Hawaii's Baseball History: The Early Days of Pro Baseball and The Hawaii Islanders

An insider looks back.


Published:



Photo: Courtesy Rich Barry


In the early 1960s, long before sporting events from the Mainland beamed live on television, the Hawaii Islanders offered a brand of professional baseball worth watching.

The team was a big deal in Honolulu and with good reason. It was pro ball at the AAA level, which meant that the next step up for many Islander players was to the big leagues or “the show.” And the steps worked in the opposite direction, too. Players cut by big league teams also found themselves wearing Islander uniforms. I had the chance to experience it myself when I served as the team’s general manager in 1979.

While minor league teams across the rest of the country were struggling, Islander games at the old Honolulu Stadium on King Street consistently drew big, boisterous crowds. There were big names on the field and in the stands.

Bo Belinsky.

Photo: Courtesy Pipi Wakayama

Baseball fans will likely recognize some: Former New York Yankee Irv Noren was the first manager of the Islanders, and Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Lemon, also a former Yankee, had the job a few years later. A lot of former big leaguers performed here for local baseball fans, either playing for Hawaii or coming to town with visiting teams: Don Larsen, Bo Belinsky, Moe Drabowsky, Hector Lopez, Gene Freese and Diego Segui, among many others. Brooklyn Dodger legend Duke Snider showed up one year as manager of the visiting Spokane Indians, and former Yankee pitching great, Ed Lopat, was here for several games to scout a promising player. Most notably, Barry Bonds played 44 games for the Islanders in 1986. Of course, Bonds then was nothing like the power hitter he became in later years, before he became known for links to the steroid scandal.


Actor and part-time Hawaii resident Richard Boone (Have Gun, Will Travel) was  frequently in the crowd, and his son, Peter, was the team batboy for a while. Ship-building magnate Henry Kaiser, who developed Hawaii Kai, attended with his wife nearly every game. They sat in a box seat directly behind home plate, where she rooted loudly for the home team and meticulously recorded each play in a scorebook.

The elderly father of local disc jockey Ron Jacobs was also a regular. Raymond Jacobs would wait quietly until some critical moment, perhaps late in the game when the opposing pitcher had loaded the bases and the Islanders’ best hitter was coming to bat. That’s when the old man would rise up halfway out of his seat, cup his hands around his mouth and bellow, “There … goes … the … ball … game!” You could almost see the pitcher wilt. The elder Jacobs was affectionately known as the Voice of Doom.

 

Photos: Odeelo Dayondon

Honolulu may have been a minor league destination, but Islander players got major league treatment. Typically, when reporting to their new teams each spring, ballplayers in that era would drive their personal cars to Louisville or El Paso or Salt Lake City — wherever they had been assigned. Of course, driving across the ocean wasn’t an option if Hawaii was their destination. So, for several years, players sent here were provided cars by the Islanders. Small wonder that the word among pro ballplayers back then was, “If you can’t be in the big leagues, the next best place to play is Honolulu.”

A day or two before the start of each season, Islander players and their wives were treated to a welcoming banquet, complete with an open bar. One of these events was hosted at a Chinese restaurant by wealthy local businessman and developer Chinn Ho, who was also part-owner of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and a stockholder in the Islanders. At one point during the meal, Ho stopped by the table where we were seated and asked if everyone was enjoying themselves. Don Leppert, a hard-nosed veteran catcher still smarting from being cut just days earlier by the Pittsburgh Pirates, held up an empty glass and growled, “I‘d like another bourbon and soda.”

Actor Richard Boone, also at the table, was aghast. “Leppert,” he said, “Do you have any idea who this is?”

“That,” replied the old catcher, glancing at Ho, “is the most expensive waiter in the whole goddamn world.”

Ho beamed, grabbed the empty glass and hustled off to fetch a fresh drink for Leppert.

Islander games were broadcast locally on KORL and the voice doing the play-by-play belonged to the late Harry Kalas, who went on to become the voice of the Philadelphia Phillies for nearly 40 years. Kalas is so beloved in that city that a larger-than-life statue of him stands right outside Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies’ home field.

I had broadcast a dozen or so college baseball games as a radio-television major at Boston University, and on the strength of that rather flimsy resume, the Islanders’ general manager, Jack Quinn, hired me to fill the No. 2 spot on the ballclub’s broadcast team, reading commercials, giving scores of major league games, and occasionally spelling Harry Kalas for an inning or so.  

Of course, there was no budget to send voice talent on the team’s extended road trips to the Mainland, so the team’s away games were “re-created” in the KORL studios. Kalas did play-by-play on the re-creations and my job was to call a local sportswriter wherever the Islanders were playing, someone who had noted every play on a score sheet and could tell us what happened, batter by batter.

 

Some classic memorabilia remains treasured in local collections. Special thanks for photos go to the book Honolulu Stadium: Where Hawaii Played.

