Grave Story: Wally Yonamine (1925-2011)

Here lies Wally Yonamine, one of Hawaii’s greatest athletes and a trail-blazer in two professional sports. He was the first person of Japanese descent to ever play in the National Football League and the first American-born baseball player in Japan after World War II. His play earned him a ticket into Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame — the only American-born player ever inducted into the Hall. Yonamine played football for the San Francisco 49ers (1947) before switching to baseball and the Yomiuri Giants (1951-60) and Chunichi Dragons (1961-62). He also managed the Dragons from 1972-77.

Wally Kaname Yonamine was born on June 24, 1925 in Olowalu, Hawaii. As we discussed with Steere Noda, Yonamine was Nisei — a child of Japanese parents who was born in a foreign country. He grew up as a multi-talented athlete, and he seemed destined for fame in pro sports. It was just a matter of which sport. At first, it was football. Yonamine was an all-around threat for Farrington High School, not only as a running back but as a kicker. His schooling was interrupted by an 18-month stint in the U.S. Army, and when he was discharged, he joined a Leilehua Alumni football team that traveled to Portland, Ore. and destroyed the Portland University team 54-13. Yonamine scored 22 points by himself by scoring three touchdowns and kicking four extra points. According to his obituary, that performance was enough for the 49ers to sign him to a two-year contract.

Wally Yonamine, left, with his 49rs teammate and fellow Hawaiian Harry Hosea. Source: San Francisco Chronicle, August 10, 1947.

In 1947, Yonamine became the first player of Japanese descent to play in the NFL. In 12 games as a halfback/defensive back, he had 19 rushes for 74 yards and caught 3 passes for 40 yards. He also had 1 interception and returned punts and kicks as well. He broke his hand after that first season while playing baseball, and the 49ers released him. That setback did not discourage him.

“I tell people I think it must have been the Lord’s plan for me to play baseball,” he said later. “Everything turned out for the best.”

Yonamine played football and baseball on the island before heading to the minors on the U.S. mainland in 1950. In 123 games with the Salt Lake City Bees, he hit .335 to finish among the league leaders of the Pioneer League. Had he continued on his path, Yonamine could have become the MLB’s first Asian player (Masanori Murakami of the 1964 Giants holds that distinction). However, the Bees were at that point the farm team for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League, which were managed by Lefty O’Doul. O’Doul, who was one of the first Americans to help spread the popularity of baseball in Japan, had other ideas. He suggested to occupational forces that Yonamine go to Japan to play baseball as a way to ease the tensions between the two countries after World War II.

Before that happened, Yonamine got the chance to face off against the legendary Satchel Paige on November 2, 1950. Paige was the starting pitcher for the Rural Red Sox as part of a tour through Hawaii, and Yonamine was the centerfielder for the Honolulu Braves. Paige threw 6 innings and left the game with a 3-3 tie and 4 strikeouts. Yonamine went 0-for-3 with a walk.

At this point, I should note that Yonamine, despite being Hawaiian-born, is said to have endured some terrible racism while playing football and baseball on the mainland. This was right after World War II, of course, and Japanese-Americans suffered all manner of insults and degradations during the War, including being thrown into detention camps solely because of their ethnicity. In Hawaii, Yonamine could serve in the Army and play on the military sports teams without much incident, but on the mainland, it was a different story.

Naturally, the papers don’t cover those incidents, but a quote from the San Francisco Examiner hinted at how he would be treated.

“I not worried,” the Examiner quotes him as saying. “All my pals in Honolulu send me letter saying I getting lots of newspaper stuff. But I write ‘em back and say, ‘don’t pay attention until hear from me that I do good.’”

If you want to be generous, you can say that the writer was trying to emulate Yonamine’s Hawaiian/pidgin English dialect, but it comes across as a racist caricature of a Japanese person speaking English. The fact that every other quote in the article from every other football player and coach is grammatically perfect, but Yonamine gets this treatment, is telling.

