Learn about the roots of local baseball and Hawai’i little league success.
Images by John Hook
ELYSIAN FIELDS OF CANE
A few miles inland of the shores of Honolulu harbor, the road rises up the Pali to the Nu‘uanu cemetery. In the low clouds of the old neighborhood burial grounds, one headstone differentiates itself, its base littered with red-dirt skidded baseballs. There lies Alexander Joy Cartwright, the man who invented American baseball more than 150 years ago.
In 1845, he and some friends founded the Knickerbocker Baseball Club in Hoboken, New Jersey. At a park they named Elysian Fields, these city boys played a game they made up just across the river from busy Manhattan. During summer afternoons, the Knickerbockers formalized the new game’s rules, differentiating it from the English games of rounders and cricket. Cartwright thought up many of the rules in order to maximize fun: nine players to a team, three flat bases on an asymmetrical diamond, and three strikes you’re out.
In 1849, Cartwright set out to California for the gold rush but ended up in Honolulu with his family. He served as the burgeoning town’s Fire Chief from 1850-1863, then as an advisor to King Kalākaua and Queen Emma, and spent the rest of his days teaching friends the game until his death just prior to annexation.
In a quirk of history, Hawai‘i was host to some of the first games of American baseball played anywhere. Far from home, in an era when a trip to Hawai‘i was a permanent decision, Cartwright brought what essayist and professor Gerald Early has called “one of the three most beautiful things, alongside jazz and the Constitution, that Americans have created.”
THREE NIKKEI STRIKES
The roots of local baseball were further laid in the sugar fields, specifically in the experience of the Japanese diaspora as it grappled with America’s less beautiful cultural aspects. In 1909, Japanese laborers were fed up with the racially discriminatory wage system that the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association had enacted to divide and control the labor pool.
The first Great Strike began in May of that year, the beginning of baseball season. When several hundred Japanese gathered at the ‘Aiea plantation to demand an end to race-based pay, the strike spread like a relay thrown across a dry cane outfield. Two days after the ‘Aiea work stop, it spread to Waipahu, then on to the plantations at Waialua, Kahuku, Wai‘anae, ‘Ewa, and Waimanalo.
When planters attempted to break the strike, the Japanese refused to return to the fields through the summer. The HSPA labor committee told the organization’s trustees that “it may be too soon to say that the Jap is to be supplanted … but it is certainly in order to clip his wings,” and to give “encouragement to a new class … to keep the more belligerent element in its proper place.”
The next year, the HSPA turned to other nations to fill labor needs and urged plantation managers to quell the spirit of discontent with sports, especially baseball. “A baseball ground well laid out and grassed, could be afforded by every plantation, and to encourage this sport, which every nationality of laborers is keen for, prizes could be offered to winning teams,” it stated. Music, and even the occasional movie, was also supported.
Such a “welfare program,” explained the vice president of H. Hackfeld & Company in a confidential correspondence, would offer “magnificent results … not only in holding the laborer on the plantation, but in preventing strikes.” He added, “Leaving out of consideration the humanitarian side of any such welfare work, we believe it would be to the financial benefit of the plantation to cultivate a spirit of contentment among the laborers.”
In 1919, a manager of an O‘ahu plantation wrote to HSPA, “Every Sunday we have baseball games between the Filipino laborers and our young Japanese and Portuguese boys in which our timekeepers and some of our overseers join. … In looking around at the almost universal unrest amongst labor and thinking into the absence of it upon these Islands, we feel that an unremitting endeavor should be made to keep our laborers contented and happy.” But local laborers were not happy. They struck again in 1920 and 1946. By then, baseball was the most vibrant sport in the territory, a centerpiece of working-class life in the fields.
Baseball’s primary lesson, besides teamwork and organizing, is the great American myth of success: that old coach’s adage that talent will only get a ballplayer so far and greatness comes with diligence and practice, as measured in the statistical aggregate of one’s career; that a player can make up for inadequacies in natural ability through daring, striving and labor; that it is how one plays the game that is important and that the home team is bound to the same rules as the visitor; that umpires are impartial. This was not the reality of the fields in the first half of 20th century. After spending Sunday afternoons experiencing the rough equality in America’s pastime, laborers could return not to work in its absence.
Local Japanese men created the Americans of Japanese Ancestry league to determine which island’s players were the best in 1930. Champions have been crowned every year since then, with a break from 1942-1947 for the war. Mō‘ili‘ili won the first title. Wai‘alae won this year. A hundred years after its formation, AJA games are some of the most exciting and competitive played in the state.
