Peering out from a bronze plaque of his likeness in Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame in Tokyo, bespectacled Wally Kaname Yonamine hardly seems a ground-shaking revolutionary.
Wally Kaname Yonamine June 24, 1925-Feb. 28, 2011
Led Yomiuri Giants to eight Central League
Pro football playing career
San Francisco 49ers (1947)
Pro Baseball playing career
San Francisco Seals/Salt Lake City Bees (1950)
Yet, the man who rose from the dusty playing fields of the Olowalu, Maui, sugar plantation to become one of Hawaii’s most accomplished athletes plowed through barriers in two professional sports across two nations as a head-first agent of change.
Yonamine, who died Monday night at age 85 after a 12-year bout with prostate cancer, leaves a rich legacy of can-do persistence, hard-charging spirit and down-home humility that is celebrated in two cultures.
Yonamine’s appearance for the San Francisco 49ers in 1947 as a 5-foot, 9-inch, 180-pound halfback/defensive back made him, the team says, the first Asian-American in pro football. Four years later, in 1951, Yonamine’s signing with the Yomiuri Giants as a left-handed hitting outfielder positioned him as the first post-World War II American in Japan baseball.
The 49ers named the Perry-Yonamine Unity Award after Yonamine and Joe Perry. In Japan, he was a first-ballot inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame. His contributions have been featured in the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. He has been inducted into the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame and was awarded Japan’s Imperial Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Rosette.
In Hawaii these days, he is known to a new generation of athletes mostly as the underwriter of the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state baseball tournament that has carried his name for 14 years and as a sponsor of baseball clinics.
In Tokyo and Los Angeles, he and his wife, Jane, have been owners for a half century of a thriving pearl business now run by their daughters.
All of it unimaginable, he has said, in 1942 when he transferred from Lahainaluna to Farrington High, where he helped lead the Governors to an undefeated football season in 1944.
Two years later, while playing on an all-star team against the University of Portland, Yonamine caught the eye of scouts from the 49ers. San Francisco offered him a two-year, $14,000 contract — enough that he turned down an athletic scholarship from Ohio State.
Yonamine played 12 games for the 49ers in 1947, but an offseason baseball wrist injury cost him a second year.
Yonamine said he had long come to view the injury as a fortuitous "break" guiding him back to baseball, where he enjoyed a 12-year playing career in Japan that spun off into an additional quarter century as a coach and manager.
"I tell people I think it must have been the Lord’s plan for me to play baseball," Yonamine said. "Everything turned out for the best."
It was typical of Yonamine, who spent little time mourning setbacks, and, instead, preferred to look for positive ground to plow.
In 1950, he signed to play baseball for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League, who sent him to Salt Lake City. It was while hitting .335 and stealing 30 bases for the Bees that Seals’ manager Lefty O’Doul suggested to occupation authorities in Japan that Yonamine would be the perfect point man for an ambitious social experiment.
U.S. officials thought that the shared game of baseball might build bridges between the two past adversaries, and Yonamine, based upon O’Doul’s recommendation, was the pick.
The beginnings were arduous and hardly auspicious in Japan, where Yonamine initially spoke little of the language, was viewed as an interloper and then had the boldness to crash into convention as if he were breaking up a double play.
His go-for-broke play was initially seen as an in-your-face anathema to the less-aggressive Japanese style at the time. For instance, it was unheard of for a batter laying down a sacrifice bunt to race to first. And it was considered unsporting to slide hard in trying to break up a double play, both of which Yonamine did with relish.
"Not a day went by that Yonamine did not hear the phrase ‘Hawaii e kaere!’ (go back to Hawaii)," wrote Robert Whiting in the book, "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat."
In Hiroshima, Yonamine recalled, a group of gangsters threatened to have him killed. In Nagoya, a mob of baseball fans pursued him into the dugout. In Osaka they launched rocks from the stands.
Yonamine won over skeptical teammates by leading the Giants to victories as well as disdaining special treatment. "I wanted to be one of them," Yonamine said, even if it meant enduring 20-hour train rides, sleeping on newspaper-covered train floors with the rookies and giving up Western food.
In hitting .354 his rookie season and helping lead the Giants to the first of eight pennants in his stay, Yonamine ushered in a new era and hustling style of play.
"He played very hard, with a lot of heart," Toshiharu Kyosu, who knew Yonamine as a sportswriter with Kyodo News Service.
In the course of a career in which Yonamine hit .311, won three batting titles, an MVP award and was a seven-time all-star selection, he became a revered figure.
"The first autograph I got was from Mr. Yonamine," said Sadaharu Oh, baseball’s all-time home run hitter in a statement released to news media in Japan. "He taught me about the game of baseball when I entered the pro league, and he was like my mentor (with the Giants)."
The Giants cut him loose after the 1960 season, but Yonamine — ever competitive — had the last words. He delivered a ninth-inning home run for Chunichi to beat them in the 1961 season opener and, as Chunichi’s manager in 1974, he led the Dragons to the Central League pennant, ending a nine-year run by the Giants.
Even when Yonamine attended games as a fan in his later years, it was common to see old-time fans stop in their tracks and bow.
He was an open-door resource for other Americans who came to Japan, not just for baseball. And, in later years, as Japan’s best players made their way to the major leagues, Yonamine became a trusted advisor on all things American.
Modern-day Japanese stars pay tribute to the change Yonamine brought to the game.
"Everybody knows about Wally," said Hideki Matsui, who has sought out his advice and acknowledged studying tapes of Yonamine’s hitting style.
"He is someone from the past that we still look up," the 6-foot, 2-inch Matsui has said. "I’m still learning from Wally."
Said Oh: "He was such a gentle man and it’s a shame that I have to part from him this way."
Yonamine is survived by his wife, two daughters and a son. In addition, there are seven grandchildren and one great grandchild, four brothers and two sisters.
Services are scheduled for Saturday at Nuuanu Memorial Park and Mortuary, East Chapel. Visitation is at 10 a.m. with memorial services at 11 a.m.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Wally Yonamine Foundation (c/o Joseph Rothstein of Ameriprise Financial, 1585 Kapiolani Blvd., 11th floor, Honolulu, HI, 96814).