When Hawaii’s Wally Yonamine initially went to Japan to play professional baseball, friendly faces from home were as rare as loco mocos.
But within two years, teammates on the Yomiuri Giants suggested, probably only half tongue-in-cheek, that Yonamine no longer needed to return home to see his friends because he was importing all of them to Japan.
It was an exaggeration, of course, but it aptly illustrated how profound Yonamine’s impact on the sport there was becoming and remains to this day.
Yonamine, who died Monday at age 85, not only changed the way they played the game in Japan, he helped alter the faces who played it. Yonamine first took the field for the Giants in 1951 and by the ’53 season seven more players from Hawaii were also playing in Japan, three of them in the orange and black of Yomiuri.
By the time Yonamine became a first-ballot inductee to Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994, more than 25 players from Hawaii — and upwards of 500 foreigners — had found their way into yakyu, as baseball was known.
Yonamine wasn’t the first from Hawaii — or even the U.S. — to perform in Japan. But they had been few and far between, with no suggestion of starting a flood. Tadashi "Bozo" Wakabayashi, a former McKinley High pitcher, and Victor Starffin, a Russia-born pitcher, had been the most prominent. Both had attended schools in Japan before playing pre-World War II pro ball.
But in the postwar years Yonamine became both a guinea pig and pied piper. Batting averages of .354 and .344 in his first two seasons and his brand of hustle helped the Giants to what would become a run of three consecutive Central League pennants. In the process, he opened not only eyes but the doors to overseas players, many of them nisei.
Much in the way that the success of another Maui native, Jesse (Takamiyama) Kuhaulua, cleared the way for others in the national sport of sumo, so did Yonamine’s exploits in baseball.
By Yonamine’s second season, catcher Jyun "Curly" Hirota and pitcher Bill Nishita joined the Giants. Outfielder Dick Kashiwaeda came aboard in ’53 and the most notable team in the Hawaii Baseball League, the Asahis, could have formed an alumni chapter in Tokyo.
Suddenly, the Giants were off to a streak of what would become eight pennants in nine years, influencing other teams to follow their example or fall further behind.
At a time when the major leagues were taking few Hawaii players, Japan provided both ample playing opportunities and significant paychecks.
In time, Japan would begin to look to the Pacific Coast League and ex-major leaguers such as Joe Pepitone, Bert Campaneris, Goose Gossage, Bill Madlock and Don Newcombe to add to its rosters plus Hawaii-bred Mike Lum, Benny Agbayani, Joey Meyer and Rich Olsen.
Over the years when foreign players would shop by the Roppongi pearl shop run by Jane and Wally Yonamine, they’d invariably offer thanks to the man who, through his trailblazing role, helped prolong their careers.
Reach Ferd Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org.