Thursday, February 19, 1998

AJA Baseball: Pinstripes & Pride

Special to the Star-Bulletin
This is the 1915 Asahi team that went to
Japan to play. They went 8 and 6.

It's just a game, but after
97 years of hard-fought contests
and well-worn friendships,
it's also much more

By Rod Ohira

Ethnic rivalries born out of plantation leagues fueled fan interest in the glory years of Hawaii League baseball.

Asahi, a club of the best AJA Senior League players, was the pride of the Japanese-American community, attracting big crowds for its games against the All-Hawaiians, All-Chinese, the Braves (Portuguese), the Wanderers (Caucasian) and the All-Filipinos before and after World War II.

"One year we lost to the All-Hawaiians who were in last place, and people started hitting me on the head with (rolled-up) newspapers, calling me bakatare (stupid) and telling me I should quit," said former Asahi manager Jimmy Wasa.

"They even called my mother to get me to quit. But when we were winning, you could go into restaurants and eat for free." Undersized but fundamentally sound and disciplined ballplayers were the trademark of AJA baseball. They relied on speed, defense and pitching rather than power, and their style of playing for one run at a time, called "Japanese baseball," became synonymous with the way the game is played locally.

At age 91, former St. Louis coach and local baseball guru Francis Funai still conducts fall clinics for youngsters, teaching the same throwing and fielding techniques he taught years ago to such high school players as Les and David Murakami, Bill Nishita, Dick Kitamura and Herb Okamura.

"People like to see the ball go into the stands, but when you small, you got to push the ball here and there, play defense and get good pitching to win," said retired Waipahu High athletic director and coach Masa Yonamine, who managed Asahi for all but one season from 1963 to 1976.

AJA pitchers didn't throw as hard as their peers in other local ethnic leagues, relying instead on locating pitches for strikes.

Majo Uyehara, a crafty left-hander who was older than 50 when he pitched his last game, learned to throw accurately as a youngster.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
This section, called the fifth inning, examines
AJA baseball during World War II

"Everyday when I was walking home from McCully Japanese School, I picked up stones on the road and threw it at telephone poles," the 78-year-old Uyehara said.

"I also built up my arm by throwing stones across the Ala Wai Canal."

The Asahi club, organized in 1905 by Steere Noda, has been inactive since its 75th anniversary celebration in 1981.

Former Gov. John Burns owned the franchise during World War II, when the team was known as the Athletics, and former Mayor Neal Blaisdell managed the club to a Hawaii League title in 1942.

Burns' strong ties to the local Japanese-American community, particularly with nisei, or second-generation, would impact Hawaii politics and the drive for statehood in the decade after the war. "If you were Japanese, the biggest honor was to wear the Asahi pinstripes," said Eddie Hayashi, the Aloha Stadium manager who played and later coached the team.

Hayashi's biggest thrill with Asahi came in 1974 when the team -- augmented by a handful of other Hawaii League players -- upset world champion Cuba, 5-3, in an exhibition game in Tokyo before a crowd of 25,000.

Dick Kenney and Tom Ishigo pitched. The other starters were Clyde Hirata, Clayton Fujie, Jimmy Itamoto, David Kitamura, Bobby Matias, Tom Gushiken, Ron Ramie and Bo Hunter, said Hayashi, who was a coach for Manager Masa Yonamine.

The late Lawrence "Peanuts" Kunihisa, a former legislator whose family owned a department store in Wahiawa, formed the Rural Red Sox after World War II, and that team became Asahi's chief rival.

"It came down to which side had the better Japanese players, country or city, although the Red Sox also had non-Japanese players like Jimmy Doole and Len Kasparovich," said Yonamine, the former Asahi manager.

Uyehara says the Red Sox gave others an opportunity to play.

"Asahi was my first love, but they always had enough players," said Uyehara.

Some Hawaii League players were paid, while others got jobs.

Jimmy Wasa, for example, says he was paid $900 a season by owner Adam Ornellas to play for the Hawaii Braves during the World War II years.

Asahi management asked Wasa to play for the Braves to ease racial tension in the league against Japanese. Wasa and shortstop Sparky Neves formed a legendary double-play combination that old-timers claim was one of the best ever locally. Senior AJA League rivalries were also intense, but they were based on community pride rather than ethnicity.

"When Moiliili played McCully, it was dog eat dog," said Uyehara, McCully's longtime player-manager. "In those days, the girlfriends and wives got more tired than the ballplayers because of the rivalry in the stands."

After taking over the Kaimuki Junior AJA League franchise from his uncle, Les Murakami tried for five years to put his Sheridan team into the Senior League.

"We had to join the Puerto Rican League for a couple of years because (the Senior AJA) had six franchises and unless somebody gave up, you couldn't get in," Murakami said. "They played at Honolulu Stadium and drew 5,000 for Sunday games."

In the late 1960s, Murakami purchased the Kakaako franchise for $1,500 and Sheridan became a Senior AJA member.

Murakami built Sheridan into one of the most dominant teams in modern AJA history, thanks to a Big Island connection.

