Wally Yonamine, " The Nisei Jackie Robinson"
A profile of the man who went through hell to make it into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.
By James Floto
He was an eager young country boy who starred in high school athletics. Now he is a mellow older gentleman whose Wally Yonamine Foundation quietly backs the Hawaii State High School Baseball Tournament. In-between he played Major League baseball in Japan--and went through the kind of hell Jackie Robinson did.
Born and raised in Olawalu, a little village on the outskirts of Lahaina, Maui, young Wally listened to radio broadcasts of football and baseball games in Oahu and decided he had to go their to participate. At first his teammates at Farrington ridiculed him as a hick, but when they saw how he could play they soon accepted him. In 1944 he helped them win their first ILH title. After graduation, he barnstormed with the Hawaiian Warriors and so impressed mainland scouts that he signed with the San Francisco 49ers.
An injury turned him towards the other sport he loved, baseball. He had the good fortune to be in San Francisco when the legendary Lefty O'Doul, a former NL batting titlist managed the S.F. Seals of the Pacific Coast League. O'Doul, who had played in Japan with Babe Ruth's all-stars in the '30s, fell in love with Japan and after WWII was instrumental in rebuilding Japanese baseball. He encouraged Wally to go to Japan and give it a try.
Today, it sounds like no big deal for a Japanese American to go to Japan, whether to run a business or play baseball. Things were different in 1951 when Yonamine first arrived to play with the Yomimuri Giants. Japanese nationalists still seethed at Japan's devastating loss in World War Two. They hated the Americans with their big swagger who swarmed the country as an occupying force. No one had forgotten that the atomic bomb, supposedly developed to drop on Germany, was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But as much as they hated Caucasian Americans, they truly despised Japanese, like Wally's parents, who had left the Land of the Rising Sun a generation earlier for Hawaii and California. A Nisei--second generation American--was about as popular in 1951 Japan as Castro is in 2000 Miami.
Wally arrived knowing not a word of Japanese and carrying the U.S. style of baseball. He ran out bunts, unheard of. He gave football-style rolling blocks to second baseman who blocked his path, totally shocking to the Japanese. If all this weren't enough, he was one of the few pro players anywhere to wear glasses. 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. He never won over all the players and fans, but by the time he retired, most admired him for his skill and courage. When he hung up his spikes, he had a .311 lifetime batting average, still among the career top ten in Japan. He had won three batting titles and was the 1957 MVP. And in 1990, he became the first American ever to make Japan's Baseball Hall of Fame.
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