The following is an excerpt from Honolulu Stadium: Where Hawaii Played by Arthur Suehiro. Crammed full of archival photos and images of memorabilia, this ode to the Termite Palace is a treasure trove of facts and photos. Honolulu Stadium, torn down in 1976, was more than just a classic American ballpark—it was the heart and soul of a community. From the first kick-off in 1926 to the final out in '75, the Stadium was Honolulu's premier gathering place. Art Suehiro's book captures it all, from barefoot football to big league stars, stock car racing to polo matches, Boy Scout Makahiki pageants to Elvis Presley's concert.
In this excerpt, Art introduces Chapter Three, covering Hawaii's love affair with baseball and the great players who came to town.
It’s a little-known fact of baseball lore—that the Father of Modern Baseball lies buried in a weathered graveyard less than three miles from Honolulu Stadium. He was Alexander Joy Cartwright—sportsman, adventurer, bon vivant—an American pioneer who charted baseball’s field of play and forged its first real team, the New York Knickerbockers, then carried the game from coast to coast—and beyond. Cartwright put ashore at Honolulu Harbor in 1849 and quickly became a familiar figure throughout the kingdom, sharing his newfangled sport with planters’ sons and native Hawaiians alike.
Though Cartwright, who died in 1892, never ran the Stadium’s base paths himself, his legacy would shape the arena throughout its historic half-century. Baseball was king at the Stadium, from the heart-stopping home runs of the Great Bambino and the Yankee Clipper to the final-season heroics of the Hawaii Islanders. Like other fabled shrines at Ebbets and Wrigley and the Polo Grounds, Honolulu Stadium was a classic showcase for the national pastime.
Exhibition game poster, 1935. From the collection of Lillian Noda Yajima.
Baseball, in fact, played a leading role in the Stadium’s debut. In 1925, sports entrepreneur J. Ashman Beaven was managing the long-established Honolulu Baseball League, whose teams did battle at Moiliili Field, the comfortable old park at the corner of King and Isenberg. The Territory of Hawaii was still every bit a plantation oligarchy then—with a steady stream of immigrants arriving to work the fields of sugar and pineapple. In this divided society, teams were naturally organized by nationality, an arrangement that provided cultural exchange and a healthy way to compete for ethnic bragging rights—not to mention rabid fan support.
In May 1925, following an organizational conflict within the Honolulu Baseball League, Beaven launched a brand-new circuit, the Hawaii Baseball League (HBL), taking with him six defecting teams—the Asahi (Japanese), Braves (Portuguese), Wanderers (haole), Filipinos, Hawaiians and Chinese Tigers.
This new league continued to use Moiliili Field until the spring of 1927, when it moved across the street to spanking-new Honolulu Stadium, while the old Honolulu Baseball League moved its games to Makiki Field.
On a perfect baseball Sunday in May, the Hawaii Baseball League christened the Stadium’s newly-built grandstand with lively opening ceremonies and a hard-fought game. The team to beat that year was the Asahi, the 22-year-old powerhouse defending back-to-back titles won in ’25 and ’26. Over the next three decades, the complexion of the HBL changed as other franchise teams came and went, particularly during the war years. Among them: the Rural Red Sox, Fil-Americans, SubPac Marines, 7th Army Air Force, Navy Sub Base, Hawaiis and Waikiki Surfers. In 1939 the HBL marked the game’s centennial by introducing the annual Cartwright Series, a tournament of the league’s top four teams held in honor of Alexander Joy Cartwright.
The league even enjoyed a farm system of sorts, with promising players groomed in junior circuits like the AJA (Americans of Japanese Ancestry) League, Portuguese League, Filipino League, Chinese League, Winter League, American Legion and Commercial League.
A case in point: the Chinese Baseball League in the late ’30s, which included teams named Chungshans, Chinese Amateurs, Rural Chinese, Honolulu Chinese and Quality Dairy. At the end of each season, the loop’s top players were selected by committee to form the next HBL Chinese Tigers team.