According to organizers, the league is “dedicated to those who sacrificed in the face of prejudice, discrimination and adversity, which we will never know or can even imagine, so that we can have the opportunities we take for granted now. Giri (duty and obligation) to honor the values of our heritage and perpetuate our culture by continuing the legacy and tradition of AJA baseball, handed down from our fathers, from their fathers and their fathers before them.”
AJA players continue to uphold this tradition. In 1996, a local haole who was a former University of Hawai‘i pitcher and All-American wanted to keep playing in Hawai‘i after college and attempted to play AJA ball. The entire league, all 10 teams, unanimously voted to deny his admission.
THE PINEAPPLE OUTFIELD
As in the continental United States, prior to television, non-professional baseball in Hawai‘i bound communities to each other. William Mae, who grew up in Laupāhoehoe in the ’40s and ’50s, remembered his time playing in the Hāmākua league.
“You see, that’s how serious baseball was in those days,” Mae said in a 2007 interview with Hawaii Sports Page. “The Hāmākua baseball league had rivalries from Pepe‘ekeo town to Honoka‘a town. Each plantation town had their own league, and after the season, an all-star team was selected from each plantation department. … Then an all-star team from the all-star teams were selected to challenge other plantation all-star teams from the State.”
Maui-native Louis Baldovi, a cane worker in his youth in the 1930s, remembered a game when Haiku played Makawao on their field: “I popped a high fly ball that bounced beyond the left fielder and into the rows of pineapple. I crossed home plate before the outfielders could find the ball. The opposing team argued that my hit was a ground-rule double. But earlier, we met with the guys and said, ‘If it’s lost in the pineapple outfield, it’s a home run. To this day, we called that the ‘pineapple home run.’”
MINK DIAMONDS, THE ROAD TO WILLIAMSPORT
In Waipahu, near where laborers played the first organized ball games, the Patsy T. Mink Central O‘ahu Regional Park was opened in 2005. In the 269-acre park, 12 baseball diamonds radiate in undulating fields of dry, khaki grass.
Variations of baseball are played at every level of youth in Hawai‘i. The 9 to 12 year-old Majors Division is amongst the most competitive, with teams vying to play in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The sport’s popularity around the world requires an ascension process that is immensely complex.
In Hawai‘i, division little leagues name their own champions and send all-star teams to compete against each other for the chance to make it to the state championships. All-star players are picked by votes from players and coaches. The winner of the state championship competes for a regional berth, which would send them to Williamsport, where the World Series has been held since 1947. In the last decade, teams from Hawai‘i have competed against and beaten many of their counterparts from around the globe.
The best teams from Hawai‘i tend to come from places where plantations once thrived. Teams from Hilo and Wailuku are perennial contenders. In 2005, the ‘Ewa Beach team won the Little League World Series, beating Curacao in a riveting game televised on ESPN. Waipi‘o won the series in 2008 and made it to Williamsport again in 2010 with new players. That team lost in their first day in the double-elimination setup and spent the rest of their time facing immediate elimination.
After 25 grueling days on the road, they become the U.S. champions. Waipi‘o met Japan in the finals, but the team’s journey to attain another world championship ended after a heartbreaking defeat. When the real-world sacrifices of the little leaguers’ families hit the nightly news, First Hawaiian Bank created a fund that received donations from around the state. The beleaguered parents, coaches and players came home to a parade down Kalākaua Boulevard in Waikīkī, statewide heroes in a state without professional sports.
Hawai‘i Little League District 7 consists of teams from O‘ahu’s ‘Ewa plain, Westside and North Shore. The day I went to watch a game at the Patsy T. Mink regional park was the District 7 playoffs between Pearl City and Waipi‘o, the winner of which would meet Nānākuli in the next round on the way to states. Without the slightest hint of doubt, parents and coaches called the game “the road to Williamsport.”
On the mound was 11-year-old, left-handed pitcher Nohealani Hee, her ponytail whipping behind her as she hurled fastballs past the Waipi‘o hitters. Her best friend Darian Obara was catching. Being voted amongst the best ballplayers in Pearl City, their names were screen-printed on the backs of purple shirts worn by half the crowd. The corresponding black shirts, signed by each Waipi‘o all-star, were proudly worn in the opposing set of bleachers.
