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  • Writer's pictureLloyd Brown

Baseball in Paradise

Most people don’t think of Hawai’i (we are using the native Hawai’ian spelling in this review) when they talk about baseball. However, baseball in the Islands has a longer history with the sport than the mainland U.S. It was brought to this Pacific outpost by one of baseball’s pioneers, Andrew Cartwright, who moved to the Hawai’ian Islands (then known as the Sandwich Islands) in 1849. He laid out the first dimensions of a baseball field in Honolulu. The field is still in existence in a local residential neighborhood. His gravesite is located nearby and can usually be found covered by baseball caps and baseballs left by fans who have made the pilgrimage to the area.

Baseball in Hawai’i by Jim Vitti explores the rich history of baseball in the Hawai’ian Islands. It traces the beginnings of the sport in 1849 up through the present. Along the way, he talks about the famous teams, ballparks, and notable figures that have played a significant role in the growth of the sport in the area.

The first recorded baseball game in Hawai’i took place in 1866 and featured teams known as the “Natives” and the “Foreigners”. King Kalakaua (Hawai’i was a kingdom until it was annexed by the U.S. IN 1898) attended a game in 1875, and the first inter-island game between a Big Island team and a team from Maui took place in 1883. The first teams in the Islands were based on the different plantations that played in the aptly named Plantation League. A second league was known as the Hawai’i Baseball League. There was also an AJA League. This was made up of Americans of Japanese ancestry. (As a side note: Hawai’i has such a diverse population that it has never had segregated teams, beating mainland U.S. teams by more than one hundred years.)

The mainland U.S. baseball community took note of baseball in Hawai’i in the 1920’s. Many ballplayers barnstormed through different areas of the country to earn extra money in the offseason. Among these early visitors were A.G. Spalding, John McGraw, and Casey Stengel. Babe Ruth began regularly visiting the Islands in 1933. He frequently did hitting exhibitions on Waikiki Beach and often went surfing afterward with Duke Kahanamoku. He also traveled to Kilauea and hit baseballs into the Volcano’s crater. Lou Gehrig began visiting in 1934. The first native islander to play in the major leagues was Prince Oana with the Phillies in 1934.

World War II brought an end to these barnstorming tours but ironically strengthened the links between the mainland and the Hawai’ian Islands. Many baseball stars were stationed in Hawai’i during the war at one of its many military bases. Players included such well-known figures as Joe DiMaggio and Peewee Reese. There was a great deal of competition between the branches of the services to have these “ringers” play on their team for intra-service competitions. The celebrity ballplayers often put on fundraising exhibition games with proceeds going to pay for war bonds. One of these events brought in $500,000… a staggering amount in those days.

After the conclusion of the war, the floodgates of players visiting the Islands grew. Players including Yogi Berra, Enos Slaughter, Whitey Ford, Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle, and Billy Martin often visited the Islands in the offseason. Former enemies became friends, as teams from Japan started to visit the islands for exhibition games.

A staggering number of MLB players are native Hawai’ians or played for the Hawai’i Islanders minor league team in the Pacific Coast League. This list includes such well-known names as Benny Agbayani, Bo Belinsky, Rafael Belliard, Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonds, Clete Boyer, Joe Charboneau, Pat Corales, Ron Darling, Dave Dravecky, Sid Fernandez, Charlie Hough, Mike Lum, Jerry Manuel, Hank Oana, Joe Pepitone, Lenn Sakata, Bobby Valentine, Johnnie Williams, and Wally Yonamine.

The Hawai’i Islanders were the first affiliated team from Hawai’i with major league baseball. They were originally the AA affiliate with Kansas City Athletics and played in the Pacific Coast League. The Islanders would have later affiliations with the California Angles, the Washington Senators, the Chicago White Sox, the San Diego Padres, and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Islanders were in minor league baseball from 1961- 1987. They returned for a brief period from 1993-1997. The Islanders were led by future MLB managers Bob Lemon, Doug Rader, Roy Hartsfield, Bobby Valentine, Tom Trebelhorn, and Chuck Tanner. The team also featured some well-known announcers over the years, including Harry Kalas, Al Michaels, Les Kieter, and Mel Proctor. Many future MLB players spent at least some time with the Islanders. They include Ichiro Suzuki, Jason Giambi, Aaron Boone, Buster Posey, and Todd Helton.

Hawaii also has intra-island leagues. They feature teams with names such as the Sting Rays, Beach Boys, Cane Fires, Man-O-Wars, and the Whalers.

College baseball has also been remarkably successful on the Islands. The University of Hawaii has had a baseball program since 1917. In 1923 the University of California was the first team from the mainland to send a team to compete against the locals. Many other teams have followed, especially teams from cold weather climates that come for an early season series in the warmth of Hawai’i. The University of Hawai’i has been highly successful in NCAA baseball. In a 30-year span, the team has been to postseason competition eleven times. It won the NCAA baseball title in 1979 and finished as the runner-up for the title in 1980. The program has sent 127 players on to professional baseball.

The most famous ballparks associated with baseball in Hawai’i are Honolulu Stadium and Aloha Stadium. Honolulu Stadium opened in 1926 and was known as the “Termite Palace”, as it was completely built out of wood. It hosted every level of baseball competition until 1976. It seated a little over 20,000 fans at its largest capacity after several renovations. Its long existence is a miracle, as termites are a major pest in the warm Hawai’ian climate. The all-steel Aloha Stadium has served as its replacement since 1976. It is better suited as a football stadium, as it has a capacity of more than 50,000. It is better known for hosting the Hula Bowl and the NFL Pro Bowl. Even Aloha Stadium is now under a massive renovation. The University of Hawai’i also features the Les Murakami Baseball Stadium, with a capacity of 4,312. In addition to college baseball games, it also hosts the Hawai’i Winter Baseball League games. The stadium is also famous for its terrific views of Diamond Head.                   


So, what explains the success of baseball in the Hawai’ian Islands? Two possible explanations are the long history of the sport in the Islands and the area’s climate that allows the games to go on year-round. Another explanation could be the Islands’ position midway between the U. S. and Japan… two countries where the sport is considered the national sport.

We feel a key to the success of baseball in the Hawai’ian Islands is the strength of the youth baseball programs in the state. Teams from the Islands have been the Junior Little League World Champions four times (1984, 2000, 2001, and 2007). Little League teams from Hawai’i have won two Little League World Series (2005, 2008) and come in second twice (1988, 2010). At the Pony League level of competition, Hawai’ian teams have come home with four world titles (1969,1980, 1979, and 1989). Finally, the Hawai’i representative won the American Legion baseball national title in 1980.

Baseball in Hawai’i provides a detailed history of the sport that goes back to the days when Hawai’i was still a kingdom and baseball was in its infancy on the mainland. Readers will be surprised at the role the Hawai’ian Islands have played in baseball on the world stage. We recommend Baseball in Hawai’i to any serious student of the game.

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