story by Jesse Katz
photos by Dana Edmunds
Harrison Kam takes batting practice
in ‘Ewa, O‘ahu. The derelict warehousese
in the background serve as a reminder
of region's connection to Hawai‘i's
all-but-defunct sugar industry.
A hundred and seventeen years ago, at a boozy black-tie gala in New York, the great American satirist Mark Twain treated his audience to a memorable, if misguided, riff on baseball and Hawai‘i—a pairing he found laughably incongruous. From Twain’s perch, Hawai‘i was “that peaceful land, that beautiful land, that far-off home of profound repose, and soft indolence, and dreamy solitude, where life is one long slumberous Sabbath.” Baseball, on the other hand, was “the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century.” The budding national pastime, he insisted, was of no use to an ethereal speck in the Pacific: “It’s like interrupting a funeral with a circus.”
The bon mots that evening were occasioned by the feats of Albert Goodwill Spalding, the sporting goods mogul who had just returned from a six-month, 30,000-mile world tour. With a squad that included several future Hall of Famers, he had sought to spread the gospel of baseball, barnstorming across Australia, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Italy, England and what was then the sovereign Kingdom of Hawai‘i. It was an audacious and visionary trip—part marketing ploy, part jingoistic mission—a precursor of the game’s eventual globalization. When the SS Alameda docked at Honolulu on November 25, 1888, Spalding’s entourage was greeted as royalty, feted with leis, bands, parades and a private reception at ‘Iolani Palace with the king. The visitors, though, soon found themselves thrust into a strange political showdown, caught between the waning clout of a native monarch and the wagging finger of Hawai‘i’s white missionary class. Spalding’s steamship, scheduled to arrive on a Saturday, had not come ashore until Sunday—and strict blue laws banned public entertainment on this day of rest. King David Kalakaua insisted that the games be played, if only to assert what remained of his independence. But Spalding abided the haole moralists. That same night, without so much as a pitch having been thrown, baseball’s ambassadors headed back out to sea. “Who knew paradise could be so complicated?” wrote Mark Lamster in the definitive account of the voyage, Spalding’s World Tour.
The irony that the Americanization of Hawai‘i had under-mined Spalding’s opportunity to showcase the new American game seemed to be lost on the dignitaries assembled in his honor under the crystal chandeliers of Delmonico’s. They were treated to a nine-course meal, each dish representing an inning, while an orchestra played Yankee Doodle and a dramatist read Casey at the Bat. Whatever baseball was thought to represent—order, symmetry, discipline, the grit and pluck of an ambitious young country—it was not easily reconciled with clichés of tropical languor. “Baseball is all fact,” Twain reminded the crowd, “the Islands all sentiment.”
Like most generalizations, even those easily disproved, there is still enough right about Twain’s jab to tease out a smile. Baseball is an unlikely fit for Hawai‘i, a land in which sports have traditionally involved sea more than, well, land. The game has a formality—a deliberateness and a uniformity—so different from the bare-skinned communion between surfer and wave. Everything in baseball can be measured, and is: ERA, RBI, LOB, OPS. The official rulebook alone runs 104 pages. What makes Hawai‘i such a treasure is all that cannot be quantified, a color, a smell, a rhythm, a flavor, the world of the senses and the spirit. It may be unfair to reduce this to “sentiment.” But only in Hawai‘i could a college baseball team be known by a moniker as gracious as the Rainbows.