Hawaiian left-hander Fred Kuhaulua pitched in just eight major-league games, coming in a pair of trials four years apart, with the California Angels in 1977 and the San Diego Padres in 1981. He won his only decision at the top level with San Diego, outdueling Fernando Valenzuela as the season wound down. That was his last appearance in the majors.
Kuhaulua was in professional baseball from 1972 through 1982 before chronic elbow problems ended his career. His experience included a stint in Japan in 1978, as well as four seasons with his local minor-league team, the Hawaii Islanders (1979-82).
Born February 23, 1953, Kuhaulua was the second big-leaguer with an ethnic Hawaiian surname. The first was Hank “Prince” Oana; since Kuhaulua there have been two others as of 2023: Keith Luuloa and Kila Ka’aihue.1 Fred also had a Hawaiian middle name, Mahele. He was one of several children in the blended family of Levi Kuhaulua and his wife Nancy (née Kaui) – the picture here is muddled by conflicting accounts and because Levi was apparently Nancy’s third husband.2.
Levi Kuhaulua was born on the island of Maui. He worked on the Ulupalakua Ranch there before serving in World War II, attaining the rank of PFC.3 Post-war records show him as an able-bodied seaman aboard the USS LST-711, a Navy vessel that was transferred to Army service and engaged in the hunt for and recovery of soldiers’ remains on various islands across the Pacific. The 1950 Census shows that he was still in the armed forces. No evidence is presently available of other jobs he held after that.
Fred Kuhaulua was related to two other notable athletes. His cousin, Jesse Kuhaulua, became a champion sumo wrestler in Japan under the name Takamiyama.4 Another relative (the kinship is unclear5), Levi Stanley, starred in football at the University of Hawaii. The defensive tackle was good enough to be a 17th-round draft pick of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers in 1974. He was also drafted in the sixth round that year by The Hawaiians of the World Football League. Stanley played for that team in 1974 and 1975, the two years in which the WFL existed.
The Kuhauluas lived in Waianae, a small town on the leeward (western) coast of Oahu, about a 40-minute drive from Honolulu. Rural and less developed, the area is noted for miles of beaches – it’s little surprise that one of Fred’s hobbies was surfing6 – and deep, lush valleys. “The Westside” (as it is known locally) has the highest concentration of Native Hawaiians in the state.
No accounts have surfaced yet of when the young Fred Kuhaulua came to baseball and the levels at which he participated in youth ball. However, for decades Hawaii had a strong tradition of recreational leagues.
Kuhaulua attended Waianae High School, lettering in football, basketball, and wrestling as well as baseball.7 He did not attract attention as a prospect. An article in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin from January 1974 called him “a relative unknown.”8
After graduating from Waianae High in 1971, Kuhaulua went to Santa Ana Junior College in California. One of his opponents that season was future Kansas City Royals bullpen ace Dan Quisenberry, then a starter who had not yet developed the submarine style that made him a star. Kuhaulua bested “Quiz” and Orange County JC, 3-0. He fired 12 strikeouts.9
Kuhaulua’s time at Santa Ana JC was cut short after less than a year because his mother was ill. He didn’t finish the baseball season. However, he valued the brief experience, saying, “I didn’t learn anything in high school, I learned it all in college. I guess I credit my college coaches.”10
During the summer of 1972, the Hawaiian wangled an opportunity to pitch batting practice at Honolulu Stadium for the Islanders’ Pacific Coast League rivals, the Phoenix Giants. Former San Francisco Giants third baseman Jim Davenport, the Phoenix manager, watched the skinny 19-year-old. As Kuhaulua reminisced in 1997, “At the time, I was probably 135 pounds soaking wet, so he was kind of leery about how I could throw, but, yes, I could throw. I threw hard.”11
Today, many scouts would probably have dismissed Kuhaulua just because of his size (he eventually filled out to 175-185 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame). However, Giants scout Lefty Fong saw potential and gave Kuhaulua a contract.12 The organization invited him to play Pioneer League rookie ball in Great Falls, Montana. He was 1-0 with a 3.91 ERA in six games (three starts).
