Yosh Kawano was always there on the fringe of the action, always moving, the little Cubs clubhouse guy who was as dependable as the grass stains he washed from players’ uniforms.
His job was to keep order and cleanliness in the locker room. And he did that by picking up mountains of dirty socks, jerseys and, uh, undergarments, doing the wash, cleaning and vacuuming, shining shoes, making the tiny Wrigley Field locker room as tidy as a dollhouse closet.
But he also kept a sort of order and cleanliness during the Cubs’ long and painful slog toward their ever-receding grail — that first World Series title since 1908.
Though he retired in 2008 —after landing his first Cubs gig as a batboy in spring training of 1935 — Kawano never got closer to that World Series crown than when the Cubs lost to the Tigers in 1945.
He died Monday at a Los Angeles nursing home at age 97, and declining mental and physical skills had kept him out of the public eye for several years. But his good pal, Cubs Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, is certain Yosh knew about the 2016 Cubs championship and loved it.
“He lived to witness the World Series, and I know he was aware of it,” says Sandberg. “I feel very good about that.”
Kawano worked at the same job until he was 88, and you have to wonder when something like that will happen again. Ten years at a job today is considered long-term.
In pro sports, with the constant turnover of owners, management, coaches and players, old boys with old secrets are often swept away with each regime change. Not Yosh. Rumor was, he had a Cubs contract for life. It wasn’t true, but it had the ring of truth.
He kept to himself, and he cleaned lockers and packed bags for 37 managers.
Not only did Yosh serve under Charley Grimm and Leo Durocher, but he also cleaned for Herman Franks, Lee Elia and Bruce Kimm.
“My God, he was there from the days of Gabby Hartnett, Bill ‘Swish’ Nicholson, Andy Pafko,” says John Schulian, the former Chicago Daily News and Sun-Times sports columnist from 1977 to 1984. “Even the College of Coaches.”
Schulian chuckles and says what needs to be said: “I think he saw more bad baseball than any man should be forced to watch.”
This may be true. The Cubs finished sixth or worse, in either the league or the division, 24 times while Kawano was doing the laundry and sanitizing the bathrooms. But he cherished his job through it all. There is no doubt of that.
“His No. 1 goal was to do what he could to help the Cubs win,” says Sandberg. “If there were reporters who stayed too long or ‘friends’ hanging out doing nothing, he’d come over like a sheepdog and shepherd them out. He was loyal to the bone, and he loved his job. Just loved it.”
Born in Seattle in 1921, Kawano fought in the Pacific theater in World War II, earning two medals. Before he could enlist, however, he was sent with his family to an internment camp for Japanese-Americans in Arizona, this national safety act still being one of the most disgraceful things our government has ordered.
So you have to wonder if Yosh, who never married or had children, ever felt as though he truly belonged anywhere — except when he was with the Cubs.
In Japanese culture, it is considered noble to follow a single path of duty, of focus and attention, no matter how minute or humble that focus might be. The Japanese term “ikigai” can be translated as “that which makes life worth living,’’ meaning the pursuit of self-realization through doing something well and fastidiously and being totally immersed in it.
That was Yosh and the Cubs. He was as immersed as salt in the ocean.
He had a room at the Palmer House where he lived during the season, but his real home was Wrigley, and his uniform was a white V-necked T-shirt, khaki pants (with crumpled envelopes in the back pocket), faded white shoes and a white tennis hat with a floppy brim.
There would often be a well-gummed but unlit stogie clamped between his teeth as he maneuvered about.
Yosh knew everything, but he never spoke out. He told Sandberg one time with a laugh, “Some person wants me to write a book. People don’t want to know what I have to say.”
Oh, the things he learned and witnessed. But his dedication was to keeping the clubhouse as perfect as it could be, so the players could be as perfect as they could be. Even when they were flawed.
“Yosh was the king of Wrigley Field,” former Cubs first baseman Mark Grace once said.
“He would have just loved to actually live in Wrigley Field,” says Sandberg.
In a way, he will forever.