A Trailblazer Twice Over: Remembering Wally Yonamine

By Arturo R. García

Ever hear the theory that life depends on a few breaks here and there? In Wally Yonamine’s case, this is literally true. As in, physiologically so.

It’s not hard to imagine that Yonamine was at a personal crossroads around 1948. Yonamine, coming off his rookie season with the San Francisco 49ers, injured his wrist, to the point that it forced him out of the game.  This in itself threatened to be a tragic loss: Yonamine was not only a prodigy, drafted out of high school by the Niners, he was the first Japanese-American to play in the National Football League.

So what’s a guy to do after his history-making accomplishments are cut short? Why, do it another way, of course. Yonamine, who became a pioneer in a way perhaps no one could have imagined, passed away this week at the age of his 85.

Within three years after the wrist injury, Yonamine had transitioned to playing baseball, completing a season apiece with minor league teams in Salt Lake City and his native Hawaii, when Lefty O’Doul, manager of the San Francisco Seals (his SLC team’s parent club), made a fateful suggestion.

“O’Doul told me to play my style,” Yonamine once said. “He told me ‘ you’re going to change Japanese baseball because of your aggressiveness. The Japanese will love the way you play’”

And so Yonamine set out on a journey that was the mirror-image of the one he started with the Niners: instead of being the first Japanese-American NFL star, he became the first American to play professional baseball in Japan.

By the time Yonamine signed with the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, he was used to fighting expectations and prejudices, as the Honolulu Star-Advertiser noted in its’ obituary for him, when he and his family moved from Maui to Kalihi, Yonamine’s classmates at Farrington High School derided him as a “hick” until his football prowess shut them up. Moreover, his family was eyed warily in their hometown of Olowalu, and not just because his parents – Matsusai, a native Okinawan, and Kikue, the eldest daughter of a family from Hiroshima – eloped in 1920. As Robert K. Fitts explained in his book Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball,

The elopement was shocking, but at that time any marriage between an Okinawan and a mainland Japanese was unusual. Even though white Hawaiians rarely distinguished between Okinawans and Japanese, the two groups viewed themselves as markedly different. Mainland Japanese, calling themselves naichijin (people of Japan homeland), considered Okinawans backward and true Japanese, as many Okinawans did not speak the standard language. Likewise, Okinawans often considered the naichijin to be stuck up. Although thrown together by plantation managers, the two ethnic groups rarely socialized before World War II.

Magnified by the war, Yonamine’s arrival in Japan was greeted by passionate anti-American sentiment. It didn’t help that he was a U.S. Army veteran who spoke no Japanese, and his aggressive American style of play, contrary to O’Doul’s suggestion, won him little support early on, as recounted in a profile on him by The Daily Angle:

He made diving catches in the outfield and was considered a hot dog. He received the same kind of catcalls and letters that Jackie Robinson faced in integrating the U.S. majors. In the face of all this hostility, he hit .354 his rookie season. Gradually, he won over some fans and teammates. But whereas Jackie was eventually accepted by his teammates, Yonamine’s success further fueled the hatred of his ultra-nationalist teammate, Tetsuharu Kawakami, the 1951 MVP. Here was a young American upstart with his disrespectful ways and his badge of what Kawakami considered dishonor–his parents had turned their back on the fatherland. Kawakami did everything he could to make life hard on the burgeoning young star, causing Wally to play even harder. The rivalry lasted, deep and intense, for the decade Yonamine played in Japan.

Over the course of 12 years with the Giants and the Chunichi Dragons, Yonamine earned his respect due and more, to the tune of a Japanese Hall of Fame career that boasted 1,337 hits, including a batting average of .300 or better in his first seven seasons – good enough for three batting titles – as well as seven All-Star selections and the 1957 Most Valuable Player award for the Central League. He then became the first American to manage in the Japanese circuit, passing along the fundamentals he learned from O’Doul to his own players. As a manager, Yonamine got his most memorable win in 1974, when his Dragons squad stopped a Giants juggernaut that had captured the Central League pennant for nine straight years.

The raucous scene after the victory was captured in the photo above, and recounted by Fitts:

… The mob grabbed him, held the skipper prostate above their heads and tossed him up and down across a sea of fans, players and reporters. Despite the rough treatment and the realization that crazed strangers, rather than his players, were tossing him, Wally’s face bore a huge grin of pure joy.

It took Wally nearly a half hour to push his way back to the clubhouse as excited fans, desperate to congratulate him, thwarted his progress. The celebration continued inside as the players, howling with delight, began shaking up beer bottles and letting the foam explode into the air.

After his career wound down, Yonamine continued to live in Japan, where his family founded the pearl company that bears his name, which operates to this day in both Tokyo and Redondo Beach, California. But he never stopped traveling to Hawaii, and during the 1990s he used his celebrity to attract Japanese tourists to the islands, and his family began donating $10,000 a year to fund the state high school baseball tournament, which was subsequently renamed in his honor. He also became a “special advisor for sports promotion” for the state, drawing a $1 salary per year.

“Hawaii, Japan and baseball have been so good to me,” he said after accepting the position. “I’m happy to be able to give something back.”