The Commercial League, meanwhile, generated its own brand of excitement, matching up teams from a handful of Honolulu utilities and sugar companies. In 1937, at the league’s peak, these teams were the perennial champion Mutual Telephone—affectionately dubbed the “Hello Lads” in the local press—Shell Oil (the “Super Shells”), Oahu Sugar, Hawaiian Electric and Honolulu Rapid Transit (the “Rapid Transits”). Mutual Telephone won yet another Commercial League title that year, closing out a fifth straight undefeated season.
A Stadium photo op (left to right): promoter Herb Hunter, who organized the exhibition tour that brought Babe Ruth to town in October 1933, the Babe and territorial Governor Lawrence Judd. Photo Credit: Hawaii State Archives.
But the HBL remained Hawaii’s biggest and longest-running league. Some of its finest moments came during exhibition games featuring visiting major leaguers. In 1934, the fabled Connie Mack managed a touring Who’s Who of the sport, including Lou Gehrig, Jim Foxx and the immortal Babe Ruth. The “Sultan of Swat” was no stranger to the Stadium, having played in exhibition games the previous year in both Honolulu and Hilo.
Island baseball mania reached a fever pitch during the war years. Ironically, World War II first brought a demolition scare to the Stadium, as Civil Defense officials and the Army Corps of Engineers announce d plans to tear it down and build bomb shelters for Moiliili residents. But all that changed when Oahu’s military bases became home to some of the game’s biggest stars. Joe DiMaggio and Pee Wee Reese, Phil Rizzuto and Johnny Vander Meer—these and many others played for service teams before packed houses at Honolulu Stadium. The banner year was 1944, when big-time ball came to town in the form of exhibition games staged to sell war bonds. The Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants played at Honolulu Stadium, and again the following day at Schofield Barracks’ Chickamauga Park.
The standing-room-only war bonds games were only a warm-up for the landmark year that was 1944. Out at Hickam Field, Brigadier General William Flood was steamed about his 7th Army Airforce team’s anemic standings in the HBL. So Flood began pulling rank, rounding up some of baseball’s best players from their duty posts around the country. Besides DiMaggio, Flood’s “draftees” included the St. Louis Browns’ Bob Dillinger, the Cincinnati Reds’ Mike McCormick and Ferris Fain of the San Francisco Seals. In DiMaggio’s first game—on June 4 against a Navy SubBase team boasting its own major leaguers—the Yankee Clipper electrified the record crowd of 30,000 with a 435-foot home run over the Stadium’s Isenberg wall.
Later that summer, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey was on hand for a rematch of these two service teams, one which saw DiMaggio and the 7th AAF—known as the Hickam Bombers—whip the Submariners, 21-1. Fresh from his great victory at Midway, the enraged Halsey immediately embarked on a new campaign, pulling his own considerable rank to corral major leaguers from naval bases nationwide. In short order, the SubBase team found itself shored up by the likes of Pee Wee Reese, the New York Yankees’ Rizzuto, the Cincinnati Reds’ Vander Meer, Virgil “Fireball” Trucks of the Detroit Tigers and Joltin’ Joe’s younger brother, Dom DiMaggio of the Boston Red Sox. And though the 7th AAF team rolled on to capture the ’44 HBL championship and the Cartwright Series, the Navy avenged those losses in that fall’s Army-Navy Pacific Ocean Area Championship Series. SubBase won this special, best-of-seven challenge in four straight games before sell-out Stadium crowds that included an ecstatic Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz.
When the war ended the following year, so did Honolulu’s big-league bonanza. While a few stars played the Stadium in ’45—most notably Stan Musial—the others were on their way back to the “bigs.” But major leaguers continued to appear in Stadium exhibition games throughout the postwar years. The New York Giants came to town in 1953, followed in the fall of ’54 by the Lopat All-Stars—a group headed by Yankee southpaw Eddie Lopat and including Eddie Matthews, Don Newcombe, Billy Martin and Roy Campanella. Honolulu came alive in ’55 when the Yankees arrived to take on the HBL Rural Red Sox. Under the watchful eye of colorful, contentious Casey Stengel, the New York roster that year included Mickey Mantle (inset, opposite page), Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and Don Larsen. And autumn 1956 brought the high-flying Brooklyn Dodgers, led by Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges and Jackie Robinson.
