Islanders a fan hit during 27-year run
By Stacy Kaneshiro
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 until Aug. 21.
The symmetry of baseball was never lost on the Hawaii Islanders.
In just its third year of statehood, Hawai'i got what turned out to be its longest reigning pro sports franchise because of financing issues in Sacramento, Calif. Twenty-seven years later, Hawai'i would lose its franchise for the same reason.
When the Islanders made their home debut on April 20, 1961 at the old Honolulu Stadium, there wasn't much fanfare, as 6,041 watched them lose to the Vancouver Mounties, 4-3.
When the Islanders played their last game as members of the Pacific Coast League on Sept. 1, 1987, they won 10-4 at Vancouver, then called the Canadians.
But in between their coming and going, the Islanders brought a lot of memories.
Being in Triple-A, or a step away from the majors, Hawai'i fans got to see tomorrow's stars today.
Barry Bonds would make a cameo in 1986, playing about two months before the parent club Pittsburgh Pirates called him up.
But there were more popular players:
• Outfielder Carlos Bernier, who played the first four seasons of the Islanders, was probably the first, being that he was on the inaugural team. Fans liked his hustling style of play.
• Pitcher Bo Belinsky was yesteryear's answer to Jeff Garcia. At one time, Belinsky was married to Playboy Playmate Jo Collins. He had several stints with the Islanders, throwing a no-hitter against Tacoma in 1968.
• Outfielder Winston Llenas was a fan favorite, having played on four different Islanders teams. But he made his mark in 1970, when he hit .339 with 20 homers and 108 RBI. He was edged out for PCL MVP honors that season by future Islander Bobby Valentine.
• Outfielder Tony Gwynn was familiar to Hawai'i fans even before he wore an Islanders jersey in 1982 because he played for University of Hawai'i's then arch-rival San Diego State in previous years. He is the only Islanders player in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
(The Islanders' manager in 1964, former Indians pitcher Bob Lemon, also is in the Hall of Fame.)
• Third baseman John Werhas was popular with the fans, having spent three full seasons and a portion of a fourth in Hawai'i.
• Manager Chuck Tanner led the Islanders to their first division title in 1970 before spending 19 seasons as a big-league manager. He managed the Pittsburgh Pirates to the 1979 World Series championship.
• Manager Roy Hartsfield managed both of Hawai'i's PCL championship teams before becoming manager of the inaugural Toronto Blue Jays in 1977.
• Outfielder Walt "No Neck" Williams was the only Islander to homer into the old Columbia Inn "puka" sign in right field to win $1,000.
Players weren't the only ones groomed by the Islanders. Several nationally renown broadcasters also worked here.
The most notable were the late Harry Kalas and Al Michaels. Kalas had been the voice of the Philadelphia Phillies for 39 seasons before he passed away earlier this season. Michaels went on to the Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants broadcast booths before going national on ABC.
The late Les Keiter, a legend in sports broadcasting before he came to Hawai'i in 1970, called Islanders games from 1971 to 1975, 1978 to 1983, and 1986 to 1987.
Before prerecorded music was piped into PA systems, organist Rolly Wray provided tunes at games. She played before and after games and all dead periods between during them.
Not all sounds came over the PA system. Soda hawker Howard Egami had the most distinctive and imitated voice that could be heard even over radio broadcasts.
In their heyday, the Hawaii Islanders were like the opening Dickens' Tale of Two Cities: The best and worst of times.
While winning PCL titles in 1975 and 1976, the Islanders were suffering financially. It eventually led to their demise after the 1987 season.
The Islanders were Hawai'i's second professional sports team. The Hawaiian Warriors played from 1946 to 1948 in the Pacific Coast Football League, which rivaled the NFL and the old All-American Conference. The Islanders' 27 seasons easily surpassed other pro franchises, such as the American Basketball League Hawaii Chiefs (1961), World Football League's Hawaiians (1974 to 1975), World Team Tennis' Hawaii Leis (1974 to 1976) and North American Soccer League's Team Hawaii (1977).
Major League Baseball's expansion to the West Coast — more specifically the Giants move from New York to San Francisco — adversely affected fan interest of the PCL's Sacramento Solons. But Salt Lake City businessman Nick Morgan Jr. bought the struggling franchise from Sacramento and moved it to Hawai'i in 1961. Morgan sold it two years later to a local hui led by Ben Dillingham, Francis H. I'i Brown, Chinn Ho, Leroy Bush and State Sen. Sakae Takahashi.
