Hats off to Fred Kuhaulua, my all-time favorite Hawai’i Islanders player

Fred Kuhaulua’s 1980 baseball card, and how I remember him at Aloha Stadium.

Before I first learned about college basketball legend “Coach K,” and long before I ever heard of music legend Willie K, I was drawn to and quickly became a big fan of a Hawai’i Islanders pitcher from Wai’anae affectionately known as “Freddie K.”

Now that I think about it, Fred Kuhaulua, who sadly passed away on Sept. 20 at age 68, really was the first baseball player whom I paid close attention to as far as his statistics, career path and anticipation in watching him play.

I am so thankful that my dad was a huge baseball fan and gladly obliged whenever I asked him to take me to Islanders games at Aloha Stadium in the late 1970’s and early-to-mid 1980’s. Usually there was some kind of promotion involved: “Helmet Night,” or “Jacket Night,” or “Bat Night,” “Baseball Cards Night,” etc., and I collected them all (wish I kept them; I think I might still have the cherry wood-colored bat somewhere). “Fireworks Night” was another great reason to visit Halawa on a warm summer night.

Of course, beyond the promotions and free giveaways, the great baseball was always a treat. Hard to imagine these days that we once actually had a Triple-A franchise to call our own and watch in person less than 20 minutes away. What I wouldn’t give for that now!

Anyway, I had gone to a game or two in 1977 or ’78, but I really became an Islanders fan in the summer of 1979. Ironically, that turned out to be the last year I actually played baseball, for the Manoa (Mustang) Giants. So at the tender age of 11, I transitioned from baseball player to baseball fan. Huge baseball fan.

On one of those promotional giveaway nights, I first saw a left-handed starting pitcher named Fred Kuhaulua.

Not a physically imposing guy — he was listed at 5 feet 11, 175 pounds, and not at all overpowering with his fastball, which probably clocked in the mid or high 80 mph range, tops. But he had a beautiful, slow and graceful windup, so effortless … high leg kick, but not overly dramatic like Dontrelle Willis or Juan Marichal. Just the right height and tempo.

He also had an equally smooth and graceful delivery, and his best pitch was what announcers called a great “sweeping curve ball.” Not a “12-6” curve, but a horizontally wide-arc curve that would start outside the strike zone but somehow find its way over the plate in the final 10 to 15 feet or so.

Freddie K. obviously had great location and command, as well, because again, he did not blow fastballs past a lot of batters and was not physically imposing.

In fact, he garnered only “Honorable Mention” honors on the OIA West All-Star Team in 1971, his senior year at Wai’anae, and went undrafted that June.

After a year at Santa Ana (Calif.) College, Kuhaulua again went undrafted but signed a free agent contract with the San Francisco Giants on Aug. 1, 1972 and was assigned to their Pioneer (Rookie) League team in Great Falls, Montana.

He was promoted to the Single-A Decatur (Ga.) Commodores in 1973, then played A-ball for the Fresno Giants in 1974 and — after being traded to the California Angels organization — the Salinas (Calif.) Packers in ’75 before being promoted to the AA El Paso Diablos in 1976. He started 1977 with the Triple-A Salt Lake City Gulls of the Pacific Coast League and then, on Aug. 1, was called up to the Angels.

The very next night, Aug. 2, 1977, the visiting New York Yankees chased Angels starter Paul Hartzell with two outs in the top of the fourth inning and in front of 30,298 fans at Anaheim Stadium, 24-year-old Fred Kuhaulua of Wai’anae, HI, made his Major League Baseball debut.

It was not a winning debut, as he allowed five hits and three runs (all earned) with one strikeout and one walk in 2 and 1/3 innings, but most importantly the former Wai’anae pitcher apparently became only the third OIA athlete (after Kalani’s Ryan Kurosaki and Lenn Sakata) and the first from the OIA Western Division to reach the Major Leagues. Quite an achievement.

Ten days later, in front of 33,473 fans at Yankee Stadium, Kuhaulua made his first MLB start but lasted only 1 and 1/3 innings after allowing four hits, three runs (all earned) and walking one batter.

He pitched against the Yankees again two days later in mop-up relief, but that would be his final appearance of the season.

After being released by the Angels during the following Spring Training, Kuhaulua signed with the Chunichi Dragons of the Japan Central League and spent the 1978 season with that Nagoya-based franchise.

Then on March 1, 1979, Freddie K. got his second shot back in America, and signed with the San Diego Padres. He was assigned to the Padres’ Triple-A club, which happened to be the Hawai’i Islanders.