Murakami said the key was getting three Hilo players -- Joey Estrella, Fred Entilla and Dennis Ueyama -- through Big Island native Tom Ishigo, and the addition of David Murakami, Les' cousin, and his friend, Clayton Fujie of Hilo.

The 51-year-old Entilla, whose mother is Japanese, is still an active AJA player for the Hilo Wanderers. This season, however, he moved to second base to allow his 19-year-old nephew, Koa Suenishi, to play shortstop.

What set the Senior AJA apart from other ethnic leagues on Oahu was ethnic pride and tradition, says Les Murakami.

"When a group of people can last and hold a league together for this many years without major squabbles, you know the organization is good and the guys are high class," Murakami said.

"While I was there, Masa Koike and Joe Fuchino ran it like clockwork," he added.

Hayashi has been involved with Senior AJA baseball since he was a 10-year-old batboy for his father's Kalihi Koyu Kai team. His association with the McCully franchise dates to 1963, when he joined the team as a player.

"Baseball is give and take, sportsmanship and camaraderie, and I'm still having fun," Hayashi said.

Friendships, preserved in long-standing Sunday makule softball leagues at Ala Moana Park and Kawananakoa Intermediate School, is another reason the AJA tradition has survived.

Dick Kashiwaeda and Eddie Higashino, currently playing for Ifuku Radiator in the Kawananakoa League, have been teammates since their Asahi playing days in the 1950s. "To me, the best part of sports is playing hard and making friends," Kashiwaeda said.

AJA notables

Notable accomplishments of Japanese-American players from Hawaii:

The late Henry "Bozo" Wakabayashi, a former Wahiawa resident, was the first player from Hawaii to play professionally in Japan. Wakabayashi, who attended McKinley High, signed with the Osaka (Hanshin) Tigers in 1936 after pitching Hosei University to three consecutive championships. "He was throwing knuckleballs, sliders and sinkers when other pitchers in Japan were throwing just straight fastballs, drops and curves," said David Wakabayashi, a California optometrist, of his father's success.

Pitcher Ryan Kurosaki became the first Japanese-American player to play in the major leagues. He joined the St. Louis Cardinals on May 14, 1975. Kurosaki, currently a firefighter in Little Rock, Ark., led Kalani to the 1970 state high school championship. His Kalani teammate, Lenn Sakata, also made it to the major leagues and earned a World Series ring with the Baltimore Orioles.

Former Punahou star Glenn Goya was the first player from Hawaii to win an NCAA Division I batting title. He hit .485 for Colorado State in 1977, collecting 80 hits in 47 games. Goya, branch manager of First Hawaiian Bank's Liliha branch, also pitched a perfect game against St. Louis in the 1972 state high school championship game.

Derek Tatsuno of the University of Hawaii, the first NCAA Division I pitcher to win 20 games. Tatsuno also struck out an NCAA-record 234 batters in 1979. That record still stands.

Coach Les Murakami, architect of the University of Hawaii all-collegiate baseball program, will join a select circle this year when he records his 1,000th win.

Wally Yonamine, who was elected to the Japan baseball Hall of Fame in 1994.

Exhibit tracks isle ball
through the years

By Rod Ohira

Mike Okihiro points to a man in a white shirt standing among the uniformed players in a photo of the 1939 Kaneohe Japanese Young Man's Association baseball team.

"That's Akebono's grandfather, Sonny Rowan," said Okihiro, a member of the AJA baseball exhibit committee. "He used to be the caretaker at the Kaneohe Park, and he organized and coached that team."

Chairman Wayne Sakamoto, Okihiro and committee members Francis Funai, Masa Koike, Kay Yamada, Yuri Tsunehiro, Lillian Yajima and Gary Yoshida spent several years researching and collecting photos, memorabilia and data for the exhibit, which opened yesterday at the Japanese Cultural Center.

The exhibit is broken into nine innings, with each inning covering a period. The first inning, for example, covers Alexander Joy Cartwright, Honolulu's first fire chief, who is recognized as the father of baseball here, and the roots of the sport in Hawaii.

Also featured are Japanese and plantation leagues on all islands; baseball in Hawaii during World War II when locals like Jimmy Wasa got to play against major league greats such as Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller and Satchel Paige; the University of Hawaii program; and Hawaii's pro players.

Lenn Sakata's Baltimore Orioles uniform and World Series ring, DiMaggio's bat and old Hawaii League uniforms are part of the memorabilia package.

Kathy Izon, JCCH gallery coordinator, is setting up the exhibit in a stadium setting that will feature audience-participation games. One game involves matching AJA players to their nicknames. For example, Jyun Hirota's nickname is "Curly," while George Yukio Nitta is known as "Manju."

Sakamoto is also trying to set up a softball game at Moiliili Field on March 21 at 9 a.m. between former Asahi and Red Sox players.

At a glance

Facts about the new AJA baseball exhibit

What: AJA Baseball: Ethnic Pride and Tradition exhibit
When: Wednesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., through June 28, (Closed holidays)
Where: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, 2454 S. Beretania St.
Admission: $3 for adults, $2 for students, $1 for children 11 and under
Information: 945-7633

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