From Litchfield to the Les: The Voice of Rainbow Baseball, Don Robbs

From Litchfield to the Les: The Voice of Rainbow Baseball, Don Robbs

The new Robbs Leahey Press Box inside Les Murakami Stadium is unveiled for the first time to the public. | Photo Credit: Michael Lasquero, HSRN

From Litchfield to the Les: The Voice of Rainbow Baseball, Don Robbs

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED MAR 29, 2024

HONOLULU – For a guy who didn’t grow up in a baseball state, Hawai’i Circle of Honor broadcaster Don Robbs made sure to fool anyone listening. 

The longtime voice of Rainbow Warriors baseball was honored Thursday evening in a pregame ceremony ahead of the ‘Bows series-opener against Big West rival and nationally ranked UC Irvine, seeing the press box inside Les Murakami Stadium officially renamed to the Robbs Leahey Press Box in honor of a pair of legends in the industry. 

Don Robbs and the late great Jim Leahey may not have worked specifically together on the same calls, but the two hallowed voices in Hawai’i history made permanent imprints on generations of Rainbow Warrior fans. 

From Derek Tatsuno, the 1980 College World Series and finally Kolten Wong’s three home run-game, there were two constants.  

Leahey and Robbs. 

Through a storybook career, Thursday marked the culmination of more than 40 years of hard work for Hall of Famer Don Robbs. 

“I never expected that to happen,” a humble Robbs admitted. “I know that if Jim were here – well, I just wish he was.” 

Born in the 1937 without an MLB squad in his home of Minnesota, Robbs grew his love of the sport with a pair of minor league baseball affiliates of the then-New York Giants (who would eventually become the San Francisco Giants, Robbs’ favorite team). While the Twin Cities wouldn’t welcome the Minnesota Twins until 1961, a young Robbs attended games for the Triple-A Minneapolis Millers while taking the role of “bat boy” for the hometown team Litchfield Optimists.  

“One of the players on that [Millers team] I remember clearly was Willie Mays, who was on his way up to the Major Leagues,” Robbs recalled. 

He watched his hometown team win a state championship in baseball at early teen hood, seeing success in the sport at every turn. As the experiences continued to flow for Robbs, he started to grow up and made his way off to St. Cloud State where another connection to his favorite ball club would appear. 

“While I was [at St. Cloud State], I did Minor League Class C baseball for the St. Cloud Rocks, which were also a farm club of the Giants! So that’s how I became connected to the Giants, those two teams,” he smiled. 

Despite his love for the sport, Robbs discussed how a future job involving athletics was never truly his plan. 

“My career started while I was going to college in St. Cloud. I had a radio show, and I also did a little bit of sports. I did Minor League Baseball for a couple of years and at the same time I also did high school sports there, so that’s where the sports connection began [for my career]. I didn’t take it that seriously because I was a sports fan, but I was just a fan. I wasn’t somebody who his eyes on making a career out of it,” the veteran of over 2,000 broadcasts revealed. 

His path after his college stint proved that statement true as Robbs was drafted and enlisted in the Army, getting sent off to Korea for a year before a critical move of his life. 

“Before I came back to the States to get out of the Army, I had probably a little more than a year left and so I asked to be sent to Japan,” Robbs said. “So, I was sent to Tokyo to work for the Army … and while I was there, I started to go to Japanese professional baseball games.” 

Robbs “became attached” to Japanese baseball games, so much so that he returned to Japan to take in more action on the diamond and becoming such a key cog that he was inducted into the JapanBall Hall of Fame, one of 73 members in total. According to the Hall itself, there are just three ways to be inducted into the hallowed hallways: 

  1. Visit all 12 NPB teams’ home stadiums during the course of one tour or; 
  1. Complete the Main Tour three times over any number of years or; 
  1. Demonstrate a sustained, exemplary dedication and service to the JapanBall community 

While Robbs’ induction came from three separate rounds of the Main Tour, the final bullet point is the best description of the longtime broadcaster to the overall sport of baseball. Over 2,000 broadcasts in his career show so, his vocal imprint being on some of the biggest moments in Rainbow Warriors’ baseball history. 

