Skip to main content
Original Issue

Hula, moolah and no blahs

The Hawaiian Islanders are a touch of Old Shoe and Old Mainland. The best buy in Honolulu, these minor leagues draw with the bigs

What's the best show in Honolulu? There's always Rikki, "The Girl Who Wears Nothing" at the Esquire Theatre. Or why not take in one of those delightfully dreadful Japanese movies like Goke, the Body Snatcher from Hell, or the latest adventures of Oichi, The Blind Swordswoman, a balletic Kendo flick where limbs fall like petals from a yellow rose? Eccch!

The perfect answer to the tourist blahs in Honolulu is a combo called the Hawaii Islanders. The name may be a bit prosaic, and the act runs only from 7:30 to 10:30 every night they're in town, but the minimum is a paltry $1.75. No drink costs more than half a buck, while the tourist interested in authentic Hawaiian cuisine (circa 1970) can get a full meal—from soup to nuts—for less than a dollar. The soup is saimin, a pork-noodle broth, the nuts are boiled peanuts, and the entertainment is classical—baseball.

Last week more than 60,000 fun seekers enjoyed the Islanders' Triple-A act, bringing the season's attendance to nearly 400,000, with seven more games to be played at home. Hawaii has already bettered by 100,000 its own league attendance record for 146 games that it set last year. Owners of many a major league team—the White Sox and Padres among them—would dance the hula for that kind of moolah. The occasion for last week's record turnout was a seven-game home stand against the Phoenix Giants, who trailed the Islanders in the Pacific Coast League's Southern Division by 9½ games when they came to town. It was a tough, hard-played series, marked by those flashes of youthful brilliance and aged ignominy that characterize minor league ball. Not until the last game was the issue resolved. Happily for the 6,986 who attended, the Islanders won it 4-2, and thus took the series, four games to three.

What accounts for baseball's success in a place mainly noted for its surfboards and electric guitars? First off, the Islanders under Manager Chuck Tanner, the bold old Brave, are playing splendid ball. Winning at a .670 clip, and with only 20 games left to play in the season, they are certain to capture their first division title, and maybe their first pennant, in a decade of existence. But even if they were losers, the Islanders would be fun to watch.

Baseball provides a much-needed shot of reality on Oahu, an ingrown mid-Pacific lump of lava that is rapidly turning to plastic. In contrast to the gaudy, gamy hotels of Waikiki, Honolulu Stadium is a bit of back home. Manager Tanner and his trainer. Bob (Doc) Feron, who both worked for the Milwaukee Brewers in that club's American Association days, liken the stadium to Milwaukee's late Borcherdt Field, which was known locally as Borcherdt Orchard, and whose roof once blew off in a moderate gale. Honolulu Stadium is equally decrepit: at the age of 45, its bones have gone fragile thanks to an infestation of termites, and peanut shells rattle down through cracks in the grandstand like the rain of Somerset Maugham's classic. Billboards bright with local advertising stud the outfield walls. One of them contains a five-foot-wide puka, or circular hole, backed with a bit of fishnet, through which batters are urged to hit homers and win $1,000 per shot. (Only one Islander, the memorable No-Neck Williams, has ever turned the trick.) Another sign proudly puns: "Anything goes with Holsum, the Sandwich Islands Bread." Rotsa yuk.

The atmosphere of Hawaiian ball is unlike anything found elsewhere in baseball, major or minor league. Spectators wear faded Aloha shirts, tattered shorts, rubber go-aheads and delicately patterned Japanese umbrellas to fend off the Manoa mist, a cool-beaded rain-shower, actually the bottom of a cloud, that drifts down through the stadium at least three or four times a night. When the mist thickens too much for play, everyone heads for the concession stands to consume a diet that would give Abner Doubleday (or Alexander Cartwright, if you prefer) a galloping case of ghostly gastritis. One night last week the customers downed 15,000 cups of soda pop, 6,000 more of beer, 3,000 frozen milkshakes, 1,800 orders of saimin—and 857 ears of boiled, heavily buttered corn on the cob. Not to mention enough hot dogs, hamburgers, peanuts and potato chips to feed all the crews of all the tugboats in Pearl Harbor. Only 300 of them opted for manapua, another local delicacy known as Chinese hamburger (it's actually boiled pork, dyed blood red, and stunningly set inside a soggy, steamed dumpling).

Between sips and nibbles, the fans cheered unashamedly for the local talent—which is considerable. One favorite is Third Baseman John Werhas, 32, a Washington Senators castoff who is batting 10th in the league at .290. A long, gaunt, clutch-hitting crowd pleaser, Werhas affects a lacy barong-tagalog shirt off the field, and his teammates call him Peaches. The fans wouldn't dare to—or care to. Another aging vet is Pitcher Dennis Bennett, 30, who has been with four major league clubs from Philadelphia to Anaheim, and who currently owns the best win record in the PCL (15-8) plus one of the worst ERAs (4.96). Bennett's value to the club is in his savvy (he cannot do it consistently himself anymore, but he can tell young pitchers such as Tom Bradley, 10-1, just where to pitch against whom) and in his pinch-hitting (currently .307). Like so many of the older Islanders, Bennett is tough without being cynical. "I try to perform," he says.

The Islanders also abound in vigorous young talent on the way up. The left fielder, Winston Llenas, 26, "The Dominican Dandy," leads the league in both batting (.340) and RBIs (101). Doug Griffin, 23, is a quick, magnetically gloved second baseman whose .333 hitting and league-leading 28 stolen bases electrify the audience only a few volts less than his fielding. Clearly he is the best of the brood in terms of the future. During a 2-0 shutout of the Giants at midweek, Griffin seemingly teleported himself into the path of a sure single between second and first, meditated for a moment in a yoga position known as the bow, then threw the runner out with yards to spare. "Griffin's got major leagues written all over him," says Tanner.

The same could probably be said about Tanner himself. With the help of General Manager Jack Quinn, the scion of a three-generation baseball family and practitioner of the best in trading and buying tactics, Tanner at 42 bridges the generation gap in baseball. Triple-A teams are generally the last stop for mavericks and burnt-out cases, but Tanner can handle them all, the rebellious young and jaded old. Werhas, Outfielder Jim Hicks, 31, and Relief Pitcher Roy Face, 41, are playing like men half a decade younger. Catcher Merritt Ranew, steadily improving at 32, was virtually given up for dead after having his skull smashed by a bat in May 1966 at Vancouver, and almost forgotten after being dropped by Denver early this year. Tanner rang his home in Augusta, Ga. day after day until he finally connected. Tanner got a much-needed catcher, Ranew another chance.

On the far side of the gap, Tanner has brought Llenas, Griffin, Shortstop Marty Perez and Pitchers Bradley and Archie Reynolds to the edge of major league status. Recently he acquired longhaired Outfielder Hank McGraw, 27, from Philadelphia, and that cantankerous disdainer of the barber's chair is certain, long locks and all, to be swinging his big bat before the home stand ends.

One evening last week umbrellas bloomed warmly in the dusk, and the crunching sounds of termites and corn-on-the-cob eaters filled the damp air. The voice of a little girl in a big, bright muumuu shot through the infield like a line drive off Winnie Llenas' bat: "C'mon, Islanders, show 'em where it's at!" With the Manoa mist beading his own long but gray sideburns, Tanner looked up into the stands and grinned. "Hey," he said quietly, "this has just gotta be the best show in town." And maybe in baseball.