the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 1961, they became one of the most popular minor league teams of their era, drawing hundreds of thousands of fans every year. Before being called up by the Pirates, Barry Bonds spent forty-four days with the franchise. But crossing thousands of miles of ocean for every road game ultimately proved too expensive. The Islanders folded in 1987, unable to compete with affiliates closer to their home clubs. A more recent foray into pro ball, the developmental Hawai‘i Winter Baseball league, debuted in 1993 and featured dozens of future stars, including a young Ichiro Suzuki, before the money ran out. After an eight-year absence, the league is slated to return October 1. This time, however, games will be played only on O‘ahu—travel to the Neighbor Islands having been deemed too costly
and inconvenient.

“I was really naive about the business part of baseball,” says Onan Masaoka, the Hilo-born pitcher who spent the 1999 and 2000 seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Although making the bigs was like living a dream, Onan felt alienated at times, less a member of a team than an extra in a big-budget production. After being traded to the White Sox, sent down to the minors and cut during spring training, he decided to leave baseball altogether. “My eyes were really opened up to the management side, to the politics of the game,” says Onan, who returned home in 2002 and recently completed a degree in business administration. “I’m not degrading professional athletics. But I never felt that bond, that closeness between teammates that I had when I was growing up. A lot has to do with the money. Everyone’s fighting against that next person. It took away the fun.”


 

 

 
Moses Samia (front) and teammates,

West O‘ahu Junior All-Stars.

Perhaps the most revered figure in Hawai‘i baseball is Les Murakami, the pioneering University of Hawai‘i coach who notched 1,079 wins over a thirty-one-year career. When he was hired in 1971, the Rainbows did not even have a full-fledged, collegiate schedule—the cost of travel, again, scaring off potential opponents. Determined to compete at the highest levels, Les began making personal appeals to Mainland coaches, promising to defray their expenses if they made the trip. A friend in the military offered free bunks. Les’ own parents hosted barbecues, helping him feed the visiting players. “It was really one of these ‘ohana kind of things when we first started,” he says. “Eventually, the word got around that we really take care of people.” Under his stewardship, UH grew into a powerhouse, appearing in the 1980 NCAA championship game. A state-of-the-art stadium, “The House That Les Built,” got funded. But when Les announced that he would retire at the end of the 2001 season, it was with the frustration that he had never won it all, not even made it back to the College World Series. If he had been allowed to host the regional tournament—always an advantage for the home team—he is sure he would have qualified. But year after year, collegiate officials refused him, citing the economics of shipping so many teams to an island.

“I never thought the NCAA was fair,” he says. “They had a built-in bias.”

Before his final season was over, Les suffered a stroke, leaving him paralyzed on his left side. He has been doing physical therapy four or five days a week ever since—“busting my ass,” he says. He has a grandson now, almost T-Ball age, running around his house in the steep hills of Wai‘alae Nui. That is as much motivation as the old skipper needs. “I want to train him,” Les says, “one of these years.”

On a muggy August afternoon last year, in the hills of north-central Pennsylvania, the West O‘ahu Little League saw its long, improbable run slipping toward to a disappointing end. Since leaving Hawai‘i earlier that month, the twelve-and-under All-Star team from ‘Ewa Beach had won eleven consecutive games—six to advance from the regional tournament in San Bernardino, five more to clinch the U.S. title at Williamsport’s Lamade Stadium. Now, as they entered the last inning of the World Series final, they found themselves down six-to-three to Curacao, the defending champions. Three outs and they would go home, second-best. “If you guys want it, let’s go get it,” Coach Layton told them. “We work hard for this. We aren’t giving it away.”


 

 

A walk, a single, a bunt, a slide, another single, then a fielder’s choice—and suddenly West O‘ahu had tied the score, six-six. It was a fairytale rally. For only the third time in Little League history, a championship game was headed for extra innings. But West O‘ahu was not done. Pitcher Vonn Fe‘ao, his dyed blond curls flapping from the back of his cap, retired the side in the top of the seventh. Leading off the bottom of the inning was Michael Memea, the chiseled five-foot-eight, 155-pound catcher. He had struggled all game, popping up to short and striking out twice. He worked the count full. His only thought was getting on base. He sent the next pitch—a fastball, high and outside—sailing over the center field fence. As a goof, kids pretend to swat walk-off homers all the time, ending their fantasy games with one colossal swing of the bat. To actually do it, as a seventh-grader, on ESPN, with everyone you know in the world—and millions more you have never met—living and dying on each pitch, is almost too surreal to imagine. “That’s the best part,” says Mike, “being on TV.”

It was not until they returned to Hawai‘i that the ‘Ewa Beach kids finally began to understand what they had done. A caravan of Hummer limos met them at the airport. Politicians showered them with leis. There would be parades and banquets and scholarships and, naturally, girls. “A little too much,” says Dawn Aglipay, whose son, Alaka‘i, hit three World Series home runs of his own. “They have these groupies that come and follow them. We’re really needing to control that situation.” Any team that so capably represented Hawai‘i on the world stage would have inspired celebration. But there was something more about these boys, something redemptive about their names, their faces, their shades of brown. They were not children of privilege or inventions of the tourism industry but the sons of a blue-collar suburb twenty miles west of Honolulu, of construction workers and prison guards and hairstylists and mail carriers. The skeleton of the old ‘Ewa sugar mill still stands next to their weed-choked ball field, a diamond without lights or bleachers or scoreboards. “This is our field of dreams right here,” says Andy Kam, the father of wispy center fielder Harrison “The Hammer” Kam, who weighs in at just seventy-seven pounds. “We make do with what we got.”

A year later, the world champs are just typical Little Leaguers again, their squad split in two for the regular West O‘ahu season. They bobble the same grounders, botch the same throws, lunge for the same pitches in the dirt that young ball players do everywhere. Their parents offer the same nuggets of advice—“Let it come to you … Stay focused … Be patient …”—that eager adults shout at every park in the nation. When the game is over and Vonn and Alaka‘i and Harrison have lost twelve-to-three, the moms still serve a potluck lunch, the boys burying their disappointment under mounds of spaghetti, fried chicken, teriyaki beef and sushi. “Let’s pray,” says the assistant coach’s wife, Anita Tirpak. “Dear Lord, we thank you for the great game of baseball that was played.”

If that is not enough solace, there is always the DVD of their championship game, an irrefutable record of Hawai‘i’s baseball glory. Most of the kids have grown tired of it. But not the dads. “It’s almost like an addiction,” says Jesse Aglipay, who is on medical disability from his trucking job. “If I’ve had a bad day, I put it on.” He finds himself watching it over and over, night after night. HH