Kuhaulua spent two more seasons in the Giants chain, both at the Class A level. In 1973 he was with Decatur (Illinois) of the Midwest League. The following year he was assigned to Fresno of the California League. He appeared in 45 games overall, starting 19, and posting a 9-9 record with a 4.23 ERA. He received no mentions in The Sporting News. However, his exploits in Hawaii’s Puerto Rican league got local ink. In one January 1974 game, he struck out seven of the nine batters he faced in relief. The article said, “the poised southpaw is fast making a name for himself in baseball.”13
In search of pitching depth, the California Angels organization drafted Kuhaulua off the Fresno roster following the 1974 season.14 He remained in the California League with the Salinas Packers, improving his ERA to 3.49 in 33 games (four starts). He returned to Salinas to start the ’76 season and won promotion to Class AA El Paso. In his last outing for Salinas, on July 20, he struck out two men with the tying runs on base to save a 5-3 win.15
It was also during the 1976 season that Kuhaulua began a five-year battle with alcohol. At its worst, the problem escalated to the point where “I was drinking a case of beer a day,” he said. “I was even drinking before I pitched.”16
By 1977, Kuhaulua was at Salt Lake City, the Angels’ Class AAA farm club in the Pacific Coast League. Early that June, the Gulls visited Hawaii to play the Islanders, and Kuhaulua hosted his teammates at his family’s home in Waianae for a luau on the beach. The centerpiece of the feast was a 200-pound roast pig. “Kuhaulua said that some of the players went back for seconds, thirds, and fourths on the pig. However, most of the players just nibbled at the sashimi.”17
That August, the big club beckoned, sending righty Tom Walker down to Salt Lake.18 There is an entertaining behind-the scenes story about the callup. According to a 1993 article, “Kuhaulua reported to the Angels and told them that he was unable to lift his left arm. He told the Angels that one of his acquaintances had his mother put a spell on him, preventing him from lifting his arm. The Angels had no choice but to telephone the mother in Hawaii and plead for them to remove the curse.”19
Word must have gotten around the organization. Bob “Buck” Rodgers – who in 1977 was managing El Paso, a team for which Kuhaulua did not play that year – gave his view of the tale. “He couldn’t even comb his hair, but the day the mother called him and removed the spell, he was fine. That’s why you can’t take these things lightly, because these guys believe in these things.”20
Kuhaulua made his big-league debut on August 2 against the New York Yankees, who went on to win the World Series that year. At Anaheim Stadium, Angels starter Paul Hartzell got the hook in the fourth inning after loading the bases with two out. With lefty Reggie Jackson coming up, the southpaw Kuhaulua was summoned. On his first pitch in the majors, Jackson singled to right field.21 Two inherited runners scored, giving the Yankees a 4-2 lead. Kuhaulua got the final out and threw a scoreless fifth inning, but in the sixth he gave up a three-run homer to Chris Chambliss.
After the game, Angels manager Dave Garcia remarked, “You just throw them out there like babes. It’s like teaching babies to swim – you just throw them in the water. I figured, what’s the difference? Jackson had never seen him [Kuhaulua] before.” San Bernardino Sun-Telegram columnist Paul Oberjuerge sniped, “Clearly, Kuhaulua. . . sank straight to the bottom in front of 20,298 horrified witnesses.”22
Ten days later, in the second game of a doubleheader (the club’s second in four days). Garcia gave Kuhaulua a starting assignment. The venue was baseball’s best-known shrine: Yankee Stadium. Back then The House That Ruth Built still had at least a portion of its old “Death Valley” in left-center, so there was more of a premium on southpaws.
New York Times sportswriter Murray Chass, at the depth of the Bronx Bombers’ drought in 1990, put it rather uncharitably:
“Once upon a time, when the Yankees were champions or legitimate contenders for the championship, opposing teams would dredge up every left-handed pitcher they could find to face the left-dominated array of sluggers.
