Baseball pioneer Wally Yonamine passed away last night at the age of 85. Yonamine was chosen as one of the Herald’s Japanese American pioneers last year. Here is the story that ran in our Nov. 19, 2010 issue.
WALLY KANAME YONAMINE
In the tiny plantation town of Olowalu, Maui, Wally Kaname Yonamine grew up dreaming of playing at the old Honolulu Stadium. But the young Nisei, who would go on to forever change Japanese baseball, first had visions of football stardom as a teenager.
After two years at Lahainaluna High School, Yonamine’s dream came true when he moved into a tiny room with a friend on O‘ahu. He attended Farrington High School, starring on the baseball and football teams and, in 1944, his senior year, led the Governors to the Interscholastic League of Honolulu title.
But life on O‘ahu was not easy for Yonamine, who relied on his athletic success to keep his spirits up.
“Sometimes I didn’t have money to eat and all that,” he said in a Feb. 6, 2004, interview with the Herald. “Man, but I was young, and I was playing ball, so I probably would’ve done anything to get by in those days.”
Yonamine graduated from Farrington in 1945 and was drafted into the U.S. Army the next morning. Stationed at Schofield Barracks, he was supposed to be shipped to Europe to support the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
However, within two months, World War II was over.
In the period after the war, Yonamine remained at Schofield, where he joined the Lei-Alumns, a football team comprised of former Leilehua High School players. During a fateful game against Portland University, he scored several touchdowns and caught the eye of a San Francisco 49ers scout, who was there to evaluate Portland’s quarterback.
“I did so well that when he gave his report to the 49ers’ front office, he only wrote about me,” Yonamine remembered. “But I didn’t even know about the scout in the stands.”
A short time later, the 49ers signed the young football player to a two-year contract worth $14,000, making Yonamine the first Japanese American player in the National Football League. Despite not playing collegiate football, the rookie started three of the team’s 12 games, gaining 74 yards on 19 carries and catching three passes for 40 yards. He also notched one interception.
The following year, however, he fractured his wrist while playing exhibition baseball in Hawai‘i. The injury was a violation of his contract and the 49ers released Yonamine when he reported to training camp with a cast on his hand.
Undeterred, Yonamine played a year of baseball for the San Francisco Seals’ Salt Lake farm team and a year for the Hawai‘i Asahi team. At the suggestion of famed Seals manager Lefty O’Doul, he signed with Japan’s Yomiuri Giants.
By agreeing to play for the Giants, Yonamine, who would come to be known as the “Nisei Jackie Robinson,” was once again breaking new ground as the first American to play baseball in Japan after the war. In his rookie season in 1951, he hit .351 and led the team to the first of three straight Japan Series championships.
But the transition to a baseball career in postwar Japan was not an easy one for the 26-year-old Japanese American outfielder. Yonamine ran the bases with an aggressive American style, breaking up double plays with hard slides into second base and colliding with catchers at home plate. While this technique would later be embraced by Japanese players, at the beginning of his career it prompted fans to harass him and throw rocks from the stands.
“When guys would block the plate, I used to just ram right into them,” he said. “That’s how we always did it in Hawai‘i, but the Japanese, they didn’t like that at first.”
Eventually, fans changed their tune and appreciated Yonamine’s prowess on the field. Over his illustrious career, he won the batting title three times, was named an all-star seven times, and earned the Central League’s Most Valuable Player award in 1957.
Yonamine played with the Giants through 1961, when he was traded to the Chunichi Dragons. He played with the team for one year, retiring with an impressive .311 lifetime batting average. After his retirement, Yonamine served as the Dragons’ manager for six seasons. In 1974, he became the first foreign skipper to win the Central League title, beating his former team, the Giants.
On July 19, 1994, Yonamine was recognized for his accomplishments by becoming the third Nisei and 112th person to enter the Japan Baseball Hall of Fame, following Hanshin Tigers star Bozo Wakabayashi of Hawai‘i and Hisashi Koshimoto, former manager of the 1926 Meiji University club. Four years later, he became the first professional athlete to be honored by the Emperor of Japan with the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Rosette.
At age 85, Yonamine divides his time between Hawai‘i and Japan, where he operates a successful pearl shop in Tokyo’s Roppongi district with his wife, Jane. For the past two decades, his Wally Yonamine Scholarship Foundation in Hawai‘i has awarded $5,000 annually to help student-athletes attend college. — Joe Udell