Riyokui “Roke” Fukumura’s legendary pep and verve were being sorely tested.
For 17 innings, Santa Barbara High School’s senior shortstop was getting peppered by ground balls hit by the Woodrow Wilson High baseball team. The hometown fans in Long Beach groaned each time he threw out the batter at first base in a game that had been stuck at 3-3 for eight straight innings.
“Every time we went out there,” Fukumura admitted, “we got a little more tired.”
But the Dons’ Gene Mangini slugged a double and scored on a wild pitch, and teammate Danny Zuzalek pitched one more scoreless inning to secure the marathon victory and the 1941 CIF Southern California Baseball Championship.
It remains the longest CIF baseball final in section history and the only one the Dons have ever won.
And their coach gave no bigger example of their endurance and grit than their smallest player.
“Fukumura’s fielding at shortstop was outstanding,” Skip Winans told reporters after the game.
More than eight decades later, the plucky glove man is still plugging away.
Tri-County Produce threw a party on Sunday to mark the 100th birthday of its longest-serving employee. Fukumura — known to everyone as Roke — still clocks 30 hours a week at the store at 335 S. Milpas St.
“He unloads the trucks, he stocks the shelves … He can still lift a 50-pound sack of onions,” said John Dixon, Tri-County’s general manager. “He’s obviously not as fast as he was 10 years ago, but just the fact that he’s here is amazing in itself.
“They don’t make them like him anymore.”
Born on a Farm
Roke was literally born in the produce business, delivered by a midwife on a farm on the Santa Barbara Mesa in 1922. His father, a Japanese immigrant named Kameki Fukumura, grew spinach, beans, celery and sweet peas on a tract of land near the current location of La Mesa Park. Roke was one of six children.
“People from Japan couldn’t buy land then so my dad leased that property and farmed it,” he pointed out. “We lived in a big, two-story house. You could see the old lighthouse from there.
“There was no electricity — we just used gas lamps — but the light from the lighthouse would flicker through the windows. That would be scary since the house got really dark at night.”
Roke attended Wilson School near downtown Santa Barbara before switching to the newly opened McKinley School in the third grade. He was soon honing his athletic skills when school let out.
“I’d play on the playground until 5 o’clock every night … Every night,” he said. “That was my hobby and my priority. I thought it was the place to be, to stay out of trouble.
“Gene Mangini lived right next to the school and he’d come down to play, too. Mostly we played basketball. We ran track, too, and I loved track. I was 5-foot-2½ inches — but as short as I was, I was pretty fast.”
He began taking baseball seriously by joining the semi-pro Hi Stars at age 14.
“I’d play on Sundays at Cabrillo Park,” Roke recalled. “There were the Santa Barbara Merchants and Los Amigos, and we played the Carpinteria Merchants, too. Some of those players were pretty good.”
He also ran track and played basketball when he got to Santa Barbara High. Roke even set a school record in the 50-yard dash with a time of 5.7 seconds. He qualified to run in the CIF Championships at the Los Angeles Coliseum, but he also ran into a dilemma.
“We had a baseball quarterfinal in Oxnard that day,” he said. “I had to pick one or the other, and I picked baseball because it was a team thing.”
A Championship Class
He knew the 1941 team would be loaded. The lineup included several football stars from a team that had won the CIF Southern California championship earlier that year: outfielders Alex “Cal” Rossi, Ruben Navarro and Charles Arellanes; catcher Charlie Vasquez; third baseman Sila Chackel; and pitchers Mangini and Zuzalek.
Zuzalek led the team with a .384 average. Second baseman Johnny Latham hit .375 while batting second in the order. Roke stole 20 bases as the Dons’ leadoff batter.
“Because I’d played semi-pro, I could read the pitchers, and that made it easier for me to steal,” he said. “(Latham) would sometimes bunt to third, I’d get all the way to third on that. It was one of our plays.
“We were pretty dominant because we had good pitching. We had some fairly good athletes on that team, too, so we felt we had a good chance.”
The Dons went 16-2, which included a 5-1 win over Pasadena in the CIF semifinals. Zuzalek scattered nine hits while pitching a complete game. Rossi, who would later star at UCLA in both football and baseball, hit a home run and a triple that scored Fukumura and Vasquez.
That set up the championship game against Long Beach Wilson and its towering ace. Horace Brightman, who had won the CIF Southern California Basketball Player of the Year Award just a few months earlier, would eventually make it to Triple-A in the Cleveland Indians organization.
Brightman stood a full foot taller than Santa Barbara’s leadoff batter that day. The Bruins let Roke know that, too, when their teams arrived in the locker room at the same time.