If a team didn’t have a rookie left-hander or a journeyman left-hander or an aging left-hander rusting away in an obscure corner of the bullpen, it would scour its minor-league system, from Class AAA to Class A, to locate a left-hander whom it could summon for a one-day visit to the major leagues and a start against the Yankees.”23
Kuhaulua’s reaction was a warming contrast. Even though he lasted only 1 1/3 innings, giving up three runs on four hits and a walk, he called that game “the thrill of my life. To pitch against guys like Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, and so many other great players was so exciting, such an unbelievable feeling, something a lot of people wish they had the chance but they don’t get.”24
California tied that game with a run in the fifth, but the Yankees broke it open with four in the bottom of the sixth and went on to win, 9-3.
Kuhaulua’s last game as an Angel came two days after that, in the finale of the weekend series at Yankee Stadium. In relief of Wayne Simpson, he pitched the final 2 2/3 innings and gave up five runs in a 15-3 laugher for New York. That brought his ERA to an ignoble 15.63. In 6 1/3 innings, he allowed 15 hits and walked seven.
After his two-week stint, Kuhaulua finished the season at Salt Lake. He went 9-5 for the Gulls, with an ERA of 6.07 – lofty, but not that unusual in the PCL. He made two starts in 50 appearances.
The Angels removed Kuhaulua from their 40-man roster that December and released him in March 1978. He joined the Chunichi Dragons of Japan’s Central League, posting a record of 3-4 with a 4.33 ERA in 25 games (10 starts). Perhaps his most effective outing came on September 22 as he went all the way in a home game at old Nagoya Stadium to defeat the Yomiuri Giants, 6-1. He allowed just five hits; the only run scored against him came on an eighth-inning home run by the great Sadaharu Oh, the 804th homer and 2000th RBI of Oh’s illustrious career.25
Since Kuhaulua was not going back to Japan, he was a free agent. The Hawaii Islanders were then the top affiliate of the Padres, and Islanders GM Dick Phillips recommended that the organization sign the local product.26 A 2021 retrospective about Kuhaulua by Honolulu sportswriter Dave Reardon said that Kuhaulua was rediscovered by the Islanders after the ’78 season while he was pitching again in Oahu’s Puerto Rican league.”27
This fits with the memory of Ryan Kurosaki, another Hawaiian pitcher. Kurosaki recalled, “I played in the Puerto Rican League too, which was a little bit higher caliber, with people like Johnny Matias and Joey DeSa [Hawaiian-born players of Puerto Rican descent], as well as Freddy Kuhaulua and Lenny Sakata. We’d all go home, we’d work out, put a team together and play ball. We scrimmaged at the University of Hawaii. I’d say the caliber was between A and AA.”28
For the next three seasons (1979-81), Kuhaulua was a serviceable member of Hawaii’s staff, making 62 starts and coming out of the bullpen 22 times as well. He won 10 games each year and lost 27 in total. He posted his best ERA, 2.81, in 1979 – thanks to four shutouts, including a one-hitter against Portland on June 4.29 After the ’79 season ended, he was named to the PCL’s all-star team.30
An observation of Kuhaulua as an Islander came from his friend and fellow pitcher Rich Olsen, who had gone to the University of Hawaii and faced Kuhaulua while hurling in the PCL for the Vancouver Canadians. He said, “[Kuhaulua] taught me you play with respect toward the game, and you can’t let things bother you too much. He had a lot of pressure on him when he first went [to play pro ball]. He would just say take it in stride, do what you can and don’t over-pressure yourself.”31
Longtime college baseball coach Carl Iwasaki provided another memory of this time. In the summer of 1980, Iwasaki had just graduated from the Punahou School in Honolulu. He was a catcher in his playing days, and before he went to college, the Islanders hired him as a bullpen catcher. “Freddy was a mentor to me,” said Iwasaki.32
After the 1980 season ended, on October 6, Kuhaulua took the advice of Islanders manager Doug Rader to seek help from Alcoholics Anonymous. He also got a hand that winter from Joan Kroc. Mrs. Kroc (the wife of then-Padres owner Ray Kroc, the McDonald’s hamburger titan) was setting up a program of alcohol and drug education for Padres players at all levels of the system.33 This was an offshoot of her work with Operation Cork, the philanthropic effort she started in 1976 to combat addiction.34
In early September 1981, San Diego gave Kuhaulua – by then 28 – his other sample of big-league life. This one was much more rewarding. During that final month, he made an initial relief appearance, giving up two unearned runs in two innings, and then made four starts, three of them high-quality. According to Padres GM Jack McKeon, the finesse pitcher “had a good fastball and mixed it with curves, sliders, and his forkball.”35
On September 13, Kuhaulua left after 7 2/3 innings with a 3-2 lead versus Atlanta, but the bullpen couldn’t nail it down. The Padres won it in 10, 6-4.