While he returned home to Minnesota after his stint serving his country, Robbs quickly realized he was ready to leave once again and this time for a much warmer climate. With eyes on a job, he made a call. 

“I contacted a friend of mine who was working in Hawai’i named Jack Kellner,” Robbs remembered. “Jack was very famous here on Channel 9 … but at that time, Jack was working at KPOI radio – which was THE rock-and-roll station in Hawai’i, number one in every radio poll – and so I took a job there as news director and that’s how I got to Hawai’i.” 

From there, the ball kept rolling. 

He started in 1977 to have a closer relationship with University of Hawai’i baseball, seeing old Rainbow Stadium bring magic and special moments to the broadcaster and fans alike. They tried new things, like adding the nation’s first sushi stand at a ballpark while head coach Les Murakami and the BaseBows became hot product in town. Hawai’i made the NCAA Regionals as an Independent team twice in the 70’s before a massive breakthrough in 1980. 

The Rainbow Warriors went a sparkling 60-18 in 1980, the first season the team competed in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), on their way to a runner-up finish in College World Series to national champion Arizona, who had future Hall of Fame manager Terry Francona in the lineup at the time. Francona would win Most Outstanding Player from the 1980 College World Series while Hawai’i placed Collin Tanabe, Kimo Perkins and Eric Tokunaga on the all-tournament team. 

Despite the loss, the ‘Bows appearing in the biggest tournament college baseball had to offer was the hook. 

“When they went to the [College World Series], we went back, and [Rainbow Baseball] got more popular. They were filling up that little bleacher stadium and so thanks to a state legislator named Charlie Ushijima, the legislature approved an allocation to build a new stadium on the same site,” Robbs laughed, twisting back in time. 

Thanks to Ushijima and the love of the Rainbow Warriors, what is now Les Murakami Stadium was built in place of the old Rainbow Stadium, improving the number of seats and comfort for fans to take in Hawai’i’s team every chance they could. 

According to Robbs, the people just kept coming. 

“The place was packed every night. They had standing room only, the team was great, they went to the College World Series in 1980 but they went to lots of [NCAA Regionals], postseason play,” he said. “This town was crazy about Rainbow baseball, and it was really fun to be a part of it then.” 

Part of the fun was calling games for legendary pitcher Derek Tatsuno, the first 20-game winner in NCAA history and one of three Rainbow Warriors to have their number retired by the program. Some even would refer to the Les as “The House that Tats Built” because of the fanfare that the hurler drew to the ballpark. Even after he left, many more great moments were on the way for Robbs. 

Calling no-hitters, perfect games and walk-off hits, Robbs saw every little thing the beautiful game of baseball could bring. He loved getting to know the people involved, preparing heavily for his broadcasts, even finding some of players he had come to know would become friends and colleagues following the playing days. In all, Robbs estimates that he had six to seven different former players join him as his color commentator before retiring. 

He was inducted into the Hawai’i Athletics Circle of Honor back in 2015 in recognition of his contributions to the university, becoming the “Voice of Rainbow Baseball” while emceeing events for the school. At the time, Robbs thought that was the biggest honor he could be bestowed by the school. 

Until Thursday. 

Despite his final call coming back in 2016, the fans of Rainbow teams of old and new attended the ceremony before Hawai’i’s series-opening game against UC Irvine to show love to him and the late Leahey in one of their most meaningful moments. 

Kanoa Leahey, the son of Jim and star play-by-play man for Spectrum Sports, and Scott Robbs, a sparkling member of on-air Spectrum Sports talent, threw out the first pitch on Thursday in place of their fathers, though Don was there along with Coach Murakami for the dedication. 

“I think when I made the Circle of Honor, I thought that was the highest honor you can get at the University of Hawai’i for athletics,” Don Robbs said. “But this one … it’s an honor.”