The Hawaiian Winter Baseball League (HWB) is affiliated with the Major Leagues, but very loosely. It was originated in 1993 and while it draws some players from the MLB, it mainly features those from the Korea Baseball Organization, Nippon Professional Baseball (the most elite Japanese league), as well as players from independent leagues. The games are based out of Honolulu on the island of Oahu and run from October through December. Compared to other leagues, the HWB is one that is lesser known today. Limited funding caused the league to be shut down from 1997 until 2006 when it finally resurged. They relied too much on the limited funding from the MLB and eventually crashed as a result. The HWB was the only league to feature highly touted American and Japanese talent, but their contract with Major League Baseball expired following the 2008 season. Apparently, they are trying to develop a second league in Arizona that won't rival the Arizona Fall League.
Looking back before 1993, I found that the creator of baseball, Alexander Cartwright, actually had a lot to do with starting baseball in Hawaii. After only three years of first devising many of his classic rules for the game, Cartwright moved to the Hawaiian Islands. Baseball caught on quickly within the islands, and on July 4th, 1866 the very first organized game was recorded in the record books with the "natives" beating the "haoles" (Caucasians) 2-1. Noticing the rapidly growing popularity for the sport, J. Ashman Beaven invested his entire fortune into the construction of the Honolulu Stadium in 1926. Upon it's completion was the commencement of the first international league featuring the Hawaiians, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos and the Caucasians. The league came alive in the 1940's as ten's of thousands of people would crowd the stands watching the professionals from the Majors compete against the elite from other countries. By the 1960's the much adored, big wooden stadium in Honolulu became home to the first ever Hawaiian professional traveling team, the Hawaii Islanders. In the 1970's the Islander's moved into a more modern stadium, the Aloha Stadium. During their existence, they played in the Pacific Coast League and won 4 division titles, and 2 PCL pennants over a period of 27 years. In 1988 the league ceased playing professional baseball until 1993 when the sport returned in the form of the Hawaiian Winter Baseball League and delighted the islands with top caliber prospects from 16 of the 28 teams in the MLB, as well as 3 Japanese teams and 4 Korean teams. Upon its resurgence in 1993, the new (and current) owner of the HWB, Duane Kurisu invested in his dream of making a climatic baseball experience for the fans and players. He focused on making the HWB a place where to most promising prospects could experience a league unlike any other to help them thrive as athletes while also enjoying the accommodations of the islands.
In 1993, Kurisu wrote in the league yearbook the following:
" Baseball is a game for dreamers.
where dreams can come true. it's that game-winning homerun at the bottom of the ninth with two men out... it's that first time at bat as a professional ball player.. it's the hope that one day there will be a true professional international world series."
The Hawaiian baseball fans held such a high respect for the prospects who came in to play on the islands. They had the privilege of seeing 130 of their prospects eventually make it to the Major Leagues. Even before the HWB, there were many great players who passed through the primitive leagues in Hawaii. Babe Ruth entered in 1933, and was quickly followed by Lou Gehrig and Jimmy Foxx. During World War II, Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese, Vernon Olson, and Schoolboy Rowe where among those on the rosters. From 1993-1997, Hawaiians saw players like Ichiro Suzuki (pictured below), before they made it in the Majors. There was a home run hit by Suzuki in the first series played at home against Hilo, which is still spoken of around the island as the "Shinkansen Homer." It was a 500+ foot blast that hit the roof of a building beyond the stadium and to this day is still the record for a home run hit at Kauai's Vidinha stadium. Jason Giambi, who was an prospect at the time with the Oakland Athletics, took advantage of the 315 foot left field wall and made a habit of crushing homers and delighting fans. Alex Ochoa was named the "best gun in the minor leagues" after he gunned down Shannon Penn at home with a 300-foot laser from the warning track. Many other players have come out of the HWB including AJ Pierzynski, Tadihito Iguchi, Todd Helton, Adam Kennedy, Mark Kotsay, Randy Wynn, and Michael Barrett.
The only other major sporting even in Hawaii, the Pro Bowl drew 50,000 people in 1993, while the HWB drew in 53,383 in its very first season. The first All-Star game for the islands featured a team composed of entirely USA players versus the rest of the international players, with the USA coming out on top. The second year of play in the HWB, attendance boosted to just under 70,000, and by 1996 attendance reach 112,000. In 1997, 93 prospects had gone on to play in the Major Leagues.
The league was the only international one in existence and both the fans and players were rewarded with the best possible baseball experience imaginable. Not only did they serve the traditional hot dogs and pop at the games, but international dishes like Terryaki chicken, sushi, and Portuguese bean soup were there to lend an extra international flavoring for the fan and players overall experience.
The league relied too heavily upon the small funding by the MLB and by the end of the 1997 they were not able to start another season until 2006 when the MLB agreed to help fund the 4- team league until the end of the 2008 season. Even after 9 years of no baseball, 42,107 fans poured into the stadiums to watch their beloved sport. The 2006 HWB roster has had a big effect on the MLB which featured players like Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamerlain, Joe Thatcher, Nate Schierholtz and Rick Vanden Hurk on their rosters. Other players that have come from the HWB and into the MLB include Derrek Lee, Craig Counsell, Aaron Boone, Bill Mueller, Ramon Ortiz, Kaz Matsui, Kenji Jojhima, Preston Wilson, So Taguchi, Dexter Fowler, Nyger Morgan, and many more.
Proceeding this blog, I e-mailed the owner of the HWB regarding future plans for the league and further information. I am still extremely interested in going to Hawaii this winter if not for baseball than to meet the individuals responsible for creating this amazing league. As soon as I read about the HWB it was as if I had found a league as passionate about baseball as I am. If nothing else, meeting the fans in Hawaii could provide for an experience unlike any other. I remember when I met the Korean fans at the World Baseball Classic this year, and their fan mentality and passion is something that opened up my eyes to an entirely new experience of baseball. Based on my first finding of the HWB it seems to be a league built on enjoyment and experience rather than that of a business, like the MLB. Here the owners are as passionate about the game as the biggest fans in America and I hope the more I learn about the league the more I learn about baseball. If you have any insight or knowledge of the HWB please e-mail me directly at email@example.com. Thanks for reading and I hope this article was of interest!
Source disclaimer: The images and information gathered for this article was made available to me by the HWB website, www.hawaiiwinterbaseball.com, and the information provided by the staff of the Hawaiian Winter Baseball League.