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Volume 41. No. 2.
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Over the Years/ Professor Sam Yamashita takes us back to his baseball-crazed boyhood in Hawaii.
Pinstripes in Paradise

By Mark Kendall

More than 2,000 miles of ocean lay between a young Hawaiian baseball fan named Sam Yamashita and the nearest city with a major league baseball team.

But don’t feel bad for the boy. Growing up near Honolulu in the 1950s, Yamashita met more big-league ball players than most mainlanders could ever dream of. Braves’ pitching star Lew Burdette gave Sam his cap, which the boy would wear to Little League practice. He shook hands and had his picture taken with Casey Stengel, manager of his favorite team, the New York Yankees. Yamashita also met Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Stan Musial and other stars as they came to play at Honolulu Stadium.


The young Sam Yamashita with Jackie Robinson and Roy
Campanella.
   
 “I remember sitting next to Jackie Robinson,” says Yamashita, who today is the Henry E. Sheffield Professor of History at Pomona College. “His biceps were bigger than my legs.”

Yamashita’s boyhood memories open a window into Hawaii’s illustrious but little-known baseball history. The game was introduced to the islands some 150 years ago, thanks to Alexander Cartwright, a New Yorker considered by many to be the father of baseball. He settled in Hawaii in the 1850s after going west in search of gold in California.

Not long after its arrival in Hawaii, baseball came to Japan in the 1870s, according to Robert Fitts, author of Remembering Japanese Baseball. In the 20th century, Hawaii was a stop for American major league exhibition teams that traveled to Japan and other countries, along with being a destination for such trips in and of itself. Later, during World War II, stars such as Joe DiMaggio played ball in Hawaii while serving in the military.

In Yamashita’s youth, the Hawaiian Islands were an American possession (Yamashita prefers the term “colony”) and half the population was of Japanese descent. Perhaps that combination of influences magnified the love of baseball. Every plantation had its team, every boy carried big-league dreams.

   
Mickey Mantle shows his bat to Yamashita.
“Baseball was a kind of religion for Japanese boys in Hawaii,” says Yamashita. Of course, that doesn’t explain how the young Yamashita wound up rubbing shoulders in the dugout with the likes of Jackie Robinson. We’ll get to that.

The story begins before Sam Yamashita was born, when his father, Hide (pronounced “He-day”) Yamashita, played outfield for the Asahis, which means Rising Sun. Each of Hawaii’s major ethnic groups had their own teams in the semipro Hawaiian Baseball League, and the Asahis were tops in 1938, when they won the league championship.

Then came the attack on Pearl Harbor and war with Japan. Hide was a member of the Hawaiian National Guard, where the soldiers of Japanese descent faced suspicion. In 1942, just over 1,400 were sent to the mainland and formed into the first Japanese-American unit—the 100th Battalion—that trained at Camp McCoy, Wis.

With many baseball players such as Hide in their ranks, the soldiers formed a team called the Aloha Team, which traveled extensively, playing exhibition games throughout Wisconsin and drawing local press coverage. But the games were only a respite before war.

The battalion was sent off to fight in Italy in 1943. Their star ball player, Shigeo “Joe” Takata, was the first to die in battle, from shrapnel wounds. Six more players would die before the war ended.


Yamashita with Yankee's legend Casey
Stengel.
   
“By the time they reached Rome, there was no longer a baseball team,” says Yamashita. He adds that surviving members of the Aloha team—five or six guys—did toss the baseball around in Mussolini’s Olympic Stadium in what must have been a bittersweet scene.

Hide Yamashita returned to Hawaii after the war, and Samuel was born in 1946. Hide worked as an umpire, and Hawaii remained a popular spot for exhibition games through the 1950s, drawing visits by teams such as the Yankees, the Dodgers and the Cardinals.

That’s how Yamashita wound up in a dugout with Jackie Robinson. He remembers his umpire father saying, “I want my boy to sit right here, right next to Jackie Robinson.” Yamashita also recalls that the star gave the boy his cracked bat.

Another vivid memory for Yamashita was his short conversation and handshake with Casey Stengel. Sam was 9 or 10 at the time, “old enough to know this was a big deal.”

It’s no surprise that the young Yamashita wanted to be a ball player like his dad. He attended Mid-Pacific Institute, a prep school, because of its excellent baseball team. But with his slight frame and 4' 11'' height, he wound up forgoing baseball for long-distance running.

   
Whitey Ford signed his photo for
Yamashita.
After high school, Yamashita left the islands to attend Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. He later earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from University of Michigan. Yamashita came to Pomona in 1983, and his research topics range from the Confucian academies that dominated Japanese thinking centuries ago to translating the wartime diaries of ordinary Japanese citizens.

The professor’s research took him into more personal realms a few years back as he dug into the history of his father’s World War II Aloha team to write an essay for the compilation, More than a Game: Sport in the Japanese American Community, published by the Japanese American National Museum in 2000.

He pored over old newspaper articles from small-town papers and returned to Hawaii to interview former players. “It was a great thrill,” says Yamashita. “At some point, it seems to me, all historians write pieces that are more personal.”

The father and son’s love for the game has endured to this day. Sam pitches for a Pomona faculty/staff softball team. Back in Hawaii, 88-year-old Hide is still umpiring six or seven softball games a weekend. Sam calls his widowed father every day.

“We always talk baseball,’’ he says.

Bonus photos:


Yamashita poses with the Cardinals' Stan
Musial.
   
   
One of the many youth baseball teams Yamashita played on.





















 

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