By John Sammon
Robert K. Honda, long to be remembered in Sacramento as “Mister Softball,” was a person whose lifetime included so much given to so many that the good he did is perhaps beyond estimation.
“He was a great man, and I’m proud to say I knew him,” said friend and former Sacramento Islanders teammate Sid Spencer. “I had such great respect for this man. His friendship is missed.”
Honda passed away at Methodist Hospital in Sacramento on April 13, 2013. He is remembered by the many lives he touched. As time goes by, his legions of friends realize his passing created a void. Honda was one of those rare people who was irreplaceable.
He was instrumental in founding Asian softball leagues in Sacramento and brought together Asian community members, including seniors, for competition and fellowship.
A resident of Lincoln and a retired electrician, Spencer recalled that the team was originally composed of players Honda had known in Hawaii who had moved to Sacramento and so the name Islanders.
The formation of Asian sports leagues in part grew out of the prejudice seen in California against Asians in the first half of the 20th century. People of such ancestry did not originally have the opportunities to join and compete in regular Caucasian sports leagues.
Honda was born Oct. 2, 1939 in Lihue, a small village on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai. His mother Chio ran a restaurant on the island called the “BBQ Inn,” and his father Jack was a long-time employee for an auto company.
The family and other residents of Hawaii, even though they were physically closer to World War II in the Pacific, were not imprisoned as were 115,000 Japanese Americans living along the West Coast, stripped of citizenship and property and herded into concentration camps.
Known as “Sonny” to his family and friends growing up on Kauai, Honda moved to the Sacramento area where for 37 years he served area schools in the Sacramento City Unified School District as a teacher, counselor, administrator and coach. It was as a coach and mentor he would achieve perhaps his greatest renown, and also for the youth, student and scholarship programs he organized.
In his first season as head basketball coach at Sacramento High School, Honda saw his team make the playoffs for the first time in years.
His pupils included Jim Donaldson, who later played professional basketball for the Seattle Super Sonics, and Jerry Royster, a baseball third baseman with the Atlanta Braves and later a coach of the Boston Red Sox.
At Sacramento High Honda founded the Dave Hotell Invitational Basketball Tournament and the Kevin Johnson Metro Classic, named after a youth he once coached. Kevin Johnson went on to become an NBA All-Star professional basketball player for the Phoenix Suns.
Johnson is today the mayor of Sacramento. He credited his achievements in life to the inspiration, focus and confidence instilled in him by Honda.
“Coach Honda was one of the good guys,” Johnson said. “Long after I left Sacramento High, we maintained a close relationship. He had a great life, a full life, and he did it for the right reasons. To this day Coach Honda’s tenacity is still with me. It helped me and taught me to never quit and to keep fighting.”
In an ever-expanding list of activities that filled Honda’s days, it was softball that has gained him a near legendary status in the Sacramento community. Honda loved coaching and playing softball and he created the Sam Barber Softball Team in Sacramento, and also played for and managed The Sacramento Islanders.
Considered recreational softball, there were two Islanders teams, the 60’s team for those players in their early 60’s, and the 65, for those 65 years old and up.
“We played back in the 1960’s and 70’s in the Asian Leagues,” Spencer said. “I played outfield and Bob (Honda) pitched. It was slow pitch softball. One of Bob’s great skills was, he was a hell of an organizer.”
Honda founded and ran for 30 years the Sumitomo Softball Tournament, named after the bank, held each year in September. The tournament attracted teams from all over Northern and Southern California and Hawaii.
Spencer said regular games took place in the summer once a week, tournaments once a month, and a tournament held on Honda’s home turf on Kauai once a year.
“We traveled a lot on these teams and we made a lot of friends,” Spencer said. “I’m still playing. I’m going to play this February in the Tournament of Champions in Winter Haven, Florida. Our team qualified by winning four earlier tournaments, including one in California, the Western National, and another tournament in Las Vegas.
Spencer said the reason Honda was such a great coach in part was because he was so intense and focused on the playing field.
“He was really competitive,” he said. “He could laugh and joke like the rest of us, but when we were in a game, was he a competitor? Wow! He did not like to lose.”
Spencer said when Honda made a rare error on the field, or when his team lost a game, he would sometimes throw his mitt down in disgust. It became somewhat of a trademark.
“He was so competitive, that’s why I liked to beat him in golf,” Spencer said. “It got to the point that when we did poorly as a team and made mistakes, we’d all throw our mitts down together to the ground. Now that’s inspirational leadership.”
Honda’s son Daryl works for Sun Valley Rice Mill, a food processor that makes rice ready for sale in markets. He said he and his brother Wesley played as youths for teams their dad coached. Asked if it was true that his father was competitive, Daryl Honda responded, “I would put an exclamation point next to that. My dad had the attitude to have fun and play fair, but winning was the important thing.”
Daryl Honda said in recent years after his father suffered a series of strokes and his mother (Joyce) became ill family members focused their time and attention on caring for them.
Among the many honors Honda achieved included Honorary Life Membership in the Golden Seniors Softball Club, and selection as the Sacramento Area Boys High School Coach of the Year in 1990 at a banquet hosted by the Sacramento Kings Professional Basketball Team.
Perhaps the most lasting of his contributions were the numerous student scholarships Honda helped generate through fund raisers undertaken by his “Hawaiian Athletic Association.”
He retired in 2000, but kept busy traveling, taking friends to visit his beloved Kauai, and playing baseball in tournaments with the Sacramento Islanders.
Asked what he would like people to remember about his father, Daryl Honda said his commitment to his community and to the people whose lives he influenced.
“When I think of my father, I remember him as a man who took the time,” Honda said. “He was always trying to give back to the community. He especially wanted to help kids and the Japanese American community. That’s one of the reasons he created the Asian softball leagues.”
Caption: Bob Honda flashing the shaka in the backyard of the house he grew up in the upper Kupolo area of Lihue.