Wally Yonamine, Nisei baseball and football pioneer, dead at 85


Wally Yonamine is safe at home with a hard slide, as Nankai Hawks catcher Keizo Tsutsui is sent flying in Game 1 of the 1951 Japan Series. (From the Yonamine Collection, courtesy Robert K. Fitts)

Rafu Sports Editor

During pregame festivities for Japanese American Community Night at Dodger Stadium in 2004, Wally Yonamine was the quietest and least assuming of all the sports luminaries and community leaders being recognized on the field.

As his name was announced and echoed throughout Chavez Ravine on that balmy April evening, the demure, silver haired player from a bygone era softly smiled and lifted the baseball he held in his left hand toward the crowd.

“I’m so happy to see all the Japanese players who are doing so well,” Yonamine said before the game, referring to the four Japan-born players who were involved in that night’s matchup between the Dodgers and New York Mets. It was a typical sentiment for the man whose inner determination and athletic talent led him from plantation obscurity to international fame.

A true pioneer of sport on both sides of the Pacific, Yonamine has died from complications of prostate cancer. His family reported that the 85-year-old passed away at a Honolulu retirement on Monday night.

Yonamine threw the ceremonial first pitch on April 28, 2004, during the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Japanese American Community Night. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

Born Wallace Kaname Yonamine in Olowahu on the island of Maui in June of 1925, the Nisei son of immigrant farm workers first tried football during his prewar childhood, practicing on the beach with a can of corn wrapped in newspaper.

Although some Hawaiian residents of Japanese descent were uprooted and interned after the United States entered World War II, Yonamine was allowed to continue at school, and when his family moved to Oahu, his athletic abilities sparkled.

During his senior year in 1944, Yonamine starred at halfback at Farrington High School, leading his team to an undefeated season and the championship.

“Wally was a symbol and an inspiration for many people, a symbol of the underdog,” Robert K. Fitts, author of “Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball,” told the Rafu on Tuesday. “In those days, there was still this kind of rivalry between Okinawans and Japanese, and since he had an Okinawan father and Japanese mother, both sides kind of claimed him when he began to do well in high school football.”

Fitts said that Yonamine was already the best player in Hawaii and set to take a scholarship to Ohio State, when the San Francisco 49ers came calling. The young man, barely into his 20s, signed a two-year contract and headed to the City by the Bay, taking along with him the hopes of all of Hawaii.

“It was only a year ofter the war had ended,” Fitts explained, “and here he comes, when rebuilding begins, a Japanese player on this all-white team in a sport that personified the typical ‘American’ college experience. Just being there, he became a symbol for all Japanese Americans.”

A 30-year 49ers season ticket holder, Hats Aizawa said he was among a group of Nisei that attended nearly all of Yonamine’s games in San Francisco.

“He made us proud that we were Japanese,” Aizawa was quoted as remembering.

Despite his celebrity, Yonamine faced the same paranoid hysteria and racism that befell an entire postwar generation of Asian Americans. Fitts said Yonamine fought against the discrimination through his superb play and by keeping his poise in public.

His ability to keep off-field pressures at bay and excel in the game has led many to refer to Yonamine as the “Japanese Jackie Robinson,” making his professional sports debut in 1947, the same year as the Dodgers’ star.

After a solid rookie season, Yonamine suffered a wrist fracture during training camp the following year, effectively ending his season. He returned to Hawaii, still a young man, and took up his other favorite sport, baseball.

After stints with the Asahi team on Oahu and the Salt Lake City minor league affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, the left-handed infielder was recommended to the Yomiuri Giants in Japan’s Central League.

“I think he would have dramatically altered the course of baseball history if he decided to stay in the U.S. and become the first Japanese American player in Major League Baseball,” wrote Gary Otake, co-curator of the exhibit “Diamonds in the Rough: Japanese Americans in Baseball.”

Yonamine, as a rookie with the San Franciso 49ers in a 1947 publicity photo. (From the Yonamine Collection, courtesy Robert K. Fitts)

As it was, Yonamine became the first American to play professional sports in Japan following the war. Though he had the talent and skills to play in Japan, Yonamine soon discovered an old foe: his new Japanese teammates viewed him as an outsider, arrogant in his manner and “American” style of play.

“As a foreigner he paid his harsh dues on and off the field, but…he helped to pioneer the way for future American players,” Kerry Yo Nakagawa, cited in his book, “Through a Diamond:100 years of Japanese Americans in Baseball.”

The suspicions of his new mates quickly subsided when Yonamine excelled on the field for the Giants. He hit a scorching .354 as the speedy rookie leadoff batter in 1951, stole 28 bases and led the Giants to the Japan Series. As Yomiuri’s center fielder, he was a sensation and went on to a 12-year career in Japan, which included the 1957 MVP award, three batting titles and seven All-Star appearances.

Once his playing days had ended, he remained in the coaching and managerial ranks, the highlight of which was guiding the lowly 1974 Chunichi Dragons to their first Japanese Series title, ending the nine-year streak of the Giants.

For his playing and pioneering, Yonamine was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994, the first foreigner to receive such an honor.

In 2006, the 49ers announced the creation the creation of the Unity Award, named after former players and pioneers Yonamine and Joe “The Jet” Perry. Each year, the team honors a current 49ers player, a Bay Area youth football coach and a local company that have demonstrated, as Perry and Yonamine did, an exceptional commitment to promoting unity with their team and in their community.

In his later years, Yonamine and his wife, Jane, opened pearl and jewelry stores in Tokyo and California, and spent much of their time working for charitable causes. Fitts explained that during the 1990, Yonamine worked to promote Hawaii tourism, donated time and money to the American Cancer Society and helped to establish sports programs for underprivileged kids in his home state.

“He realized that he came of a poor plantation life and that sports was a way out for him,” Fitts said. “Once he became a star, he felt it only right to help other people.”

Services for Wally Yonamine are scheduled for Saturday in Honolulu. He is survived by his wife Jane, daughters Amy Roper and Wallis Yamamoto, and son Paul.