Team Player

By Dave Hoekstra

Yosh Kawano’s trademark is his floppy white sailor’s hat, which bobs around the Cubs’ blue-capped dugout like a gull at sea. “When you come up,” says Mark Grace, “everybody already knows Yosh. Yosh is the king of Wrigley Field. Anything that happens in this clubhouse has to go through him.”

The Cubs’ equipment manager, Yosh joined the team ten years before Ernie Banks did. Former outfielder Andy Pafko says, “He’ll never tell me how old he is, but I know he’s just as old as I am. I just turned 77 and I’ve known him for over 50 years.” There’s a rumor Yosh will retire after the season, but he’s not saying. Ask him about his life and he says, “Talk to the cleanup hitter. I’m just the cleanup man.”

He’s never given an interview. Sportswriter Jerome Holtzman says Yosh is the story he’s been chasing for 35 years.

This much can be said. He grew up in the Los Angeles area and in 1935 was a Cubs spring training batboy. At one time he hoped to make the big leagues as a player; he even had a tryout with the White Sox. An army MP during World War II, he won combat medals for action in New Guinea and the Philippines. He joined the Cubs in 1943 as visiting clubhouse attendant, and he was promoted to equipment manager in 1953. The team’s old newsletter, “Chicago Cubs News,” reported in 1957: “Yosh Kawano buys rock rosin (generally obtained from pine trees, also used in varnishers and on violin bows) at the camp and makes his own rosin bags for pitchers using new sweat socks for bags. Five pounds of rosin generally does the job!”

Pitchers dust their hands with rosin to dry them on the mound. Ryne Sandberg says, “Yosh has always had his way of doing things. He still makes his own pine tar rags. He might still make his own rosin bags. His way is from the old school, and that’s the way baseball is still meant to be.”

Sandberg, who lives in the Phoenix area, remains one of Yosh’s closest friends. They talk twice a week by phone. “I remember the first day I met Yosh,” Sandberg says. “I walked into Fitch Park [in Mesa, Arizona] for my first day of spring training as a Cub. He picked out my uniform number [23], which he does for everybody. We’d spend off days playing golf together. When we’d go out to dinner, he’d start telling stories from the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s. Sometimes I couldn’t keep the years straight.”

When Sandberg remarried during his first retirement, Yosh left the team to attend the wedding. Nobody could remember the last time he’d taken time off during a season.

“It’s amazing how many people Yosh knows,” says former batboy Jim Flood. “Every year Yosh would buy the batboys a suit. Then he’d take us to dinner at Binyon’s and he’d want us to wear our suit. It was really our first time going out as young men. The night Yosh took us out it so happened Jack Benny and Jimmy Durante were in town and eating at Binyon’s. And I’ll be damned if both of them didn’t spot Yosh and greet him by name.”

“Yosh has a 35-year-old Smith-Corona typewriter,” says Arlene Gill, executive assistant to Cubs general manager Ed Lynch. “He had an older typewriter but a truck ran over it. Over the years Yosh has always typed letters to his friends. One-line statements. I remember getting one years ago. ‘Went to Vegas with [Joey] Amalfitano [former Cubs player and manager]. Talked to Frank. See you soon.’ Of course, it was the Frank.”

Catercorner from Sammy Sosa’s locker in Wrigley Field is a gold plaque with an artist’s rendition of Yosh in his sailor’s hat. The plaque was commissioned in 1984 by former GM Dallas Green. The inscription reads: “The Chicago Cubs dedicate their clubhouse to Yosh Kawano, a gentleman who has devoted over 40 years to serving the needs of the ownership, management and players of the Chicago Cubs.”

Yosh is like a den mother. Whenever a Cub gets his first major league hit, Yosh scrawls the date, city, and opposing pitcher’s name on the ball. He helps the players with anything they need in the course of a day, from food to equipment. This year assistant equipment manager Dana Noeltner took over Yosh’s duties on the road. But while the Cubs travel he spends his days in their clubhouse, logging mail for the players, washing towels, and ordering bats and balls.

When he traveled with the team, he saw to it that after each home stand the team’s equipment was moved out of Wrigley Field onto a truck. He made sure the gear got off the truck and onto the plane at O’Hare. In the next city he stood watch as the gear was taken off the plane and loaded onto another truck, then trailed that truck to the ballpark.

