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.” 

Hawai’i drops season-opening 13-inning marathon against Ole Miss, 5-4

Hawai’i drops season-opening 13-inning marathon against Ole Miss, 5-4

Hawai’i drops season-opening 13-inning marathon against Ole Miss, 5-4

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED FEB 16, 2024

HONOLULU – Todd Gurley walked out to the mound with a big smile on his face, taking in the beauty of Mānoa’s premiere baseball field as he tossed out the opening pitch for the University of Hawai’i baseball team’s season as the BaseBows kicked off the 2024 campaign with a high-anticipated matchup against Ole Miss (1-0) in front of a sold out Les Murakami Stadium. 

The Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors (0-1) fell Saturday evening in a marathon of an opener to a four-game set against 2022 national champion Ole Miss, 5-4 in 13 innings in beautiful Mānoa. 

Left-hander Harrison Bodendorf got the start on the mound for the Rainbow Warriors following his All-America freshman year, giving up a ground-rule double on the game’s first pitch after right fielder Sean Rimmer lost the ball in the lights. The sophomore southpaw responded by picking up his teammate, getting the next three Rebels batters in order to end the early threat from the visitors unscathed. 

Hawai’i left fielder Jake Tsukada kicked off the offensive side of the game for the ‘Bows with a hard-fought walk to lead off the bottom of the first against Ole Miss starter JT Quinn before the right-hander struck out Dallas Duarte and Stone Miyao to settle back in. Hawai’i first baseman Ben Ziegler-Namoa would pop out to the shallow left field grass to end the ‘Bows first inning threat. 

Ole Miss got the scoring started in the top of the second after centerfielder Ethan Groff hammered a Bodendorf offering over the left field fence to push the Rebels out in front, 2-0. Hawai’i’s Bodendorf did not let the poor pitch linger in his mind, escaping the inning by retiring the next three batters with a sharp groundout to first and back-to-back Ks to hold the damage at two runs. 

Hawai’i scratched out their first hit of the night as CF Matthew Miura hustled down the first base line for an infield single, but nothing more came from the ‘Bows bats in the bottom of the second. 

The Rebels tacked on another run in the top of the third, capitalizing on back-to-back one-out walks with an Ethan Lege RBI single up the middle before Hawai’i was able to end the top of the third. The bats for the ‘Bows remained quiet in the bottom of the third, going down in order as freshman Elijah Ickes struck out swinging in his first college at-bat. 

UH started action in the bullpen in the fourth as Bodendorf walked his third Rebel of the night, but the southpaw quickly returned to form to set down Ole Miss in the top of the fourth and keep it a three-run contest. Ziegler-Namoa led off the bottom half of the inning with a walk, coming around to score on a deep Austin Machado RBI single off of the top of the right field wall to put the BaseBows on the board. Miura quickly stole third after, putting runners on the corners for Hawai’i before coming home on an RBI single from Sean Rimmer that bounced off the pitching hand of Ole Miss’s Quinn to help end the Rebels’ sophomore’s night on the mound. 

The Rebels’ Mason Morris entered in relief needing two outs to maintain the slim one-run advantage for the visitors but was immediately greeted by a Kyson Donahue RBI double that sliced down the left field line to tie things up in the bottom of the fourth before Ole Miss finally escaped the frame. 

Hawai’i senior Alex Giroux replaced Bodendorf to open up the fifth as the ‘Bows reignited the sell-out crowd’s energy in the half-inning prior. 

Giroux worked quickly through the Rebels’ lineup, retiring three of the four batters he faced to keep the game knotted up. Hawai’i’s offense returned blank fire in the bottom half of the frame to give the game the first scoreless inning since the opening one of the night. 

The sides traded zeroes again in the sixth as Giroux faced the minimum three batters thanks to a double-play ball before Hawai’i wasted a chance with a runner in scoring position in the bottom half of the sixth as Morris got Kyson Donahue swinging to end the frame. 

Ole Miss used three free passes from Hawai’i in the top of the seventh to load the bases up against Giroux with two outs, but the veteran righty was able to cut the Rebels off there by forcing Lege to lineout to right for the final out before the seventh inning stretch. UH gave Ole Miss a score with their turn at bat by putting a runner at second with only one out, but a pop out and strikeout of Stone Miyao killed the go-ahead rally quickly. 

Hawai’i took its first lead of the night in the bottom of the eighth, manufacturing the team’s fourth run with the help of small ball and a wild pitch as Ziegler-Namoa scored after back-to-back singles and a sacrifice bunt put him on third before scoring. 

The visiting Rebels didn’t wait long to tie things up once again after loading the bases with only one out in the top of the ninth as Groff plated his third RBI of the night with a sacrifice fly to deep center. Hawai’i put two runners on with one out in the bottom of the ninth as they tried to open the year with a walk-off win after closing the 2023 season with a walk-off victory, but a missile off the bat of Miura was snatched right at second base to double-up Dallas Duarte and send the game into extra innings. 

Each team continued trading zeroes into the night as the game approached the 5-hour mark in the 13th inning, seeing the debuts of new UH pitchers Danny Veloz and Hunter Gotschall after the ninth. The Rebels finally broke through in the top of the 13th against the freshman Gotschall as Lege punched an RBI single passed the outstretched glove of Miyao into right field for the game-winning hit. Hawai’i would hold Ole Miss to just one run despite a bases-loaded jam thanks to left-hander Tai Atkins, but one was all the visiting Rebels needed as UH went down in order in the bottom half of the 13th to fall, 5-4. 

Ole Miss reliever Mason Nichols earned the win for the Rebels while Connor Spencer recorded the save in the season-opener. UH freshman was charged with the loss for Hawai’i, giving up two hits and walking one in 1+ innings of work. 

The two squads are back in action on the diamond on Saturday for a double-header with the first pitch of game one scheduled for 1:05 p.m. HT. Randy Abshier is the listed starter for Hawai’i in the opening game of Saturday’s twin bill. Ole Miss southpaw Gunnar Dennis will be tabbed with the start for the Rebels.