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Hawaii’s AJAs Play Ball - Part 2

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Bang for the Buck

AJA baseball also enjoyed the support of the business community, which willingly donated trophies and prizes to the winning teams. In the 1936 O‘ahu championship game, Seikosha Watch Store owner Genbei Watanabe donated a huge silver trophy to the victor, Wahiawa, which had defeated its town rival, Pālama. Other businesses supported AJA baseball as well: Standard Oil Company, where Asahi player Tsuru Mamiya worked, sponsored the Japanese-language broadcast of the game on KGU radio. Some companies and individuals donated game or tournament trophies, including the Hawaii Hochi, Honolulu Sake Brewery, Kobayashi Hotel, Sato Clothiers, Dr. Katsumi Kometani, Sumitomo Bank, Japanese screen star Jyoji Oka, the Kaua‘i Shimpo newspaper, and Miura Store.

Teams were also supported by businesses in their respective communities. For example, Times Super Market, which opened its first store in McCully, sponsored the uniforms for the McCully Junior League team. It was a good investment for Times because the same uniforms could be reused over several seasons. Ten other community merchants donated $50 each towards the team’s general operations. Central Pacific Bank and City Bank, whose clientele in the 1950s was largely Japanese, showed their appreciation and support by donating trophies for the major tournaments. And support for AJA baseball wasn’t limited to Hawai‘i. In 1936, Kihei Okuyama, president of the Matsusaka Hotel in Yokohama, donated a silver cup for the championship team in the interisland series.

Who’s the Best

The four islands fielding AJA League teams—Hawai‘i, Kaua‘i, Maui, and O‘ahu—took turns hosting the season finale tournament in late April. Some of the AJA Leagues also played for the Hawaii Baseball League, whose seasons began in early May.

The interisland tournaments were exciting and colorful affairs, full of displays of island pride. In 1936, the Hilo Asahis of the AJA League (not to be mistaken with the Hawaii League Asahis) became the first neighbor island team to capture an interisland championship, blanking Pearl City 3–0. The game was played before a crowd of 3,000 at Honolulu Stadium. Futoshi (Taffy) Okamura allowed only one hit, bringing home the game for Hilo. Hilo fans were ecstatic; not only had their team won the tournament, Hilo would forever have the distinction of having been the first neighbor island team to clinch an AJA League championship.

Interest in the tournament ran high among fans from other areas as well, and many teams chartered special buses to transport their fans to the stadium. When Kaua‘i hosted the 1937 interisland tournament, more than 100 players, officials, fans, journalists, and others took an overnight ship to the Garden Island for the championship game.

The interisland tournament was halted during World War II but was revived in 1948 following a six-year absence. During the game, a moment of silence was observed in memory of the AJA League ballplayers who had made the supreme sacrifice for their country. That year, Kauai defeated O‘ahu, 6–5, before a crowd of 4,000 at Honolulu Stadium. Pitcher Haruto “Lefty” Hirota and slugger Dai Fujii brought the victory home for Kaua‘i. Hirota was named the tournament’s most valuable player, while Fujii took home the team trophy.

Helluva Story!

In its heyday, AJA baseball was a big deal. The exploits of the various teams received in-depth coverage in the English-language pages of Hawaii’s two Japanese language dailies, Hawaii Hochi and the now-defunct Hawaii Times (formerly the Nippu Jiji). Both papers sent a reporter to cover the games; writers like Percy Koizumi, Monte Ito, Eddie Tanaka, and Susumu Hashitake provided colorful accounts of the games and covered issues for their readers. The Hochi even selected and AJA all-star first and second team, which it called “The Hawaii Hochi Honor Roll.” The league was highly respected in the larger community as well and drew VIPs to its activities. In 1948, for example, Governor Ingram Stainback hurled out the first ball of the season. Honolulu Mayor Neal S. Blaisdell, who managed the Hawaii Baseball League Asahis during the war, attended many AJA League activities while in office, and Governor George Ariyoshi, America’s first governor of Japanese ancestry, also threw out the first ball at many AJA League season openers.

“And We’re On the Air…”

The Honolulu League’s regular-season games were held on Sundays at Honolulu Stadium. There were usually three games on tap, with the first played at mid-morning. The second game, usually the featured match-up, began around noon, and the last game started at about 2:30 p.m. The feature game was broadcast on either KGMB of KGU radio, whichever held broadcast contract at the time. Some AJA games were being broadcast as early as 1940, but the 1960s and early 1970s were the real peak period for radio broadcasts of AJA baseball. Games were called by announcers who went on to become noted sports voices in the islands, among them Chuck Leahey, Joe Rose, Frank Valenti, Gene Good, Webley Edwards—all of whom have passed away—and Harry Kalas, who was known as the “Voice of the Hawaii Islanders.”