Reporting from camp in Yuma, Ariz., Honolulu Advertiser sports writer Ferd Borsch wrote that “southpaw Kuhaulua has impressed the Padre brass with his early spring stuff,” and noted that San Diego farm director Jim Weigel added, “I really like his arm. (Padres manager) Roger Craig also liked what he saw. When Roger saw him throwing, he wanted to know who he was.”

To my delight, Kuhaulua spent the next three summers pitching for the Islanders, winning 10 games each season.

When the Padres expanded their roster after the 1981 Islanders season, Kuhaulua got called up to San Diego and made his return to MLB with a relief appearance against the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates at Jack Murphy Stadium on Sept. 6.

He then made four straight starts, the last of which was one for the ages, but curiously seldom since talked about.

On Oct. 1, 1981, in front of 38,267 fans at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Freddie K. took the mound against a 20-year-old rookie sensation named Fernando Valenzuela, who had swept up Southern California and the entire nation by storm that season. “Fernando Mania” was still in high gear, and Valenzuela entered the game with a 13-6 record in the strike-shortened schedule.

Kuhaulua, by contrast, was mostly a minor league journeyman from Wai’anae whom most of the baseball world had never heard of.

But on that Thursday night in Chavez Ravine, Freddie K. was Da’ Man:

He dazzled his way through a Dodgers lineup that featured future Rookie of the Year Steve Sax at leadoff, Ken Landreaux batting second, Dusty Baker third and Steve Garvey in cleanup, followed by Pedro Guerrero, Steve Yeager, Bill Russell, Derrel Thomas and then Valenzuela, who handled the bat pretty well for a pitcher.

Kuhaulua was brilliant, at one point retiring 13 batters in a row, and finished with allowing just five hits in eight shutout innings, with two strikeouts and two walks as the Padres beat Valenzuela and the Dodgers, 1-0.

Alas, it was Freddie K.’s first and last Major League victory, and his final MLB appearance. He played only one more season with the Islanders before retiring for good in 1982.

Kuhaulua’s professional playing days may have ended at age 29, but thankfully his life in baseball did not.

He later returned to Wai’anae High School and served as pitching coach, helping the Seariders win the 1990 OIA championship and to a runner-up finish in the HHSAA State Championship tournament that season.

In the years since, and even during his prime, to me Fred Kuhaulua always seemed to be under the public radar for whatever reason. There was barely a Honolulu newspaper mention of his first MLB appearance in 1977, and as alluded to earlier, his historic victory over National League Cy Young Award and Rookie of the Year winner Valenzuela and the 1981 World Series Champion Dodgers seems largely forgotten. In conversations about great pitchers from Hawai’i, we always hear the popular names of Sid Fernandez, Derek Tatsuno, Mike Fetters, Shane Komine, Brandon League and, most recently, Kirby Yates.

We almost never hear the name of Fred Kuhaulua.

But for a kid like me watching him in person at Aloha Stadium as he took the mound and went through those graceful windups and deliveries, and then later listening on the radio as he suited up for the San Diego Padres … Freddie K. was Da’ Man.

Speaking of radio, KGU announcers Les Keiter or Alan Elconin would always introduce him this way: “… And the starting pitcher for the Islanders tonight, the Pride of Wai’anae, Fred Kuhaulua.”

For myself, and probably many other Islanders fans of that era, Freddie K. was much more than that: He was one of my childhood idols, and the Pride of ALL Hawai’i.

I would like to send my deepest condolences to the Kuhaulua ‘Ohana, and wish them comfort in this difficult time of grief. I mourn with you. Thanks for sharing and allowing him to be an inspiration to local kids like me.

Although this is my first public mahalo to Freddie K., it won’t be the last. He will be remembered and mentioned here again, and probably more than once.

A hui hou kakou. And Rest in Peace, Fred Kuhaulua.


  1. Nicely done, Wes. Fred certainly was an outstanding pitcher. I faced him in the Puerto Rican League played at the former Lanakila (now DeSa) field in the early 70s and had no chance. I think I took 3 straight pitches, 2 of which were that legendary curveball of his. I donʻt think I ever saw a better curve! Good morning, good afternoon, and good night, and I was outa there! I was really sad to hear of his passing. I didn’t know him well, but did know he was a good guy. Rest in peace, Freddie K.

    1. Mahalo Coach! Yes I thought of that Puerto Rican League when I saw that Freddie K.’s first three MLB appearances were against the Yankees, because my dad had told me that Chris Chambliss had also played at Lanakila? Perhaps Fred Kuhaulua harkened back to pitching against Chambliss with that short fence protecting N. School Street, when he faced Chambliss and the short right field porch at the old Yankee Stadium?

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