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Longtime Cubs clubhouse manager Yosh Kawano dies at 97

Yosh worked for the Cubs for decades.

Yosh Kawano at the Chicago Cubs’ spring training facility in Mesa in March 2002
TNS via Getty Images

For 65 years, Yosh Kawano was a fixture in the Cubs organization, so much so that a condition of the sale of the team from the Wrigleys to Tribune Co. was the promise of a lifetime job for him.

He managed both the Cubs and visiting clubhouses before retiring in 2008.

Kawano died Monday in Los Angeles, where he had been living in a nursing home. He was 97.

More details of his life with the Cubs are at that link, a Paul Sullivan article, but I particularly wanted to quote these parts of the article:

In his 65 years, Kawano worked under 37 Cubs managers, 12 general managers and two owners. In his later years at Wrigley, some in the organization felt Kawano had too much power in the clubhouse, where he was in charge of equipment and frequently had players autograph balls, bats and jerseys.

One general manager went through boxes of files on the Cubs’ sale to try to disprove the legend Kawano had a job for life, feeling the “Kawano clause” was fiction. It was not, but the Cubs could not find a reason to dismiss Kawano, who outlasted that GM, and a few others.

After being hospitalized with cellulitis in his foot during spring training in 2008, Kawano was forced to retire the following April. His hat was sent to Cooperstown, and the Cubs had a day for him on June 26, 2008, when he performed the seventh-inning stretch.

“I truly treasure baseball and the Cubs,” Kawano said that day. “You have made me a very happy man.”

The hat mentioned above, a simple white fishing hat you can see in the photo at the top of this post, was something you’d never see Yosh without. In his younger days you’d often see him in the corner of the Cubs dugout; he was a visiting clubhouse attendant beginning in 1943, became equipment manager in 1953 and managed the Cubs’ home clubhouse for decades until, in 1999, he was reassigned to the visitors’ clubhouse.

One of his biggest signatures as home clubhouse manager was the creation of a numbering system for players around 1960, where catchers would wear only single digits, infielders numbers from 10-19, outfielders numbers in the 20s and pitchers numbers 30 and higher. With a handful of exceptions, this “system” lasted well into the 1980s. The story is told that when Ryne Sandberg came to the Cubs, Yosh asked him what number he wanted. Sandberg, as a high-school quarterback, wore No. 14. Yosh told Ryno who Ernie Banks was and why that number wasn’t available, and then assigned him No. 23, which didn’t fit the system, but clearly fit Sandberg well, and now that number is retired along with Ernie’s.

Yosh’s 65 years as a Cubs employee were surpassed only by Pat Pieper, who worked for the team from 1905-74, a 69-year tenure.

While he suffered from Parkinson’s disease and dementia in his later years, he did get to live long enough to see the Cubs win the World Series in 2016, something, according to Sullivan’s article, “he once said he never thought he’d see.”

Sincere condolences to Yosh’s family and many friends. He was one of a kind.

UPDATE: Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts issued this statement via press release.

“For nearly 70 years, Yosh Kawano devoted himself to our club and players – calling Wrigley Field home and treating them as family. He served in the U.S. Army then returned to the Friendly Confines, where he would eventually settle in as equipment manager in 1953. In the decades that followed, he enjoyed deep and colorful relationships with players, members of the front office and the media. Everyone knew Yosh by his trademark white floppy fishing hat, which has been on display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum since his retirement in 2008. Yosh was truly one of a kind and an integral part of our Cubs family and history. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and legions of fans.”