As the ’50s drew to a close, the old Hawaii Baseball League was on the wane. For more than three decades, the HBL had provided local players the opportunity to pursue their sport in Hawaii, in Japan and on the mainland. And all the while, it was paving the way for national-caliber professional baseball. In 1961 Salt Lake City’s Nick Morgan bought the defunct Sacramento Solons of the venerable Pacific Coast League (PCL) and moved it to Honolulu. So began the franchise that would take Island sports into the modern era: the Hawaii Islanders.
Only a step below the majors, the Triple-A PCL—which dated all the way back to 1903—represented a dynamic new brand of regular baseball for Hawaii. When Morgan’s franchise faltered early on, it was rescued by a hui of community leaders headed by financier Chinn Ho and kamaaina sportsman Francis I‘i Brown. Throughout the 1960s and into the arena’s swan-song ’70s, the Islanders would write a special chapter in the Honolulu Stadium story.
Hawaii Islanders ticket stubs. From the collection of Wanda Kimura.
Snapshots of the Islander era are vivid and varied: Home run king Carlos Bernier hammering four-baggers over the right field wall. Freddie Valentine stealing second in a heartbeat. The irrepressible Bo Belinsky and his dazzling companion, buxom starlet Diana Dors. Ray “Jabbo” Jablonski and “Toothpick” Willie Kirkland, Walt “No-Neck” Williams and Rac (short for Rachel) Slider.
And on the sidelines: the staccato serenades of organist Rolly Wray, and Harry Kalas calling the play-by-play on KGU. Tycoon Henry J. Kaiser in his nightly front-and-center grandstand perch, and the measured tones of Fred Antone crackling over the P.A. system. The fan called Caruso who warbled in full voice, and the fan called Shoe Shine Willie who heckled him with equal passion.
The Islanders marked their debut season with a ragtag group of players cadged mostly from the Kansas City Athletics. (Over the years, the franchise was part of several major league farm systems: the California Angels, Washington Senators, Chicago White Sox and San Diego Padres.) In 1961, they tied for sixth in the eight-team PCL, then improved to a winning record in ’62. By the following year, Hawaii was leading the league in fan support, if not team standings, with more than 250,000 in paid attendance.
The team’s first title came after a decade. Under savvy g.m. Jack Quinn and manager Chuck Tanner, the 1970 Islanders won the PCL’s Southern Division pennant with a 98-48 record, the best win-loss percentage in professional baseball. And though they dropped the league championship to Tommy Lasorda’s Spokane Indians in a four-game sweep, the Islanders had arrived. Tanner’s reward was a post as manager of the Chicago White Sox, while Honolulu Stadium posted a record season attendance of more than 467,000. In the team’s first 10 years, nearly 2.3 million people had flocked into the Stadium, making the Hawaii Islanders the biggest draw in baseball outside the major leagues.
All those fans waited patiently for another five years to see the Islanders capture the PCL crown. It was, appropriately enough, their Honolulu Stadium finale; the team was slated to open the next season at the new, state-of-the-art arena nearing completion at Halawa. The end of Stadium baseball came on September 8, 1975, before 7,731 frenzied fans—when the Islanders clinched a best-of-seven series over the Salt Lake City Gulls with an 8-0 shoutout by fastballer Dave Wehrmeister.
The Islanders did move on to Aloha Stadium in ’76 and in fact won another PCL championship—their last. Unable to draw the same die-hard crowds to Halawa, the franchise was finally moved after the ’87 season. For the Hawaii Islanders, the Honolulu Stadium years were the glory years—win or lose. All told, in the franchise’s first 15 seasons, the Stadium’s turnstiles had spun more than 3.6 million times for Islander games—the best showing in the minor leagues. In a tradition sparked by Alexander Joy Cartwright more than a century before, the old Stadium had earned Hawaii an indelible spot in the history of baseball.
Honolulu Stadium: Where Hawaii Played
by Arthur Suehiro
Softcover, 164 pages