60 years catering to tastes of Hawaii fans
By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Staff Writer
To celebrate 50 years of statehood, The Advertiser has selected our top 50 sportspersons/teams/people who helped change or shape the landscape in Hawai'i sports since 1959.
The sportsperson doesn't have to have been born here or be an athlete, but just someone who changed the landscape in Hawai'i sports, made Hawai'i proud or provided great theatre and memories.
Our Fab 50 will go in chronological order starting from the 1959-1969 decade. We will present a story a day till Aug. 21.
Mackay Yanagisawa used to take great joy in telling people about the two positions he played for the McKinley High football team in the early 1930s.
"I played end and I played guard," he would say. "I sat at the end of the bench — and guarded the water bucket."
But if his football "career" never got off the sideline, his 60 years in sports here were unmatched for vision and volume of production.
As a promoter, he started the Hula Bowl and Aloha Bowl, had a hand in bringing the Pro Bowl here and booked Notre Dame football, the Harlem Globetrotters, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Houston Oilers, major league baseball stars and Negro League tours.
Along the way Yanagisawa had a quarter-century association at Honolulu Stadium and got Aloha Stadium up and running.
Almost up until his death in 2000 at age 87, Yanagisawa had a hand in local sports one way or another.
"Mackay was probably the last of his kind; I don't think we'll ever see another single personality with as much influence on Hawai'i sports as he had for decades," said sportscaster Don Robbs, who worked many of Yanagisawa's events.
"Mackay Yanagisawa defined innovation long before it was used in such a general and cavalier way," recalls Lenny Klompus, senior advisor-communications to Gov. Linda Lingle and a past partner of Yanagisawa.
"He dreamed bold ideas and always delivered big," Klompus said. "He got knocked down from time to time, but always got up, learned from the experience and moved forward. In Mackay's world, 'anything was possible.' "
It was not unknown for Yanagisawa to take out second mortgages on his home to see the Hula Bowl, his signature event, through tough times.
But such instances were rare for a man who developed an uncanny feel for what would appeal to Hawai'i's sporting tastes, knew his way around a bottom line and came to be well entrenched politically.
It was testimony to him that a loyal group of friends and acquaintances, some for 30 years, worked his events as volunteers. Unsolicited he was known to cosign to help friends get housing loans.
"Nobody ever found a way to say 'no' to Mackay," Robbs said. "When he called and asked you for help you automatically said, 'yes.' You did it because Mackay had done so much for local sports and you were honored to be part of it."
With a passion for sports, Yanagisawa went to work after graduation from McKinley as a salesman for E. O. Hall & Son, a sporting goods company. It wasn't long before his emerging sales and marketing abilities had him organizing a league, the Honolulu Commercial and Businessman's Athletic Association. In time he was running teams in the Hawaii League and other circuits, including the storied baseball Asahis.
Yanagisawa, given inspiration by the crowds drawn for a UCLA exhibition, joined with Paul Stupin of Los Angeles in 1947 to create the Hula Bowl which, until the coming of the Pro Bowl and Aloha Bowl in the 1980s, was the state's biggest annual sporting draw.
Said Klompus: "He wanted the people of Hawai'i to see the (New York) Yankees play at the old Honolulu Stadium. They came. He wanted our residents to see top-notch collegiate players in all-star football game. The Hula Bowl was created. He wanted two of the best NCAA Division I football teams to compete at Aloha Stadium. The Pineapple Bowl — subsequently the Aloha Bowl — became a reality.
"That is when I met Mackay," said Klompus, who was then in Maryland. "I read in the USA Today about this entrepreneur that wanted to start a bowl game in Hawai'i. I wrote him a letter and told him how my company could assist his efforts. He called me and asked me to fly out to meet his 'boys' and the rest is history. He only asked me two things he wanted done before he retired. One — get Notre Dame to play in here, which turned out to be only their second non-New Year's Day game ever, and two — ensure the game would always be a mainstay of the bowl season featuring the best teams possible."
Yanagisawa sold his interest in the Hula Bowl in 1974 for $800,000, but ran the game until 1984, when he concentrated on the Aloha Bowl.
Then-Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi urged Gov. George Ariyoshi to fire Yanagisawa as manager of Aloha Stadium in the 1970s for alleged conflicts of interest that saw him running both the stadium and the Hula Bowl. But Ariyoshi and his appointed Stadium Authority backed up Yanagisawa.
In 1980, Yanagisawa turned out the lights on a Hawaii Islanders game in a spat over whether a Tacoma player was wearing approved spikes, although some critics suggested it had more to do with a simmering feud between Yanagisawa and Islanders owner Jack Quinn. It took Ariyoshi's intercession to end the standoff that Sports Illustrated called a "Dark Victory."
Yanagisawa's biggest controversies came in the mid-1980s from perceived slights of the University of Hawai'i by the Aloha Bowl. The 1984 UH team was passed over at 7-4, although the game ended up with Notre Dame and Southern Methodist. But a public firestorm ignited in 1988 when UH was passed over at 9-3. Yanagisawa, who had been elected to the UH Circle of Honor in 1987, vowed never to invite UH as long as Bob Wagner, who had lobbied for a berth for his team, was its head coach.
The following year, at 9-3-1, UH, with Wagner as head coach, played in its first NCAA bowl game.
In the end, Robbs recalls, "he did things for sports in Hawai'i that no one had imagined."