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Glory Days


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POSTED: Sunday, February 22, 2009

For those of us who arrived in the islands after statehood, there are just a few places we wish we could have seen in their prime: Aloha Tower, before there was a Marketplace; Waikiki, before there was all the concrete; and for sports fans, Honolulu Stadium, before the termites did their damage.

In the last case, “;Where Hawaii Played”; is about as good as it gets for books that try to bring back the past or at least keep its memories and spirits alive. If you ever attended an event at the old stadium, this book will make you a little nostalgic; if you didn't have the opportunity, well, it will make you wish you had.

Originally published in 1995, the book has been reissued in a softcover edition, and it's no surprise that it quickly jumped to the top of the local best-sellers list. It has lovely writing, great old photos, a winning design and enough detail to make any newcomer wish he had seen the real thing in its prime.

For those who haven't heard a story or three from an old-timer, the stadium was built in 1926, and for the next 50 years, it really was the place where Hawaii played. It was host to almost every major sporting and entertainment event on Oahu, from baseball and football to polo and concerts.

The names of some of those who played there are legendary: Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra in baseball; Mike Ditka, Paul Hornung, Elroy “;Crazylegs”; Hirsch in football; Joe Louis in boxing; Elvis Presley in concert; Billy Graham on crusade.

And that's just the mainland stars who stopped by. The local names are just as famous: Herman Wedemeyer, Wally Yonamine, Larry Price, Edmund “;Ticky”; Vasconcellos, Cris Mancao. Just ask anyone who was there once, and be prepared to hear a loving, local remembrance.

The book, organized by the different sports and entertainment events played in the stadium, has hundreds of pictures that span decades and are sure to evoke a feeling for their time, even if you weren't born early enough to be there yourself.

Arthur Suehiro, who took his wife on their first date to the stadium, says in the introduction that he got the idea for assembling the book when he realized how many people still cherish their memories of the stadium despite the cramped and deteriorating conditions of its later years. “;The park may be gone, but the people are still here,”; he says. And the book marries archival photos and personal memoirs to give a sense of what the stadium meant to those who were there.

Best of all, though, this book showcases the changes that were happening throughout Hawaii in the middle of the 20th century, changes that were reflected in the evolving role of the stadium.

“;As the city grew from sleepy backwater to booming metropolis, its stadium grew with it,”; Engebretson writes in the chapter called “;The Stadium Culture.”; In the '20s, when the first university football game was being played in the stadium, workers were still building the Waikiki Natatorium, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and the Honolulu Academy of Arts. In the '30s, “;new electric buses clattered down King Street, taking fans to watch Lou Gehrig and the Bambino.”;

By the '50s the stadium and its surrounding neighborhood were a “;model of small-town America,”; Engebretson says. By the '60s, when tourists were flocking to high-rises in Waikiki, the stadium was already looking like an icon from another era. It finally came down in the '70s, replaced by the rusting steel wonder known as Aloha Stadium.

For all those years, Honolulu Stadium, in the heart of a growing town, managed to be fixed in place and time for generations of people. Maybe that's why the stadium still holds an honored place in so many people's minds, even those who never were actually inside.