A recent visitor to Tokyo was old Japan hand and long-time Honolulu sportscaster Don Robbs. The 78-year-old radio voice of the University of Hawaii baseball games and other sports in the islands has been a frequent traveler to this country since he first came here in 1960 as a member of the U.S. Army.
The veteran mic man gave his thoughts about the changes in Japanese baseball since he saw his first Japanese game at Korakuen Stadium in 1961 and also talked about his own career, how he got into broadcasting and some of the personalities from Hawaii who later excelled in baseball and other sports in Japan.
Robbs came to Japan from Korea 55 years ago to work at the Far East Network (FEN) U.S. Forces radio station, then based at Camp Drake in Saitama Prefecture northwest of Tokyo. He recalled going to see the Yomiuri Giants play at Korakuen and recalls three things about being there: Shigeo Nagashima, the cheerleaders and the food.
“I remember watching Nagashima playing for the Giants and thinking he was the best third baseman I ever saw. Even then, I thought Japanese baseball was at a very high level and entertaining, and Nagashima could have played in the majors then,” Robbs said of the former Yomiuri superstar.
That was three years before Masanori Murakami became the first Japanese big leaguer when he joined the San Francisco Giants in 1964, and 34 years before Hideo Nomo debuted with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995.
“I can also remember the Japanese cheerleaders (led by a chubby fellow famous for tossing large or small amounts of confetti), complete with taiko drums, performed on the home team dugout roof. Now they are in the bleachers,” he said.
The main food items available at Japanese ballparks then were noodle dishes such as ramen and udon, and the onigiri rice balls wrapped in seaweed. “Now I’m eating fried chicken and pizza,” Robbs said while watching the Yakult Swallows play at Jingu Stadium last month.
Originally from Minnesota, Robbs grew up on Triple-A minor league baseball before the Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins in 1961, by which time he was in Japan. He was discharged from the Army in 1962 and, on the way back to the U.S. mainland, he stopped off in Hawaii to see a friend, got a job offer and went back there.
In 1964, Robbs had a yearning to return to Japan and do something in connection with the Tokyo Olympics opening in October of that year. “In the spring of ’64, I took out a (situation wanted) ad in The Japan Times, and the shacho of a company called Kokusai P.R. was going to Hawaii, so I met him there for an interview, and I was hired on the spot,” Robbs said.
“I went to Japan in June, four months prior to the start of the Olympics, and I was put to work on the Seiko account.” That company was the official timer for the Summer Games.
He later returned to Hawaii where he became well known for his work as a play-by-play announcer for baseball, football, volleyball and horse racing, among other sports. He estimates he’s called about 3,000 baseball games over the years and got to know many athletes with Hawaii-Japan connections such as Wally Yonamine, Mike Lum, Joey Meyer, Glenn Braggs, Benny Agbayani, and also Takamiyama, Konishiki, Akebono and Musashimaru from the world of sumo.
A trip to watch Japanese baseball has been on Robbs’ schedule every year over the past decade, except for 2013, when he had open-heart bypass surgery complicated by a stroke. He is recovered and still often travels alone.
Robbs plans to call play-by-play for the UH baseball team again next season at Les Murakami Stadium, and that will be his 40th in the broadcast booth. His work has become a family business, too, as his son Scott shares the announcing duties.
Asked if Hawaii might be a good place to play a “real World Series” between the MLB and NPB champions, Robbs said it would be geographically ideal, but, “Murakami Stadium, a beautiful ballpark, seats only 5,000 fans.” The 50,000-seat Aloha Stadium, where official major league games were played in 1997 between the San Diego Padres and St. Louis Cardinals, is now configured for football only.
Considering his love for baseball, broadcasting and Japan, Robbs said there is one thing he would like to have done but could not. “I wish I would have gotten fluent enough in the Japanese language to call play-by-play of a Japanese game — in Japanese,” he admitted.
Still, he has done all right.
“It’s been a great ride and Japan has been a major part of it,” he said of his life and career.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com