Kawano’s niece, Hana Kawano, said he died of complications from Parkinson’s disease and old age.
Kawano, whose white fishing hat was sent to the Baseball Hall of Fame, began his association with the Cubs as a spring training batboy in 1935 and began his full-time career at Wrigley Field as a visiting clubhouse attendant in 1943. He spent 65 years with the Cubs, working the home clubhouse for decades before being assigned again to the visitors’ clubhouse in 1999.
“He had the longest tenure of anybody in Chicago sports,” said Tony Ruzicka, a longtime friend. “He worked longer than the Wrigley (family) owned the Cubs. He knew and worked with so many players and spent so many hours at Wrigley Field, it’s amazing. He left so many friends in so many walks of life.”
Among those celebrity friends were Frank Sinatra, who invited Kawano and then-Cubs manager Leo Durocher to his house for dinners, and pro golfer Raymond Floyd. Ruzicka and his brother, Carl, accepted a plaque for Kawano during spring training this year when he was voted into the Cactus League Hall of Fame.
After serving in the U.S. Army and earning combat medals in New Guinea and the Philippines, Kawano returned to the Cubs as a clubhouse employee. He was promoted to equipment manager in 1953 and was in charge the next four decades.
“Yosh is the king of Wrigley Field,” first baseman Mark Grace told the Reader in 1998. “Anything that happens in this clubhouse has to go through him.”
When Bill Wrigley sold the Cubs and Wrigley Field to Tribune Co. in 1981, a Kawano clause was written into the purchase agreement assuring Kawano of continued employment.
“When they sold Wrigley Field, Yosh came with the deal because he had been there so long and was a great friend of Mr. Wrigley,” Cubs Hall of Fame outfielder Billy Williams said on Yosh Kawano Day in 2008. “He’s a legend. When Leo came he wanted it known, ‘I’m the guy in charge.’ Once Yosh knew that, everything was fine. Before that, it was Yosh’s way or the highway. Then it was Leo’s way.”
In his 65 years with the franchise, Kawano worked under 37 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 baseballs, bats and jerseys.
One general manager went through boxes of files on the Cubs’ sale to try to disprove the legend that Kawano had a job for life, thinking the “Kawano clause” was fiction.
Former Tribune Co. Chairman and CEO John Madigan said Tuesday that the clause was indeed real and he still has a copy of the contract.
“Yosh was so much a fixture at Wrigley Field that Bill Wrigley made his continued employment a part of the contract when Tribune Co. purchased the team,” Madigan said. “No other employee was named in the contract.
“Yosh probably had the first dollar he ever made. I was told that several players borrowed money from him. And I’m sure they paid him back.”
The Cubs could not find a reason to dismiss Kawano, who outlasted that aforementioned GM and a few others.
"Yosh was truly one of a kind and an integral part of our family and history," Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts said in a statement.
After being hospitalized with cellulitis in one of his feet during spring training 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 sang during the seventh-inning stretch.
“I truly treasure baseball and the Cubs,” Kawano said that day. “You have made me a very happy man.”
Shortly after leaving the Cubs, he went home to Los Angeles and lived with his brother, Nobe, a former clubhouse man with the Dodgers. He spent the last several years in a nursing home a few miles from Dodger Stadium and lost the ability to communicate while battling Parkinson’s and dementia.
After the Cubs ended their epic drought, finally winning a World Series in 2016, the Ruzicka brothers had a championship ring made for Kawano and presented it to him last year. They recently made a trip to Los Angeles to see him on June 4 — his 97th birthday — just before his health worsened.
“We’re going to miss him, but by the same token he was already missed in terms of interactions,” Tony Ruzicka said. “We look at this as a blessing, a positive thing.”
The Cubs were in Los Angeles to play the Dodgers on Monday when Kawano died. He survived long enough to see the Cubs win a World Series, something he once said he never thought he would see.