Memorabilia: courtesy of Wesley Nishimoto
 


Photo: Courtesy Pipi Wakayama

I’d usually make my first phone call at the end of the sixth inning of the actual game, jotting down the bare-bones information, then typing it up for Kalas:

    Islanders - Fifth Inning
    Cottier grounds out short to first.
    Valentine doubles to right.
    Hirtz pops to catcher.
    Hartman strikes out.
           
That was usually all Kalas had to work with; he would have to invent all the details. For instance, having no specifics on Fred Valentine’s double, he might have described it as a pop fly landing just out of the reach of the right fielder … or as a long fly ball that just missed being a home run. All we knew for sure was that Valentine had hit the ball and ended up at second base.

A studio engineer sitting at a control panel on the other side of a plate-glass window generated prerecorded crowd noise. I’d stand in a corner of the little studio, cup my hands over my mouth, and assume the role of public-address announcer: “The batter … No. 15 … third baseman … Dave … Hirtz.”  Kalas would rap a pencil on a block of wood to replicate the sound of bat hitting ball. (“Hirtz swings—tok!—and lifts a high fly ball into left field.”) We got to be pretty good at it. Kalas was occasionally stopped on the street by someone who would say, “Hey! I thought you were in Tacoma!”

About the time Kalas reached the sixth inning, I’d make the second call to get details of the final two or three innings. But one night—the team was in Fort Worth, I think—the game had ended quickly and our sportswriter had already left the ballpark. I tried his office with no luck and no one answered his home phone.

I gave Kalas the bad news and went back to the phones, trying to track down our missing sportswriter or someone—anyone—who had been at the game and had filled out a score sheet.

In the meantime, Kalas began slowing things down on the air. Every batter worked the count to three balls, two strikes—then fouled off several pitches before making an out. Catchers for both teams began going to the mound for conferences with their pitchers. Long conferences.
 

 
Broadcasters (left to right) Chuch Leahy, Harry Kalas and Chuck Halter called games over KGU radio.

Photos: Courtesy Honolulu Star-Advertiser

The Islanders boasted a minor league attendance record of more than 3.6 million in 15 seasons at Honolulu Stadium.


Then, with just a half inning of material left, Kalas started to get inventive. A dog ran onto the field and eluded the grounds crew for at least two minutes. (The KORL engineer provided thunderous applause when the imaginary dog was finally caught.) An altercation among some rowdy fans behind the Hawaii dugout bought Kalas a few more precious minutes. And the weather suddenly turned ominous, prompting a lengthy discussion between the umpires and the head groundskeeper. Soberly, Kalas informed our radio audience that the game was in danger of being interrupted. Little did they know.

At that very moment, back in Fort Worth, our missing sportswriter opened the door to his apartment and heard his telephone ringing. Instantly realizing what had happened, he grabbed the phone just as I was about to hang up. Thankfully, he had his scorebook with him. I scribbled down what had happened in the final two innings, shoved the piece of paper in front of Kalas, and the re-created action resumed, albeit at an unusually brisk pace.

After the final sign-off and in recapping what had happened, I realized that, while I was on the verge of panic, Kalas had been enjoying every minute. There’s an interesting, and rather strange, sidebar to this incident. Marty Chase was another color man who worked with Kalas in those early days, and both he and I remember the same details of that incident quite clearly. The trouble is, Marty and I each remember being the one frantically trying to reach the forgetful sportswriter in Fort Worth on that crazy night. Who knows? At the very least, even after more than 50 years, we can agree that the story is absolutely true. After all, there are not one, but two corroborating witnesses.

Photo: Courtesy Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Kalas was one of several Islander play-by-play voices who went on to careers as sports broadcasters in major markets on the Mainland: Ken Wilson to Seattle, Mel Proctor to Washington and Hank Greenwald to San Francisco. Al Michaels went from Hawaii to the ABC television network where he did play-by-play for Monday Night Football and several World Series. Michaels is probably best remembered for delivering one of the great lines in sports broadcasting history when the U.S. Olympic hockey team defeated the Russians at the 1980 Winter Games: “Do you believe in miracles? YES!!”

Alas, times and circumstances change. Rickety Honolulu Stadium—known with great affection as “the Termite Palace”—was torn down, forcing the Islanders to move into cavernous, 50,000-seat Aloha Stadium in 1975. It just didn’t work out as a venue for minor league baseball. The ball club struggled for a dozen years, but finally left Hawaii in 1987 for Colorado Springs, where the team was renamed the Sky Sox and has prospered.  

But those of us who were here back then can remember when the Hawaii Islanders were the best in all of minor league baseball. On the field and off, too.

We can still hear the chatter of the players, the buzzing of the crowd and the vendors hawking plastic cups of saimin in the stands. And the Voice of Doom: “There … goes … the …ball … game.”  
 

About the Author

Jim Loomis is remembered in Honolulu political circles for his eight years in city government under fiery former mayor Frank Fasi. And he was well known in Honolulu for two decades with the  advertising agency he helped found, Loomis & Pollock. He retired in 2003 to Maui, where he is finishing the fourth edition of All Aboard: The Complete North American Train Travel Guide.

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