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The State of Aloha

Every year I find myself getting sucked into an exciting — yes, I find baseball exciting — playoff series between two teams determined to edge each other out and advance. The playoffs have always captured my interest and imagination. I love a great pitching duel over a high-scoring slam fest (though that’s fun too). The postseason excitement of roaring crowds in cities across the country serves as my wonderful reminder that summer’s over and the holidays are around the corner.

Indeed, the grand ballparks are on display during the postseason. This year we get to see Fenway Park in Boston, the oldest active baseball park built in 1912 and its infamous green wall behind left field. There’s the classic Dodger Stadium in the Chavez Ravine near old downtown Los Angeles — the oldest major league park built west of the Mississippi. We even got to see the weirdly named Guaranteed Rate Field in the South Side of Chicago. The name comes from the mortgage company that bought the right to rename the place in 2016.

And while Maui cannot boast of classic parks like that, we have a real gem of a field way out east. The arguable center of Hana Town is a vast green ballpark surrounded by chain link fences, lines of tall African tulips with their distinct orange blossoms and narrow benches. An old rock wall of smooth stones stands along the first baseline. Kids watching a game sit on the wall and dangle their legs over the stones. It is an absolute pleasure of a place to watch a game.

For this park we can thank a businessman from Alameda County. Paul Fagan was born into a well-off family in 1893. When he married the wealthy heiress Helene Irwin Crocker, whose family fortune came from cultivating sugar during the Hawaiian Kingdom — her father was a sugar baron associated with none other than Claus Spreckels, who left the islands and relocated to California — he turned his interest to the islands.

Fagan was ambitious to start up the economy in East Maui. In those days Hana was not a tourist destination. It was a dying sugar town. Cane fields surrounded the town and profits for sugar were dwindling.

Fagan changed that. In 1944, Fagan bought 14,000 acres of land in and around Hana. Sugar cane gave way to verdant hillsides and pastures. He brought cattle over from Molokai and started the Hana Ranch. He also took over the Kauiki Inn, a six-room hotel that he ramped up into an exclusive hotel.

Ranching and hotels in Hana weren’t his only purchases. Fagan also had a baseball team. In the 1940s, the American and National Leagues were an all-East Coast and Midwest affair. The most western major league team in those days was the St. Louis Cardinals. Fagan wanted to change that too.

In 1946, Fagan bought a minor league franchise in San Francisco and got the best talent he could find. Fagan hoped that his team, the San Francisco Seals, and the Pacific Coast League would create a third league on par with the majors back east.

Fagan then hatched a plan to promote all of his purchases at the same time. He took his hotel, his ranch and his team and announced that spring training would be in Hana. Maui hadn’t seen anything like it.

In the spring of 1946, the professional team, sportswriters and others flew across the Pacific to the Valley Isle and made the trek to Hana. There, they found a brand-new, modest and verdant baseball field in the middle of town. Fagan constructed the Hana Ball Park. The sportswriters were astounded by the picturesque setting.

“The place beggars description,” wrote Harry Borba of the San Francisco Examiner. “The Seals should pay for the privilege of training in such indescribably beautiful surroundings.”

In their stories dispatched back to the Mainland, one of the sportswriters described the town as Heavenly Hana — a nickname that has stuck and is still around today.

The Seals were indeed happy to train in Hana. They were at the ballpark from 9 in the morning to noon and spent the afternoons swimming, horseback riding and hiking. They were entertained with luaus and hula dancers in the refurbished hotel. The idyllic scene paid off too. The Seals had a winning season that year.

But Fagan’s dream of a competitive West Coast league fizzled after a few disappointing seasons. Fagan sold the club in 1951 and retired on Maui. The Seals hobbled along for another six years until it and the Pacific Coast League disbanded in 1957.

After that, and ironically, the major league came to the West Coast. In 1958, the New York Giants moved to San Francisco (and into the Seals’ stadium) while their rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers, relocated to Los Angeles.

The promotional spring training, however, left its mark on Hana. The hotel got started and is now a luxurious resort. Hana Ranch is still around too. And of course, there’s Fagan’s glorious little ballpark.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com.

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