Wright On: For Hilo Little League, summer fun ran rampant in 1961

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Nobody imagined anything like this would happen, not even themselves.

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Nobody imagined anything like this would happen, not even themselves.

When a scrappy collection of young players showed up for Hilo American Little League tryouts back in 1961, all they shared were some youthful friendships, an interest in baseball and a desire to have some fun.

Raised on Big Island values, chief among them humility and respect, those young people, that collection of individuals who wanted to be, more than anything else, good teammates, did something remarkable that people under the age of 50 might not even know about today.

In that summer, they put Hilo on the baseball map of the world.

They were not, by any estimation, much different from any other group of Little Leaguers from Kauai to Miami, and they certainly did not conceive of anything remotely close to what unfolded for them that summer. Russell Hayashi would be a case in point.

Until the summer of ‘61, Hayashi had never played baseball, but he knew some friends who were turning out and what else was going on, anyway?

He picked a good time, or maybe it was how baseball captured the nation that year that picked him.

At a higher level, 1961 was an especially noteworthy year for Major League Baseball, with a handful of unconventional occurrences that kept the country’s sports fans on high alert. In April, the lovable loser Washington Senators opened a new chapter, playing in Minneapolis-St. Paul as the Minnesota Twins. Mickey Mantle became baseball’s highest paid player when word leaked out that his new salary would be worth $75,000, and then there was The Chase, when Roger Maris — paired next to Mantle in the Yankees lineup — hit a record 61 home runs.

It felt like the country was floating in a sea of baseball, and in July many of those fans paused and turned their attention to the Little League World Series — as they will again in another week when the events renews — that included those Hilo American players.

“We just kept playing,” said Hayashi, “we didn’t know, or really even think about what was happening, we were just having fun. That was it.”

Hayashi made the team, possibly because another player with promise was a couple years younger and Hayashi was 12, his last year of Little League eligibility, so he made the cut.

You might have guessed by now, it turned out well after Hayashi made the Hilo American All-Star team. His first game he batted ninth, then he was moved to eighth in the order, and he gradually inched his way up, batting fourth most of the season.

His unlikely path symbolized in some way the larger story of the team that went through the regular season undefeated and had to face the more dominant Hilo National team in the first sanctioned District Little League Tournament.

There was no superstar kid on the team, not a pitcher that couldn’t be hit, nobody in the lineup that was going to hit everything thrown toward the plate.

It’s worth mentioning that no one interviewed for this column was eager to talk about their successes that year, their humility and unwillingness to be singled out for praise holding them back. Persuasion and a little begging got them to agree to chat about that memorable summer.

They picked each other up, a different hero every day for the team that included Carl Otsuka, Keith Imaino, Eugene Narimatsu, Clyde Kojiro, Adrian Hussey, Milton Shiroma, Dennis Eblacas, Jerry Kitagawa, Gary Matsumoto Jr., Randy Yamada, Alan Kinoshita, Scott Leithead, Russell Arikawa and Hayashi. Gary Matsumoto Sr. coached, and Ben Inouye was the manager. Coach Nobu Yamauchi, namesake of the current RBI League champions, was unable to make the trip due to working conflicts.

“It was an unbelievable journey,” said Arikawa, the catcher. “Nobody expected us to beat National, they had been stronger for quite a while, they always seemed to win, but then we beat them (5-2) somehow and we thought that was as good as it gets, we beat National.”

“What did we know?“ asked Eugene Narimatsu. “We knew nothing, our attitude was always sort of like, ‘That was fun, what’s next?’ It was a great group of people to be involved with.”

Beating Hilo National, a daunting, seemingly unattainable goal given the dominance of the other league in those years, was just the start.

They beat Kauai 6-3, then turned back West Maui 5-4 and became champions of District 3. Back then, all the outer islands played for a district title and Oahu held its own district competition, with the two winners playing in the Pacific-Asia Tournament in Honolulu.

“Nobody thought about Williamsport or anything like that,” Arikawa said, “we sort of couldn’t believe what happened.”

But there was more.

Still undefeated, referred to as the “Cinderella” team in news accounts of the day, Hilo American beat Pearl City 5-4 to claim the State of Hawaii Championship, then did away with Japan 10-3 and they were going to Williamsport as representatives of Pacific-Asia, with “Pacific” emblazoned on their uniforms, across their chests.

“I remember not knowing about Williamsport,” Arikawa said, “a lot of us were talking about going to the mainland, only a couple of us had ever been there.”

They boarded a prop jet, made it to the mainland and took a few more flights before arriving in Williamsport. They were housed in cabins in a wooded area near the ballpark and they were on tour everywhere they went.

“People were ready for us and they treated us like celebrities or something,” Hayashi said. “We went to amusement parks and different things wherever we were, but we would have been happy with just the swimming pool. Bunch of young kids in the summer, we would all voted to stay in the pool and play games all day long.

“My only regret after all these years is that I didn’t keep in better touch with our hosts, they were great people, so outgoing, so welcoming, so encouraging to us.”

Williamsport brought other games to play in what was then a brutal single-elimination tournament — except for the consolation game — and despite the distractions of swimming pools and amusement parks, the Hilo team was more than ready.

Being there was a first for a Hawaii team, but Arikawa carved another inaugural accomplishment into the Little League World Series record books, when, in his second plate appearance in the first game against Canada, he lofted a fly ball over the fence for a grand slam home run, the first certified such feat in the then brief 15-year history of the tournament.

“It was one of those crazy things where I think we had a base hit, somebody was walked, there was an error and people kept moving up,” Arikawa said. “I just closed my eyes and swung the bat.”

On second base at the time, Narimatsu’s eyes were wide open.

“I had a good view,” he said. “I saw it fly over my head and over the centerfield fence, but I knew it was a home run as soon as he hit it, sometimes you just know, and that was one those hits.”

Arikawa recalled he was hoping for a good pitch to hit and he got one, “Right up here,” he said, motioning to approximate shoulder height. It was a room service pitch at the exact worse time for the French-speaking team from Quebec.

They all told him it had never been done before and it was years later that Arikawa inquired about that validity of his home run. A week or so later, someone called back and said there had been an earlier home run with the bases loaded, but there was no indication the ball was hit over the fence or if it had been a case of what you see a lot in Little League, a ball in the outfield misplayed, followed by throwing errors.

“I told them, ‘That’s good enough for me,’” Arikawa said, laughing. “It may have been luck but I had the first certified grand slam.”

For Hilo, and for the state, it was more than a big hit at a propitious time, it was a swing that served as a wakeup call. People around the country associated Hilo, a place most of them never heard of, with baseball prominence.

It told other Little Leaguers in our state that they could reach their dreams, and since then, several have. It told coaches and instructors of various levels of interest, that there is baseball talent in Hilo that needs attention.

You could say the interest in baseball was always here, dating back to the visits of Babe Ruth and others, but for modern times, it’s fair to say baseball had a jolt of adrenaline in the summer of ’61 that has to be considered part of the rich heritage and interest in baseball in Hilo.

Others were champions who visited the Big Island and shared their success, the Hilo American team in 1961 came from here and became champions on the world stage and then returned.

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Their success, however humble it may be, is still being shared.

Contact Bart at bart@tribuneherald.com

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