I estimated Nohea’s fastball to be around 55 mph. With the closer mound and the smaller players, we reasoned her pitch gives as little reaction time as its 85-mph equivalent in college or the majors. “We’ve never clocked her, too superstitious,” her dad told me as he watched the game from behind the Pearl City dugout, too antsy to sit on the hot metal bleachers. “She’s a great kid. Her mom and I weren’t too athletic, so she gets it from her older brother Tyler, who played for Kamehameha Schools. He practices with her every day.” I was later pointed to a lanky, tattooed local guy who yelled constant encouragement to his sister.
As Mr. Hee explained to me the scheduling problems with his daughter’s various baseball seasons, he abruptly threw his hands in the air and yelled, “Hou! Yes! Yes!” – his daughter had just made a brilliant play off a hit that sent a ball beelining for her forehead. Instead of shirking the ball, she caught it in one lightning quick motion and wheeled around for a toss to second and the double play. “Sorry ah,” her dad says. “That’s my girl!”
In the fourth inning, Waipi‘o was up to bat and down 1-4. Hee and Obara, two upcoming sixth-grade girls, had picked the Waipi‘o lock and kept them nearly scoreless to that point. But an odd energy was building with the boys in black. With runners on second and third, a hit pinged off the aluminum bat and skidded low into the red dirt infield. The shortstop fielded it with wobbly legs and made a late, off-balance throw to first, which flew past the baseman and clanged against the chain link fence of the Waipi‘o dugout. The boys, clawing onto the fence, screamed as their hitter rounded first. The game was tied with one inning left.
Pearl City managed to go up one at their next at-bat. In the last inning, Nohea returned to the mound to the soundtrack of her own name: “Let’s-go-girl!” and “Al-mos’-pau!” With the season on the line and her teammates’ expressions communicating something between concentration and terror, her face remained stoic, almost bored, like a skilled pianist practicing scales. She stepped off the mound, waved off a few signals from Darian, and calmly returned to pitch.
There were plenty of moments when it seemed like nothing was going on. When the Waipi‘o third baseman warmed up to relief pitch, when the officials held the game by checking a questionable bat, and when Nohea stopped to think about whether to burn it or throw a change-up in silent communication with her catcher. It gave us an opportunity to consider the implications of the next inning. Get through this, and beat Nānākuli tomorrow. Win next weekend, and then off to states. Win in Santa Barbara for regionals and then off to Williamsport. We were beyond time. There was nothing but being here, now, wondering what will happen with the next pitch. Keep winning and you keep playing.
The Pearl City outfielders popped their glove pockets in preparation. Nohea struck out the first hitter. The second hitter duped a line over the first baseman, barely managing to get on base and keep Waipi‘o’s hopes alive. As the third hitter stepped to the plate, tutus with umbrellas, little sisters and older brothers in Pearl City purple rose and yelled a thousand directions at their pitcher. Three cool strikes and Waipi‘o’s season was over. After the game, when asked if she was fazed by the fourth inning rally, Nohea calmly replied, “No big deal. We all make errors, but we just make it up next at-bat.”
I attempted to talk to Waipi‘o President Tim Yee about his team’s season. “Maybe you should talk to Leann, the Pearl City president,” he said. “She’s probably in a better mood.” He then went to the mound and congratulated each Waipi‘o player by name and handed the boys their well-earned, runner-up trophy. As his boys filed past the Pearl City team to give half-hearted low-fives, a few wiped away tears with their undershirts.
Nohea played the full game against Waipi‘o and maxed out her allowable pitches under the rules. The next day, Pearl City lost to Nānākuli. As of the writing of this article, the state championships are about to commence, next stop on the road to Williamsport.
The District 7 little leaguers play a competitive, excellent version of ball. When they get to Williamsport, they often meet kids that come from parts of the world where America similarly imposed a plantation-based economy. What happened in Hawai‘i regarding sugar – the uneasy relationship between labor and planters – and American sports was not an isolated occurrence: plantation economies and societies were developed in Louisiana, Guyana, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Jamaica – all with notoriously excellent levels of play.
Residents of Hawai‘i have applied a few of the best lessons the game offers. The islands’ fields have seen the rich intermingling of peoples from around the world, who worked from siren to siren, spoke pidgin English to each other, went on strike together, and played ball together. They took an American sport and made it their own. Game after game, inning after inning, they came to think of themselves as locals, as people of Hawai‘i.