Source: Honolulu Advertiser, March 29, 1953

Sadly, he went from one tough situation to another. The Japanese didn’t see him as a returning son. He was a gaijin — outsider — from the country that had dropped nuclear weapons on them. The fact that he was Japanese by ancestry made him, as Honolulu Star-Advertiser columnist Dave Reardon noted in 2011, a traitor by association. It didn’t help that he didn’t speak the language and didn’t play the game the way Japanese players did. He played in the American style — aggressive. He didn’t jog to first base on a ground ball; he ran it out to try and beat the throw. He broke up double plays, he dove for catches. It’s the style that Japanese baseball eventually adopted, but at the time he had rocks and bottles thrown at him by angry fans.

Wally Yonamine has been called the “Nisei Jackie Robinson,” and there are a lot of similarities in their stories. They were alone in a hostile environment and had to win over their critics by their class and by the way they played the game. One of the main differences is that MLB really didn’t appreciate Robinson until he was long dead. Yonamine, though, came to be a beloved icon in Japan.

In order to defeat the anti-Nisei feeling that he faced, Yonamine sought out no special treatment. Ballplayers in Japan back then traveled third class on long train rides. While he could have paid for an upgrade to second class, he stayed with his teammates, wrote Honolulu Star-Bulleton columnist Joe Anzivino in 1952.

“[Yonamine] says that on several occasions he slept on the floor of the train – and dirtier trains are rarely found than these third class trains anywhere. The hotels they stay in are third class also and are all Japanese style. It was quite an adjustment to make for Wally. Sleeping on the floor is quite different from sleeping on beds. Wally endured all these things and more and because he did it he won a place not only for himself but for all Niseis in Japanese professional baseball.”

Source: Honolulu Star Bulletin, December 4, 1957.

At the end of his rookie season, Giants veteran second baseman/assistant manager Shigeru Chiba apologized to Yonamine for the way he had treated him. Not only did Yonamine’s behavior win over his teammates, he helped pave the way for other Nisei players to play in Japanese ball as well, including several other native Hawaiians.

In his rookie season with the Giants in 1951, Yonamine slashed .354/.443/.519 and stole 26 bases. He did all that in 54 games, and he would be a full-time player until the last part of his career. He topped the .300 mark in each of his first eight seasons, including a career-high .361 in 1954. He helped lead the Giants to eight Central League pennants and four Japan Series titles and was selected to seven All-Star teams.

Yonamine won the Central League MVP Award in 1957 when he hit .343, walking away with the batting title by more than 30 points. That was one of three batting titles he won in his career. He also slammed 12 homers and drove in 48 runs. After that season, Yonamine started to falter. He still had productive seasons with the Giants in 1958 and ’59, but after he hit just .228 in the 1960 campaign, the Giants let him go. He spent his final two years with the Chunuchi Dragons in 1961 and 1962 as a reserve player. His teammates on the ’62 Dragons team included Larry Doby and Don Newcombe, both of whom were finishing up their playing careers that year as well — Newcombe as a first baseman!

In his 12-year career, Yonamine slashed .311/.387/.445, with 1337 hits, 482 RBIs and 707 runs. He stole 163 bases and, while never a top power hitter, hit 82 home runs. He stayed active in the Japanese league, working as a manager or a coach from 1963 until his retirement in 1988. He managed the Dragons from 1972-1977 and won the Manager of the Year Award after guiding the team to a 70-49 record. The Dragons won the Central League pennant that season, ending a run of nine straight pennants by his old team the Giants.

Throughout his 38 years in Japanese baseball, Yonamine was a mentor for any player who needed help, Japanese or gaijin. In his last job as the hitting coach for the Nippon Ham Fighters, he helped Mike Easler adjust to the league. Legendary slugger Sadaharu Oh said that the first autograph he ever got was from Yonamine. “He taught me about the game of baseball when I entered the pro league, and he was like my mentor [with the Giants.]” Oh said.

Later-era stars like Hideki Matsui still sought out his advice, too. “He is someone from the past that we still look up,” he said. “I’m still learning from Wally.”

After baseball, he and his wife Jane owned a successful pearl business with locations in Tokyo and Los Angeles. He also gave back to his Hawaii community, donating $200,000 to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association. The Wally Yonamine Foundation still sponsors the HHSAA Baseball Championship. He was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994 and is the only American-born player to have achieved that honor (a couple other Americans, including Lefty O’Doul, are included as pioneers).

Wally Yonamine died on February 28, 2011 after a 12-year battle with prostate cancer. He was 85 years old. He is interred at Diamond Head Memorial Park in Honolulu.

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