Wally Yonamine: Sportsman who fought prejudice in two sports and in two countries

Wally Yonamine was a sportsman whose career forced him to face prejudice in two separate sports, on two separate continents, and for opposite reasons. In 1947, playing American football for the San Francisco 49ers, the first Japanese-American in the professional game, he faced considerable resentment resulting from the recently-ended war against Japan. And as the first foreigner to play baseball in the Japanese major leagues, he was referred to as the "Japanese Jackie Robinson", after the black star who integrated American baseball, and faced a similar onslaught of racial abuse and harsh treatment.

Kaname Yonamine was a first-generation American – to Japanese a second-generation Nisei – born in 1925 to Japanese-born parents who worked on a sugar plantation in the village of Olawalu on the Hawaiian island of Maui. He later adopted the American first name Wallace. Still regarded as one of Hawaii's greatest athletes, he was so good on the gridiron that as a teenager he moved to Honolulu to play for Farrington High School, whom he led to the island championship. After graduation he joined the semi-pro Hawaiian Warriors, and while barnstorming in California caught the eye of the 49ers, then part of a rival league which would eventually merge into the NFL. He signed a lucrative, two-year $14,000 contract at a time when many Nisei were still being returned to California from their wartime "resettlement" camps. Yonamine took considerable abuse for being "a Jap", particularly at the bottom of pile-ups after he was tackled. But a wrist injury saw him released before his second season, and he switched to baseball, signing with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League, baseball's top independent minor league.

The Seals manager Lefty O'Doul had been one of the driving forces behind the popularising of baseball in Japan in the years before the war, and he suggested Yonamine try making a career there. O'Doul arranged for him to sign in 1951 for Tokyo's Yomiuri Giants, the country's dominant and most popular team, but Yonamine, who spoke no Japanese, found himself considered a typical American, and his style of play, especially his aggressive, gridiron-influenced base-running, offended crowds used to the more polite Japanese version.

More crucially, racial attitudes in Japan looked down on all foreigners (in the next generation, Sadaharu Oh, Japanese baseball's greatest hitter, faced constant discrimination because of his Chinese ancestry), and American Nisei were especially scornedbecause their parents were perceived as having turned their back on their homeland. Yonamine received death threats, had rocks thrown at him, and experienced isolation from some of his team-mates, particularly the Giants' biggest star, the fervent nationalistTetsuharu Kawakami, known as "The God Of Batting".

Despite his problems, which included the difficulty of adjusting to life in a country still rebuilding from the ravages of war, Yonamine was an immediate star with the Giants, notching an impressive .354 batting average. In 1954 he won the Central League's batting title and in 1957 he was voted the league's most valuable player. Every year from 1952-58 he was selected to Japan's "Best Nine", and his impact quickly changed the Japanese game, bringing in more competitive hustle and aggression. His path has been followed by almost 1,000 other American ball players, with a now-steady influx of Japanese players into the American major leagues.

But over all Yonamine's successs hung the shadow of Kawakami, who remained the team's star even when Wally outplayed him. When Kawakami was named manager in 1960 he immediately cut Yonamine, who signed with the Chunichi Dragons. He played two more seasons before moving into coaching, eventually becoming Japanese baseball's first foreign manager. In 1974 he led the Dragons to a Japan Series title, defeating Kawakami's Giants, who had won the previous nine championships in a row. Kawakami's biggest star was Oh, whom he always treated as a lesser player than his fully-Japanese team-mate, Shigeo Nagashima.

Yonamine coached or managed five other teams before retiring in 1988. He operated a pearl business in Tokyo, which he later expanded to San Francisco. Back home he sponsored the Hawaii state high school baseball tournament, and established a foundation to award college scholarships. In 1990 he became the first American elected to the Japanese baseball hall of fame. He returned to the ballpark in 2008, as coach and "player" with the Nagoya team in the Japanese Masters League; that same year Robert Fitts published Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball.

Wallace Kaname Yonamine, American footballer and baseball player: born Olawalu, Maui, Hawaii 24 June 1925; married (two daughters, one son); died Honolulu 28 February 2011.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Test Analyst

£20000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: An experienced Tes...

Mechanical Design Engineer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: MECHANICAL D...

SQL DBA (2005/2008/2012, projects, storage requirements)

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum + excellent benefits package: Clearwater People Solu...

Copywriter - Corporate clients - Wimbledon

£21000 - £23000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Copywriter - London As a Copywrite...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried