Americans hated him for being Japanese and Japanese hated him for being American.
Death threats from the yakuza and rocks from the stands were an exotic and dangerous twist. Lonely status as an unwanted outsider was nothing new; if anything, it was a recurring theme of the early years for Wally Yonamine, who died Monday at 85.
Even the fact that his father was Okinawan and not Japanese like his mother caused some people to look down on him.
The first culture shock came when the country kid from Maui moved to Kalihi. That gap was bridged relatively quickly, when Yonamine’s new schoolmates at Farrington saw what he could do on the football field.
Soon thereafter, Yonamine, by that time a U.S. Army veteran, endured bitter doses of racism on the mainland. He was taunted mercilessly while with the San Francisco 49ers in 1947 as the first pro football player of Asian descent and then in American baseball’s minor leagues.
It’s understandable that most Japanese baseball fans in the early 1950s had a very hard time accepting Yonamine.
Think about it. This was just a couple of years after World War II, which ended with nuclear bombs wiping out the major cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Who could be ready to embrace an American ballplayer? And being of Japanese ancestry didn’t make him one of them, it made him a traitor by association.
Plus, he was an outsider playing the sport in an aggressive style foreign to the culture. Takeout slides and diving catches didn’t aid or accelerate Yonamine’s assimilation … although his hustling style was eventually adopted as the correct way to play the game.
When Yonamine joined the Yomiuri Giants, he became the first postwar foreigner to play in Japan. Like Jackie Robinson, he not only had to endure, he had to thrive. If he cracked under the pressure, it would probably be a long time before another gaijin got a chance.
Eventually Yonamine was not only accepted, but beloved and revered — as an all-star player and a manager.
"When you use the word pioneer, you don’t use it lightly," said TV baseball analyst Pal Eldredge, who researched Yonamine for a master’s thesis. "Mr. Yonamine was definitely a pioneer."
Not everyone likes the comparison to Robinson, but the parallels are there. Some will think it a stretch to claim Yonamine’s relevance transcends sports as much as Robinson’s, but I’m willing to at least take a look there.
While Robinson helped change perceptions during the civil rights movement, the rising of Yonamine’s star came at a critical phase of American-Japanese relations. The Korean War, China’s emergence, the Cold War … the United States needed Japan as an ally, not an enemy.
A humble man off the field with many friends on both sides of the ocean, Yonamine became an unofficial ambassador and symbolic bridge. He and his wife, Jane, owned a successful business — with branches in Tokyo and Los Angeles.
But mostly he paved the way for other ballplayers. He will do so even after his death via the Wally Yonamine Foundation, which will continue to sponsor the state high school baseball championships.
Several years ago Yonamine donated $200,000 to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association to create an endowment that funds the tournament. "The intent is to have the state tournament named after Wally in perpetuity," said Keith Amemiya, one of the foundation’s board members.
What could be more fitting? Future generations of student-athletes will ask, "Who is Wally Yonamine and why is this tournament named after him?" The answer will always be a fascinating lesson in history, sociology and sports, and an inspirational study of quiet courage.