In 1940, a radio audience estimated at more than 25,000 heard Rural O‘ahu champ Wai‘alua beat Kaua‘i, 7–1, for the interisland tournament championship title. The game, which was attended by a crowd of 5,500 at Honolulu Stadium, was broadcast over KGMB and KHBC radio. Standard Oil Company sponsored that particular broadcast, among others.

The Price of Peace

World War II ended the playing of at least two Hawai‘i boys: Wai‘alua native Shigeo “Joe” Takata was killed in action, and Yoshinao “Turtle” Omiya was seriously wounded. Both men had served with the 100th Infantry Battalion in Europe.

In the early 1980s, Turtle Omiya—catcher with the Mo‘ili‘ili White Elephants as well as captain of McKinley High School’s 1937–38 championship team—shared with writer Thelma Chang the story behind his nickname. “I was crouched behind the plate as a catcher, wearing a mask and oversized chest protector. A friend remarked that I looked like a turtle underneath all that gear, and I became ‘Turtle’ to friends ever since.”

Turtle Omiya’s service to his country during the war came at a high price. While crossing the Volturno River in Italy in November 1943, his squad’s messenger tripped a “Bouncing Betty,” a land mine which when tripped propels into the air, opening up like an umbrella. The shrapnel that rained down on the soldiers caused many serious and even fatal injuries. The “Bouncing Betty” blinded Omiya in both eyes. Life magazine published a photograph of Turtle in a hospital in Charleston, South Carolina, gauze covering both of his eyes. He lived the rest of his life in darkness.

The White Elephants honored Omiya in a ceremony at Ala Wai Field in 1948. With more than 3,000 fans looking on, team captain Jimmy Wada presented Turtle with a radio from his team members. “It was sad, but cannot help. It was a sad occasion, but he was happy,” recalled Wasa, who had grown up with Turtle in Mo‘ili‘ili. Both had played baseball for the American Legion, McKinley High School, and the AJA League, and they remained close friends after Turtle returned from the war. Turtle Omiya died peacefully in June of 1984.

Jimmy Wasa (left) and Turtle Omiya (right), Honolulu Stadium, 1948. Gift of Jimmy Wasa, Japanese American National Museum [99.276.1].

The AJA Baseball Legacy

In looking back on the legacy of Hawaii’s AJA League, one need look no farther than the green, orange, and white uniforms worn by today’s University of Hawaii Rainbows baseball team. Why green, orange, and white? After all, the university’s colors are green and white. The colors are Coach Murakami’s way of remembering a humble past.

When he joined the University of Hawaii as head coach of the fledging Rainbows team in 1971, the team had absolutely nothing—no facilities, not even a college-level playing schedule, and in fact, the players didn’t even have regular team uniforms. So Coach Les went back to the Honolulu team he had played for and managed in the AJA League, Sheridan, and borrowed their green, orange, and white uniforms.

The early days of the UH program were humbling ones, says Coach Les. In many respects, the path traveled by the university’s squad parallels that of his old Sheridan team because small donations from the community kept both the Sheridan squad and the University of Hawaii program afloat. When you don’t have anything, you appreciate everything, he says. Coach Les remembers, “Just like with Sheridan. It was like a family operation. It was real grassroots. Even the concession was family-type.”

The University of Hawaii’s baseball program is now a centerpiece of pride at the Manoa campus. Its teams have faced off against the nation’s best tournament play, and many of its players have gone on to play professional baseball on the mainland as well as in Japan. From time to time there have been attempts to drop the orange from the Bows’ uniforms to make them conform to the University of Hawaii’s standard green-and-white color scheme, but Coach Les has always resisted. He says, “Green and white doesn’t look as nice as green, orange, and white….”


* This essay was adapted from two articles published in the Hawaii Herald on June 7 and 21, 1996 and published in More Than A Game in 2000 by the Japanese American National Museum.


© 2000 The Japanese American National Museum

AJA League Asahi (Hawaii) baseball baseball leagues community hawaii Japanese American National Museum Les Murakami more than a game Oahu sports Turtle Omiya