A week later, again facing Atlanta, Kuhaulua gave up just one run in seven innings. However, his opponent – veteran knuckleballer Phil Niekro – did the same. The Braves scored twice in the 11th to win, 3-1. The other noteworthy item for Kuhaulua from that game was his only big-league hit in nine at-bats. His fifth-inning single off Niekro drove in San Diego’s only run.
On September 26, the Padres staked Kuhaulua to an early 4-2 lead over San Francisco, but he gave up three runs in the fifth and was lifted. A seventh-inning run got Kuhaulua off the hook, but the Giants won, 6-5.
On October 1, however, Kuhaulua picked up his lone major-league win against the eventual world champs, the Los Angeles Dodgers. He fired eight shutout innings, giving up just five hits and capturing a 1-0 purists’ delight. Opposing pitcher Fernando Valenzuela, who would be named NL Rookie of the Year, allowed just one unearned run. It came in the second inning on a throwing error by right fielder Derrel Thomas – the ball bounced past third and into the Dodgers dugout.36
“I was able to block out the fans [38,267 at Dodger Stadium] and just focus on my catcher [Doug “Eye Chart” Gwosdz] and the hitter,” Kuhaulua recalled. “And let me tell you, there were some good hitters on that Dodgers team.”37 Los Angeles had already clinched a playoff berth, having won the first half in the NL West of the split schedule that the majors adopted after the 1981 midseason strike was resolved. Yet manager Tom Lasorda still had Dusty Baker, Steve Garvey, and Pedro Guerrero at the heart of his lineup.
Kuhaulua was in hot water in the eighth after Thomas singled with one out and pinch-hitter Mike Marshall doubled. Padres skipper Frank Howard ordered an intentional walk of Steve Sax, and the strategy worked as Kuhaulua got pinch-hitter Jerry Grote to ground into a 4-6-3 double play. Eric Show got the save, working a 1-2-3 ninth inning.
After the game, Kuhaulua candidly stated, “I never would have got this chance if it hadn’t been for Alcoholics Anonymous and Joan Kroc.”38
Although Kuhaulua had a pretty good spring training in 1982, he was optioned to the Islanders. He didn’t do well, posting a 5.87 ERA in 69 innings. He walked 40 batters and gave up nine homers. As Dave Reardon wrote, “Kuhaulua had elbow problems that worsened that year, and he was hurt most of the summer. He tried to come back in ’83, but the elbow – which had undergone five surgeries over the years – did him in.”39
The Padres offered him a coaching position in their chain, but he decided to head back home to his family in Oahu, where he held various day jobs.40 According to Reardon, “Kuhaulua worked in the building industry on Oahu. When the elbow allowed it, he still pitched in local leagues.”41
Kuhaulua made a comeback bid in 1985. By that time, the Islanders were affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates requested a special workout in front of Islanders GM Pete Bock, but as Kuhaulua told local baseball reporter Rod Ohira, “When I got home that day, the elbow just swelled up. It hurt for days. The way I look at it, I might as well hang it up because it really doesn’t look promising.”42
In 1989 Kuhaulua took the position of pitching coach at Waianae High. On occasion, the Seariders faced Damien High, whose head coach was another Hawaiian ex-big-leaguer, John Matias. Kuhaulua said of coaching, “The kids appreciate the fact I played in the bigs, the knowledge I have, what I can see in terms of tactics and mechanics that can help them.”43
On one occasion in 1994, however, Kuhaulua got carried away. He was coaching third base in a game at Kauai High and disputed an interference call by running toward an umpire at full speed, knocking him back about five feet, and then bumping the ump again. Kuhaulua was first indicted on a felony assault count because the umpire worked for the state Department of Education. The case was resolved in August 1996 with a guilty plea to a misdemeanor assault charge, a weekend in jail, and a $1,000 fine. Kuhaulua was also suspended from coaching for a year and told that he couldn’t attend any sporting events unless they involved his children.44
It’s not known when Kuhaulua quit coaching, though one may infer from his 1997 interview with Sports Collectors Digest that he returned after his suspension ended. His occupation in later years is also unknown. However, by virtue of having played in the majors after 1980, he qualified for some pension benefits.
