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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, July 2, 2004

Nakama ruled in the pool, shined on baseball diamond

Have a blast with our past : Learn about Hawai'i's sports history and those who figured prominently in it in this fun and informative feature. We'll ask a question Thursday and give the answer in an in-depth profile Friday.

Q. This member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame also was a second baseman for Ohio State's Big Ten championship baseball team in 1943. Who is he?

A. Keo Nakama, who is known more as the first person to successfully swim across the Kaiwi (Moloka'i to O'ahu) Channel in 1961, played on Ohio State's baseball team for three years and was the Buckeyes' captain in 1944.

By Wes Nakama
Advertiser Staff Writer

On an Ohio State University campus traversed by legendary sports figures during World War II, one of the most popular was a 5-foot-6, 140-pound swimmer from the sugar plantation town of Pu'unene, Maui.

Keo Nakama, 84, broke the monotony of swimming at Ohio State by playing baseball for the Buckeyes during the 1940s. The Maui-born All-American swimmer still works out daily at Central YMCA.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Keo Nakama was a big man on Ohio State's sprawling campus not just for his All-American exploits in the pool, but also as a second baseman on the Buckeyes' Big Ten Conference championship baseball team in 1943 and captain in 1944.

"You know, baseball was always Keo's first love," said Bill Smith, another Maui product who became an All-American swimmer at Ohio State and 1948 Olympic gold medalist. "He always enjoyed baseball, and he got the opportunity to play ball at Ohio State."

Nakama's amazing journey from the irrigation ditches of Pu'unene to the International Swimming Hall of Fame has been well-chronicled over the years, and it will no doubt be retold this weekend at his 56th annual swim meet at the University of Hawai'i's Duke Kahanamoku Aquatic Complex.

Nakama also is famous here for becoming the first person to swim completely across the 27-mile Kaiwi Channel from Molokai'i to O'ahu in 1961, at age 41.

Few, however, know about Nakama's baseball career that for decades made him Ohio State's only athlete to be a team captain in two varsity sports. Nakama honed his game in the camp leagues in Pu'unene, but there was no baseball team for him to play on at Maui High School.

Even Mike Peppe, the Buckeyes' legendary swim coach, had no idea about Nakama's talent on the diamond until the spring of 1942.

"We were done with swimming, so I just told him I was going out for baseball," said Nakama, now 84 and living in East Honolulu. "He didn't believe me, but then he came out to watch our games."

Those games were worth watching. One of Nakama's teammates, center fielder Don Grate, later played in the major leagues with the Philadelphia Phillies. An opponent, Indiana's Ted Kluszewski, led the National League in home runs and RBIs in 1954 while playing for the Cincinnati Reds.

Other opponents included Wisconsin's Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch — who later was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame — and Andy Phillips, an All-American basketball player for Illinois' famed "Whiz Kids."

"It was high-level baseball," Smith said. "Keo wanted to play shortstop, but his arm wasn't strong enough to make the throw from that position, so he played second base. He was a good fielder, but he wasn't much of a hitter. But he was thought of highly as a baseball player, and he was a very popular guy on the team. Everyone on campus knew him because he was a really outstanding athlete."

One of Nakama's good friends was Les Horvath, Ohio State's quarterback who led the Buckeyes to the national championship in 1943 and won the Heisman Trophy in 1944. Olympic track legend Jesse Owens owned a nearby dry cleaning business and would visit the swimming pool to talk story with Nakama and Smith.

And then there were times when Ohio State's football coach, Paul Brown, would leave his young sons to be watched by Nakama and other swimmers. Brown later founded the NFL's Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"I'm glad I went to Ohio State," Nakama said. "I had the opportunity to meet some interesting people."

Ohio State was glad to have Nakama, who won Big Ten and national championships in the 400- and 1500-meter freestyle and led the Buckeyes to NCAA titles in 1943 and 1945. All this at a time when the United States was at war with Japan and the phrase "hostile environment" on the road meant more than college kids dressed in crazy outfits.

"Keo was quite popular in Columbus," Smith said. "He did so much for the school."

A 1945 proclamation to Nakama signed by the governor of Ohio, the mayor of Columbus and the president of Ohio State reads:

"Whereas we who have followed you throughout your college career, who know you not only as a great athlete but a fine gentleman, inspiring leader and an example of the highest type of American sportsmanship ...

"Whereas you, through your ability to command the respect, cooperation and love of those associated with you have brought to Columbus renown throughout the land ...

"Whereas you, by exemplifying in your daily conduct and behavior those attributes of character which have favorably influenced the youth of our nation,

"We present to you this scroll of honor.

"May you receive it with the assurance that its inscription will be imprinted upon your heart as it is upon ours forever."

Nakama, in typical Maui-boy humility, did not know he would have such a huge impact at one of America's largest universities. He joined Ohio State's baseball team for the love of the game, and for two other reasons.

"I needed the break from swimming, when it got monotonous," said Nakama, who still swims daily at Central YMCA. "And, I got to eat at the training table for two different teams ... I qualified for both sides."

Reach Wes Nakama at wnakama@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2456.