In 1965, the hui hired a third-generation and rising baseball executive, Jack Quinn, as general manager. He was known for wheeling and dealing veteran big-leaguers looking for a shot at another big-league club or veterans on their way out, but with something left in their game.
His best deal was acquiring pitcher Juan Pizarro from the Oakland Athletics for $10,000 in 1970. After he went 9-0, he was sold for $30,000 to the Chicago Cubs, who also threw in pitcher Archie Reynolds. Reynolds was later sold to the Islanders' parent club California Angels for $70,000.
All the while, attendance increased each season under Quinn's watch, from 174,699 in 1965 to 280,477 in 1969.
The Islanders reached their peak in 1970, when attendance reached 462,217 to lead all minor league teams. The fans were rewarded with the first of seven division titles. They went 98-48, but were swept in the best-of-seven PCL playoffs by the Spokane Indians, managed by Tom Lasorda and led by the likes of Bobby Valentine, the league MVP, Bill Buckner, Steve Garvey and Charlie Hough. Still, Hawai'i's 1970 club was ranked 38th in 2001 in minorleaguebaseball.com's top 100 great minor league teams of all time.
But attendance began declining from 1971. The local hui sold the franchise to Lee Doerr, a Milwaukee-based athletic apparel manufacturer before the 1974 season. Attendance dipped under 200,000 (179,633) for the first time since 1966.
But in 1975 — Hawai'i's last season at Honolulu Stadium — the Islanders won their first PCL title against the Salt Lake City Gulls. Attendance spiked to 213,432.
The franchise's downfall began in 1976 with its move to the 50,000-seat Aloha Stadium.
The Islanders no longer enjoyed proceeds from concession sales and billboard advertising. In later years, a Star-Bulletin article reported that Hawai'i had the worst working agreement with a stadium in the PCL.
Moreover, the Halawa site proved to be an inconvenience. The Islanders' loyal base of fans didn't want to make the drive. Honolulu Stadium was in walking distance in the Mo'ili'ili neighborhood and the bus stopped right at the gates, so even though there were few parking stalls available, the problem was not a major factor.
Aloha Stadium had ample parking, but those using the bus had to walk through the massive parking lot to get to the gates. And the new stadium didn't have the charm of the 'Termite Palace,' where it wasn't uncommon to see players in the bullpens have fans retrieve them food from the concession stands.
Also, attention started diverting to the University of Hawai'i upon the arrival of 'Aiea High pitching phenom Derek Tatsuno. Overflow crowds at the the 2,500-seat UH stadium and the success of the team led to the construction of the present 4,300-seat Rainbow Stadium, later renamed for coach Les Murakami.
The 1976 season started ominously, with stadium management not allowing teams to use metal cleats, prompting an Islanders forfeit to Tacoma, which refused to comply because its parent club, the Minnesota Twins, instructed their players to wear the metal.
Later, the Islanders' financial issues reached an all-time low when the Internal Revenue Service locked the team's front office. Players' paychecks were bouncing. The PCL even relieved the Islanders of their franchise.
Still, the off-field issues didn't affect the team's play. The Islanders finished tied for the Western Division title with Tacoma, forcing a one-game playoff at Tacoma. The Islanders not only won the playoff, but went on to win an abbreviated five-game PCL series — reduced from seven games and played all at Salt Lake City to save the Islanders travel expenses — to claim their second consecutive league title. In both playoff series wins, the Islanders ended up buying their opponents' champagne to celebrate.
Quinn was replaced as general manager by Fred Whitacre, whose promotions helped increase attendance to 347,931 in 1977. And for the first and only time in its history, the Islanders showed a profit at $160,000, according to The 70-Year Road Trip — The History of a PCL Franchise from Sacramento to Hawaii to Colorado Springs.
But that still didn't help the Islanders' overall financial health. They continued to struggle as attendance fell below 200,000 in ensuing seasons. In their final two seasons, attendance was under 100,000.
Despite efforts of then owner Dave Elmore, operating a pro team in an environment that didn't seem to want them wasn't working. The Islanders moved to Colorado Springs the next season, ending their 27-year affair in Hawai'i.