Kuhaulua married Ocie Christensen, who was also from Waianae and went to Waianae High. They had four children: sons Mahele, Kainoa, and Kaulana, as well as a daughter named Leilani.45 Ocie worked in the Waianae school system as a substitute teacher and later as a truancy officer, helping to combat the town’s high level of chronic absenteeism.46
Kaulana carried on his family’s baseball tradition. The shortstop graduated from Waianae High in 1998, and after his first year at Los Angeles City College, the Detroit Tigers drafted him in the 39th round. Kaulana opted to continue in school at Cal State-Long Beach, and his stock rose in 2000: the Cardinals selected him in the 17th round. Once again, he didn’t sign, but he turned pro at last after the Minnesota Twins made him their 12th-round pick in 2001. He played in the low minors with the Twins organization through 2005, briefly getting as high as Class AA.
Fred Kuhaulua died of natural causes on September 20, 2021.47 He was 68. Along with his wife and children, he was survived by his brothers Zechariah and Levi, as well as 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. His remains were cremated and the ashes were scattered.48
Lenn Sakata praised his old friend. “I have nothing but respect for Fred, not just as a pitcher, but as a person, too. I thought he was supremely talented. It’s kind of a shame he didn’t get to do more in baseball.”49
This biography was reviewed by Gregory H. Wolf and Jan Finkel and fact-checked by John-William Greenbaum.
Mahalo to the following people:
- Eric Costello and Rod Nelson for additional research.
- Carl Iwasaki for his input.
- Donna L. Ching for her ongoing support of the BioProject’s effort to cover Hawaiian players and convey the islands’ special atmosphere.
Pacificwrecks.com – information on the USS LST-711 (https://pacificwrecks.com/ships/usn/LST-711.html)
2 The 1940 U.S. Census shows Nancy married to a man named Henry Stanley. At that time, there were four children in the household: daughters Nancy and Emily, son Henry Jr., and niece Rebecca. The July 24, 1951 Honolulu Advertiser indicates that Levi married Nancy – then using the surname Talfred – on July 21, 1951. She had a daughter named Pamela Talfred who was born around 1950, as indicated by Pamela’s death at age 18 in 1968 (Honolulu Advertiser, November 28, 1968). Nancy’s obituary (Honolulu Advertiser, December 31, 1989) shows that she was survived by four sons (Levi, Stanley, Fred, and Zechariah) and four daughters (Rebecca, Nancy, Terri, and Ruby). One may infer that Rebecca was adopted. Judging by Pamela’s death notice, “Terri” may have been a misprint for Emily. Levi’s obituary (Honolulu Star-Bulletin, April 7, 1998) confuses things further, stating that he was survived by sons Fred, Zechariah, and Levi and daughters Emily, Ruby, Teryann, and Leeann.
3 Levi Kuhaulua page on Findagrave.com (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/892305/levi-kuhaulua).
4 Jesse’s mother was Lillian Kuhaulua, the sister of Fred’s father. See “Jesse Kuhaulua’s Mother Dies,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, May 8, 1976.
5 Pamela Talfred’s death notice (see note 2) refers to Levi Stanley as her uncle, which would also be the case for Fred, who was mentioned in that notice as her brother. Levi Stanley, whose middle name is Kuhaulua, is also called Fred’s uncle in Dave Reardon, “Pitcher Fred Kuhaulua had his major moment against Fernando Valenzuela,” Honolulu Star-Advertiser, November 10, 2021. However, definitive evidence is still pending. Another article from 2009 quoted Stanley about foster parents named Millirod who took hm off the streets. See “Stanley hit foes, books hard,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 23, 2009.
6 1977 Cramer Pacific Coast League card, accessed via comc.com.
7 Fred Kuhaulua, William J. Weiss questionnaire, October 23, 1972.
8 “Three Teams Tied in Rican,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, January 28, 1974: 23.
