Henry “Hank” Oana got the nickname “Prince” because someone thought he came from a royal family in Hawaii. He didn’t, but he lived a charmed life nonetheless, playing baseball for more than two decades and contributing in a small way to the Detroit Tigers pennant in 1945.
Henry was born in 1910 on the island of Oahu, hardly a hotbed for baseball prospects. But the young man’s athletic ability could not be ignored – he was a star in five sports in high school and was recruited to play college football by several top colleges on the mainland. But when he finally took his first steps off the Hawaiian islands in 1928 it was because of baseball.
If there was a Hall of Fame for Minor League Baseball players, Oana would be in it. In 23 seasons at various levels the husky right-handed hitter batted .304 with more than 425 doubles, 130 triples, and 265 homers. He captured four batting titles in the minors, and in 1930 with the Globe Bears of the Arizona State League, he batted a robust .413 before bouncing to the Pacific Coast League where he starred for the San Francisco Seals in the top minor league in the country. While playing there, Oana shared the outfield with brothers Joe and Vince DiMaggio, both of whom were teenagers at the time.
At that time, Oana was known as “Hank” by his teammates, but a publicist quickly dreamed up the story that the star outfielder was the son of a Hawaiian King. Thus was born “Prince” Oana.
In those days some talented ballplayers stayed in the top minor leagues because they were paid well to do so, and that was often the case with Prince, who was popular with fans on the west coast. His bright smile, bronze skin, and ruggedly handsome Pacific Island good looks helped him gather many admirers, several of the female persuasion. Stories of Prince’s sexual exploits were legendary in San Francisco in the 1930s. He often got himself into debt with his high-living, which included a taste for expensive clothes and fine cigars.
One of his close friends, Spencer Abbott, observed that Prince’s escapades off the field might have kept him from being a major league star. “If he had been a less handsome fellow with the same ability, he might be a ten-year star now in the major leagues,” Abbott said.
Oana finally signed a major league contract in 1934, when the Philadelphia Phillies purchased him from the Seals. The plan was for Prince to replace the departed Chuck Klein in right field. Prince drove in a run in his first pinch-hit appearance but only got into six games in April before he was returned to the Seals.
While in San Francisco, Oana did more than just play baseball. One off-season he worked on the construction crew that built the Seals new ballpark. So when Oana starred there the next spring he was quite literally playing in “The House That Prince Built.”
It would be nearly 10 years before Prince returned to the majors, content to be the Big Man On Campus at various stations in the minor leagues. It’s hard to know if race played a part in Oana’s exile to the bush leagues. He was dark-skinned, and some light-skinned Latinos had played in the majors, but others were not allowed. At one of his stops, in Atlanta, Oana was heckled by fans who insisted he was black. Eventually he was sold to Syracuse to avoid the daily barrage and questions about his ethnicity. It was years before Jackie Robinson would tear down the color barrier in 1947.
The Prince didn’t seem to mind what people thought of him as long as they paid him to play baseball. He had frequent squabbles with team owners over his salary but he always seemed to come out alright. At Fort Worth in 1942 he ran across Rogers Hornsby, the great Hall of Famer who knew about all there was about hitting. Hornsby sized up the Hawaiian and determined that he was playing the wrong game. According to The Rajah, Prince was a pitcher in a hitter’s body.
“I’ve always had a good curveball,” Prince admitted happily, and his pitching career began.
The following year is when Oana became a Tiger. After nine seasons, a switch to pitching, and in the midst of a World War, The Prince was back in the big leagues. It was June and Oana was sure he would be drafted any day (he was originally 3A but had recently been re-classified as 1A), but he reported to Detroit. The Tigers were desperate for ballplayers, and with Oana they saw a guy who could toe the rubber for them and also swing the stick. The 33-year old did just that, hitting .385 in 26 at-bats with two doubles, a triple, and a homer among his 10 hits. He drove in seven runs and was used frequently as a pinch-hitter during his time with the Bengals. On the mound he proved he could get big league hitters out, going 3-2 with a 4.50 ERA in 10 games out of manager Steve O’Neill’s bullpen.
Though Detroit newspapers made much of the fact that Prince was born in Hawaii, there was apparently no problem with the color of his skin and he stuck around with the club for two months until a contract issue transferred his rights to Milwaukee in the American Association.
“He pitches whenever you ask him to,” O’Neill said of Oana. “He’s as easy to handle as any player I’ve ever had, and he can swing the bat too.”
The Tigers remembered Oana, and two years later, in 1945, they called for Prince again. This time, facing a slew of doubleheaders in early September, O’Neill was in dire need of pitchers. So, on September 12, with the Tigers fighting for the American League pennant, the Hawaiian made his first big league start on the hill. Facing Connie Mack’s Athletics in Philadelphia in the second game of a doubleheader, Prince showed off his strong wing – tossing eight shutout innings. In the ninth, with a 1-0 lead, Oana allowed a run to score, but his day wasn’t over. With his pitching corps depleted, O’Neill ran Prince out there in extra innings, and watched as his right-hander pitched into the 11th inning. The A’s ended up winning the game in the 16th, but Oana had chewed up valuable innings. He made one more appearance that season, finishing with a 1.59 ERA in three games. When the Tigers won the flag, Oana wasn’t on the World Series roster, but after they won the title in seven games, Prince’s teammates voted him a share of the money and he also received a ring.
That wasn’t the last the baseball world saw of Prince Oana. He played six more seasons in the minor leagues, pulling triple duty as a hard-hitting outfielder, clutch pinch-hitter, and pitcher. Oana never became a superstar, but he also never regretted taking that ship to the mainland from Hawaii when he was 18 years old.
“I’m just a kid from a sugar plantation who hopes to make good in the big leagues,” Prince said.