Baseball-loving brothers, now in 90s, were indispensable to Cubs, Dodgers for decades – Chicago Tribune
They worked in Major League Baseball clubhouses for decades, ordering bats and washing uniforms.
After enduring more than a year in an internment camp for the Japanese during World War II, the brothers emerged to become an integral part of the operations for two of baseball’s most iconic franchises.
Yosh Kawano spent nearly 65 years at Wrigley Field, working the Cubs or visitors’ clubhouse. His younger brother, Nobe, held similar jobs in Los Angeles, where he prepared the Dodgers to take the field.
Since the time they played baseball as kids, the Kawano brothers wanted to be around a ballpark, relatives and friends said. When their playing days were over, lugging equipment or washing stirrups became a way for the brothers to remain involved in the game. It was baseball, in part, that helped Yosh leave the Colorado River internment camp in Arizona, when the Cubs offered him a job.
“He’d spend almost all of his waking time at Wrigley Field,” said longtime friend Tony Ruzicka. “They lived baseball. They just loved it.”
Time has marched onward, and it has been years since the brothers handed bats to the Cubs or set out spikes for the Dodgers.
The Kawano brothers now live in a nursing home not far from Dodger Stadium. Yosh Kawano is 96. He can no longer speak and spends most of his time in bed or in a wheelchair. One floor above, Nobe Kawano, 94, is a little more lucid, able to smile and recognize guests, his son said.
The National League Championship Series between their former employers comes too late for the Kawano brothers. Relatives and friends said Yosh Kawano might understand the Cubs and Dodgers are playing for the pennant for the second-straight season, but it is unlikely. Nobe Kawano probably knows the two teams are postseason opponents, his son said, but playoff baseball starts long after the brothers’ bedtime.
“Rarely would he be up,” said Frank Kawano, Nobe’s son and Yosh’s nephew. “They go to bed early.”
As the Cubs and Dodgers prepared for Game 2 of the NLCS, Frank Kawano brought the two brothers together for a photo at the nursing facility. Nobe sat upright in his wheelchair, smiling for the camera. Yosh leaned back against the headrest of his wheelchair, his legs covered in a knitted blanket. Nobe held a newspaper sports section on his lap. Frank Kawano said he brings the sports pages on his visits so his father can try to keep up with the games.
Earlier this year, Ruzicka and his brother Carl, whom Yosh Kawano lived with for several years after his forced retirement from the Cubs in 2008, traveled to Los Angeles to present their friend with a replica Cubs championship ring.
“Do we know that he knows the Cubs won the World Series last year?” Carl Ruzicka said. “We’re not sure.”
“He smirked slightly,” Tony Ruzicka said. “It’s hard to say.”
Born in Washington state in 1921, Yosh Kawano started out as a spring training bat boy for the White Sox in Pasadena, Calif., during the late 1930s, his nephew said. He and Nobe Kawano would often hang around Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, the ballpark built by William Wrigley that hosted minor league baseball and later the Angels. Yosh Kawano later sneaked onto the ferry transporting Cubs’ players and executives to the team’s spring training on Catalina Island, the Ruzicka brothers said.
“I think the Cubs just kind of gave up and let him work odds and ends as a kid,” Carl Ruzicka said.
Yosh Kawano latched on to the Cubs, but during World War II, he and his brother were among the more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry incarcerated in camps by the U.S. government. Records show Yosh and Nobe Kawano were sent to the Colorado River “relocation project” camp in Arizona. The brothers had visited Japan just once before, according to archival records.
“It wasn’t a pleasant thing for them,” Frank Kawano said.
Yosh Kawano’s Cubs’ connection aided his release, Tony Ruzicka said, when a club employee wrote to request his presence with the ballclub. He worked for the Cubs in 1943 and 1944, his nephew said, before he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He was deployed overseas with the Army, where he worked as a translator in the Philippines and New Guinea, Frank Kawano said. Yosh returned to the Cubs after the war, embarking on a career that spanned 37 managers, 12 general managers and two owners. For years Kawano used his own money to purchase bats and balls and hats and socks for the players, keeping a detailed ledger of which players still owed him money for equipment.
A constant presence at the ballpark, Yosh Kawano became well-known to players, executives, broadcasters and fans, recognizable in his floppy white fishing hat. One of the hats is on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. He has a commemorative bricks section named in his honor on the sidewalk outside Wrigley Field.
Tony and Carl Ruzicka were serving as ball boys for the Bears when they met Yosh Kawano at Wrigley Field in 1963, and the three later rekindled their friendship after running into one another in the ballpark concourse. Kawano lived with Carl Ruzicka in Highland Park for several years, often rising early in the morning to catch the train for the trip to the ballpark.
The longtime Cubs season ticket holders said Yosh Kawano, who never married, loved the Cubs and baseball. He met and made a lot of friends around the ballpark, including the players. Former first baseman Mark Grace once said he was “the king of Wrigley Field.”
“That was his life,” Carl Ruzicka said. “This just sort of naturally became what they were going to do.”
Nobe Kawano, whose formal name is Nobu, worked with the Hollywood Stars team of the Pacific Coast League before joining the Dodgers as a clubhouse assistant in 1959, his son said. He served in clubhouse and equipment manager roles until 1991.