Grave Story: Steere Noda (1892-1986)

Here lies Steere Noda, a businessman, community servant and politician in his native state of Hawaii. However, the reason that he was inducted into the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame in 1998 was that he was the founder of the Asahi Nisei Baseball Team, one of the oldest baseball teams west of the Rockies.

Steere Gikaku Noda was born in Ewa, Hawaii, on February 16, 1892. His parents had emigrated from Japan to Hawaii less than a year before to work in the sugar cane fields. He was Nisei, a term used to describe the children of Japanese parents who were born in a different country.

Baseball had made its way to the Hawaiian Islands by then. As my story on Alexander Cartwright showed, the former Knickerbocker turned ex-pat was playing ball games in front of the monarchy as early as 1859 – presumably baseball, considering Cartwright’s history. Additionally, baseball execs who organized around-the-world tours with All-Star squads stopped in Polynesia.

Noda founded the Asahi Nisei Baseball Team in 1905. He would have been 13 years old at the time and served as its first pitching and hitting star. He played the infield – mostly second base – when he wasn’t pitching.

“I was the organizer, manager, captain and pitcher,” he said in an interview in 1970. “I started out as a catcher, but I didn’t last long. Face masks were unheard of and I took a foul tip right in the eye. I decided right then that pitching would be a lot better!”

This is supposedly the first-ever photo taken of the Asahi Nisei Baseball Team, from 1906. Steere Noda is in the middle row, third from left. His brother Massa, the third baseman, is next to him on the far right. Each player had to pay for his own uniform, which cost them $1.10 to $1.30, depending on which old-timer you asked. Source: Honolulu Star Bulletin, April 18, 1931.

Noda was a southpaw pitcher and led the Asahis against all-Chinese, Hawaiian and Portuguese clubs, as well as American teams from the 25th Infantry. Noda said that the team played “inside baseball,” meaning lots of bunts and squeeze plays to score runs. Noda hit .575 in 1912, according to his interview.

It didn’t take long for baseball to become one of the dominant sports on the island. A report from 1908 by journalist Jack Densham showed that it had universal appeal in the diverse culture of Hawaii.

“Chinese, Japanese, light haired Saxons, dark skinned Latins, Hawaiians of every shade from the dusky hue of the pure native blood to the comparative fairness of the hapahaole. And all of them keenly interested in the game as well as the wisest section of the bleachers at a big game in New York or Chicago,” he wrote.

As for as the game itself, Densham stated that the youngsters “play the game and they play it right… the boys play in better team work and make less errors than I have seen at times out where admission is charged.”

The Asahis became the team to beat, winning 15 championships in the Hawai’i Baseball League. They traveled throughout the Pacific, playing in Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan. Teams from around the world came to play them, too. Noda added sports promotion to his talents, bringing teams like the House of David, the Philadelphia Royals negro-league team and the Filipino All-Stars team from Manilla for games. Noda, in 1968, was awarded the Fifth Class Order of the Rising Sun by the government of Japan for his role in promoting goodwill and friendship, starting with the Asahis first tour of Japan in 1905. He was also awarded the La Croix de Chavalier Avec Ruban from the government of France for his work in amateur sports.

Noda contributed to the territory and later the state of Hawaii in many ways beyond baseball. He attended both English and Japanese schools and graduated from Royal School and Mid-Pacific Institute in 1911. He then became the first Nisei to work for the U.S. government in Hawaii, becoming a deputy collector and interpreter for the Internal Revenue Service. He was also one of the first Japanese-Americans to join the U.S. military when he served in the National Guard during World War I. Noda worked in the Honolulu District Court in 1916 as an interpreter. He later earned his law degree and began practicing there in 1924.

Sports stayed a part of Noda’s life. Though his direct involvement in the Asahis had waned in the 1910s, Noda kept an interest in baseball, playing in a league with police, judicial, federal, city and capitol teams. At the age of 32, Noda was one of the “old-timers” on the field in 1924. He also entered (and won) golf tournaments and was a part of the Hawaiian AAU wrestling team committee from 1954 onward.

In 1948, Noda was elected to the Territorial House of Representatives, and he served five consecutive two-year terms. He was also a delegate to the first Hawaii State Constitutional Convention and went to Washington D.C. twice to lobby for statehood. When Hawaii was admitted into the Union in 1959, Noda served as an elected member of the state Senate from 1959 until 1962, as a Democrat.

Steere Noda died on March 29, 1986 at the age of 94. He was survived by four children, nine grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. He is interred in Oahu Cemetery in Honolulu.

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