“Then Yosh would work with the visiting clubhouse personnel to make sure everything was hung up in everybody’s locker and ready for the game,” says Ned Colletti, the former Cubs vice president who’s now assistant general manager of the San Francisco Giants. “As soon as the team gets in, the equipment guy will do that. Sometimes they’re getting into the city at two or three in the morning. On the way to the ballpark, they’ll drop off the suitcases at the hotel. Of course Yosh wasn’t the only guy loading and unloading, but he was in charge of all of that.

“Equipment people spend many nights sleeping on the training table. Anytime the team gets in at three in the morning, it’s a three-to-four-hour setup session. They don’t wait for the next day to do something. They want everything ready to go at seven in the morning, even if it’s a night game. Some of them will go back to the hotel and get in their room for the first time, take a nap, and go back to the park at one in the afternoon. I’ve never seen an equipment man walk in a clubhouse after one player is in there. They are always the first one in. Always.”

Yosh has never married, and to avoid doing dishes he’s always lived in a hotel downtown. “Yosh doesn’t take kindly to strangers,” says Colletti. “He has a couple of classic sayings about the clubhouse, which is his domain. He’d say, ‘If you come in here and sit down, you’ve been here too long.’ And he’d say, ‘Never stop to talk to a man who is standing still.'”

Yosh recruited Jim Flood as a batboy. Now Flood’s a Chicago attorney and Yosh’s friend. “Yosh was a taskmaster,” Flood says. “I remember my first day–Easter Sunday 1968, right after Martin Luther King was murdered. The first four or five days of the season were canceled. Yosh sized me up from head to toe. He scared the hell out of me. He was standing there with a chaw of tobacco in his mouth, spitting tobacco into this popcorn butter can. All the other players were spitting their tobacco into this can. Yosh looks at me and says, ‘I’m tough but I’m fair.’ Then he goes, ‘Think you can handle it?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ll sure try.’ Then Yosh goes, ‘Good, then go clean out these cans.’ But he always called us ‘coworkers’ and we always worked together.

“This will show you how cheap [owner Phil] Wrigley was. In the late 60s they didn’t even have a washing machine in the clubhouse. They had a weird gas dryer you pulled out of the wall. So one of our chores at the end of the day was to take two or three huge laundry bags of players’ underwear, jocks, and sweatshirts and go to a coin laundromat. A gal named Martha ran this laundromat on Sheffield and Clark. And Yosh would even help us with that.”

There’s a mystique that Colletti believes Yosh acquired by keeping so much to himself. “He has a hard exterior shell. It is very difficult to get inside that shell. Once you get in there, you find out he has a great heart.”

Al Scheuneman, the Cubs trainer in the 50s and 60s, lives in a nursing home outside Tucson. Arlene Gill says, “Yosh spends every Christmas Day with Doc Scheuneman. He leaves Chicago a few days early, goes to Los Angeles [to see family], and will always spend Christmas Day with Doc.”

Yosh sees players come and go. “They learn how to say hello when it was time to say good-bye,” he’s said of some of them. In 1979 Yosh knew Bobby Murcer was being traded even before Murcer got the call. Murcer was summoned upstairs to the front office. When he returned to the clubhouse, all his bags were packed and his trademark rocking chair was sitting in front of his locker.

Former Cubs GM Salty Saltwell is telling this story. He goes on, “Joe Pepitone wasn’t one of his favorites either. Joe was such a free spirit. He didn’t like him bringing that hair dryer in the clubhouse.”

Billy Williams was 21 years old when he was promoted to the big leagues in 1959. “I had been using certain bats,” says Williams, now a Cubs dugout coach. “A couple times I was supposed to hit and those bats weren’t there. Yosh and I had a few words. But later Yosh came up and said, ‘Young man, it’s best we get along because it looks like you’re going to be here for a while.’ It meant a lot to me. And we’ve had some good times together. I’m always telling him, ‘Yosh, why don’t you put a book together?’ because a lot of people would like to read what he would have to say. But he says he’s too embarrassed. He sees, he knows, but he won’t tell.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Yosh Kawano vintage photo; recent photo by Stephen Green.