“They said, ‘Hey, they brought a water boy in here!’” Roke recalled. “I thought to myself, ‘Let me go out there and show them a little bit.’”
He did that by running the bases with abandon. He stole four of them in the game. He even pinch ran once for first baseman Vernon Wrightson.
“He had a bad leg, and so Winans went to the other coach and asked, ‘Can I get a runner for him?’” Roke said. “I ran for him and stole second base, and the other coach, said, ‘No more of that guy!’ You get somebody else to run for him!’”
Fukumura was the first Don to cross home plate when Rossi hit a two-run homer in the first inning.
The game soon settled into a pitcher’s duel, however. Mangini was unable to pitch because of a leg injury he suffered in a spring football practice the previous week, so Zuzalek had to go the distance. Brightman also pitched every inning for Wilson. The 17 innings they both pitched that day remains a shared CIF Section record.
“We didn’t have any of our crowd there, and their crowd was rooting against us,” Roke said. “We were both a little excited and a little nervous. But as the game progressed, you just got natural with it, inning by inning.
“We were getting tired. Every time we went out there, we got a little more tired. But we came out on top. It was very exciting.”
Internment in Arizona
Those halcyon days for Fukumura changed abruptly less than seven months later when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. He and his family wound up spending the last three years of World War II at an internment camp in Poston, Arizona.
He tried to enlist in the U.S. Army but didn’t pass the physical exam. Santa Barbara High’s record holder in the 50-yard dash was rejected, ironically enough, because of a congenital bone growth in his leg.
Roke wound up serving as a cook at the internment camp. But he also formed a dazzling double-play combination with his older brother, Tom, on the baseball team of Camp 3’s Block No. 308.
They named their home ballfield “Yankee Stadium.”
“We played baseball every night after work,” Roke said. “That was a wonderful way to pass the time.”
The Fukumura family returned to Santa Barbara at war’s end and lived on a farm on Grove Lane. They later moved to Mission Canyon.
“I farmed on El Sueno for about four years,” Roke said. “I used to ride a big mule and a Belgian horse from El Sueno to Walnut Lane … There was no traffic at that time … That was the only transportation I had.”
That changed after he was hired by Tri-County Produce owner Harry Bowman in 1950. He soon had him driving a semi-truck up and down the coast during the wee hours of the morning.
“I’d start at 11 o’clock at night and get back at about 8-8:30,” Roke said. “I’d stay until about 11 because the truck had to be unloaded. That was my life.”
Returning to His Roots
Roke, a father of two, later worked at Jordano’s for two decades. But when he retired in 1991, Jim Dixon — formerly the produce manager at Jordano’s — talked him into returning to Tri-County Produce.
“I was 8 or 9 when I met Roke,” recalled Dixon’s son, John, who succeeded his father as Tri-County’s general manager. “He’s already worked 50 years of his life in this building.
“My dad, Roke and me called ourselves Los Tres Amigos … the three friends.”
Jim Dixon died six years ago, but his son and Roke have soldiered on together at Tri-County.
“He got his driver’s license renewed for four more years when he turned 99,” Dixon said. “On weekends, he’ll drive his car to work.
“Customers come in all the time and go, ‘Where’s Roke? I’d like to say hi to him.’”
On Sunday, Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara; state Sen. Monique Limón, D-Santa Barbara; and mayors Randy Rowse of Santa Barbara and Paula Perotte of Goleta all stopped by to say hi with proclamations honoring Santa Barbara’s peppiest centenarian.
“I’ve enjoyed it very much here, even putting up the stand or buying produce,” Roke said. “I’ve enjoyed serving the public and I’ve met many wonderful people that commend us for what’s on our produce rack.
“Tri-County Produce is a very wonderful place to be, and I love it here.”
He also still loves baseball.
He and Mangini were honored as surviving members of the 1941 squad when the team was inducted into the Santa Barbara High Athletics Hall of Fame in 2011.
Mangini died two years later, on Jan. 21, 2013. Rossi died just two days later. Zuzalek had passed on 40 years earlier.
“I wish he could’ve been here,” Roke said during the team’s Hall of Fame induction in 2011. “I miss Danny. He pitched a great game that day and he was such a nice person.
“His son, David, was here and I told him that Danny was my best friend. I was so sorry to see him go.”
Roke met a new generation of Dons when he threw out the first pitch at Eddie Mathews Field on Opening Day in 2019. He wore his varsity letterman’s sweater for the occasion.
“I bought it for $8 during my junior year,” Roke said. “It still fits.”
Like a glove that had been worked in by many extra innings.
— Noozhawk sports columnist Mark Patton is a longtime local sports writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook. The opinions expressed are his own.