9 Ross Forman, “Fred Kuhaulua’s Career Produced One Win…and a Topps Card,” Sports Collectors Digest, September 12, 1997.
10 Weiss questionnaire, October 23, 1972.
11 Forman, “Fred Kuhaulua’s Career Produced One Win…and a Topps Card.”
12 “Three Teams Tied in Rican.”
13 “Three Teams Tied in Rican.”
14 Art Voellinger, “15 Players Picked in Triple-A, Double-A Draft Sessions,” The Sporting News, December 21, 1974: 45.
15 “Class A Leagues,” The Sporting News, August 14, 1976: 36.
16 Phil Collier, “Kuhaulua Earns Padres Blessings,” The Sporting News, October 3, 1981: 37.
17 “Coast Toasties,” The Sporting News, June 25, 1977: 32.
18 “Angels Notes,” San Bernardino Sun-Telegram, August 2, 1977: B-10. Walker never got back to the majors.
19 Dave Roos, “Ballplayers Boning Up on Good-Luck Charms,” Arizona Republic, June 27, 1993: D2.
20 Roos, “Ballplayers Boning Up on Good-Luck Charms.”
21 Paul Oberjuerge, “‘Sink-or-swim’ Angels drown,” San Bernardino Sun-Telegram, August 3, 1977: D1.
22 Oberjuerge, “‘Sink-or-swim’ Angels drown,”
23 Murray Chass, “Notebook: The Wrong Direction,” New York Times, June 17, 1990: Section 8, 3.
24 Forman, “Fred Kuhaulua’s Career Produced One Win…and a Topps Card.”
25 “Dragons Take Apart Giants,” Hawaii Times, September 22, 1978: 1.
26 Collier, “Kuhaulua Earns Padres Blessings.”
27 Reardon, “Pitcher Fred Kuhaulua had his major moment against Fernando Valenzuela.” Reardon cited an article by Rod Ohira of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, which it has not been possible to find.
28 Telephone interview, Ryan Kurosaki with Rory Costello, March 2, 2000.
29 “Kuhaulua Fires Blanks,” The Sporting News, June 30, 1979: 48.
30 “Coast Toasts All-Stars,” The Sporting News, October 6, 1979: 34.
31 Reardon, “Pitcher Fred Kuhaulua had his major moment against Fernando Valenzuela.”
32 E-mail from Carl Iwasaki to Rory Costello, September 23, 2023.
33 Collier, “Kuhaulua Earns Padres Blessings.”
34 Betsy Farver-Smith, “Joan Kroc’s legacy paved the way to battle addiction in America,” San Diego Union-Tribune, March 31, 2017.
35 Collier, “Kuhaulua Earns Padres Blessings.”
36 “Padres 1, Dodgers 0,” Associated Press, October 2, 1981.
37 Forman, “Fred Kuhaulua’s Career Produced One Win…and a Topps Card.”
38 Collier, “Kuhaulua Earns Padres Blessings.”
39 Reardon, “Pitcher Fred Kuhaulua had his major moment against Fernando Valenzuela.”
40 Forman, “Fred Kuhaulua’s Career Produced One Win…and a Topps Card.”
41 Reardon, “Pitcher Fred Kuhaulua had his major moment against Fernando Valenzuela.”
42 Rod Ohira, “Seven Local Boys Former Islanders,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, unknown date, circa spring 1985 (accessed via https://linkmeister.com/islanders/Islanders%2081%20-%2084.pdf).
43 Forman, “Fred Kuhaulua’s Career Produced One Win…and a Topps Card.”
44 Pat Bigold, “Coach does time for bumping ump,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, August 20, 1996.
45 Fred Kuhaulua obituary, Honolulu Advertiser, November 7, 2021.
46 Suevon Lee, “Missing School Has Become a Huge Problem in Hawaii,” Honolulu Civil Beat, November 6, 2017.
47 Reardon, “Pitcher Fred Kuhaulua had his major moment against Fernando Valenzuela.”
48 Fred Kuhaulua obituary.
49 Reardon, “Pitcher Fred Kuhaulua had his major moment against Fernando Valenzuela.”