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Wally Yonamine

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Wally Yonamine
The full title of the book is "Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Change Japanese Baseball." ISBN 978-0-8032-1381-4 [Amazon.com].

There have already been a few things about this book put on the web. Starting off with the official home page of the biography, you can read some blurbs from others about the book, get the table of contents, and read a short excerpt. Cards and photo galleries are also available there, so you should be able to get a taste of what's in store for you there.

Then there was Wayne Graczyk's promotion for the book. While I don't doubt the sincerity of his write up, it just reads like a PR piece, like he had to write something up about it before he was able to actually finish reading it. What he says is all true! But there's something intangible that bothered me about his review.

But this isn't about what other people said. And I'm most likely doomed to repeat others as well. But I'd like to really give you a feel for the book, and the emotion that a book like this can draw out of you. And I think that that's what's lacking in some of these other blurbs - this this biography is capable of stirring emotion.

First of all, there's the subtitle - "the man who changed Japanese baseball." I showed this book to a friend of mine and he said, "Yeah, right. Some gaijin really had that big an impact. It's just an empty statement to sell the book." My friend could not have been more wrong. I take to to pages 244 and 245:
The fans wanted to see the league's new stars. In 1958 and 1959, an incredibly talented crop of exciting rookies entered Japanese professional baseball. These players did not play the slow, passive game of the 1940s. They had grown up watching Yonamine and his Giants while playing high school and college ball during the 1950s. They were faster, stronger, and more aggressive than their predecessors -- and the fans loved them. [...]
Wally joined the Giants in 1951, and less than a decade later, Yonamine's style of play had gone from being the exception to the norm as the next generation of players came up. You could argue that other foreigners had brought over similar dynamics, sure. But none had the national exposure that Yonamine had with Yomiuri's vast media empire.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The first three chapters deal mostly with Wally growing up a football star. What I found most fascinating was how different Japanese nisei were treated in Hawaii than on "lower 48." There have been a number of books and movies about how the internment camps during World War II were run, but this was the first I'd read about how things were in Hawaii. Take this exerpt from pages 26 and 27 for instance:
Yonamine's success came at an important time for the Nisei community. With World War II raging, anti-Japanese sentiment was high. Japanese Hawaiians were not treated as poorly as mainland Japanese Americans, as their sheer numbers made them vital to the economy, but they still faced discrimination and hostility. Over three thousand people, mostly community leaders, were incarcerated and many Japanese Hawaiians faced hiring discrimination as well as racial slurs. There were not many Japanese American football players -- many Japanese parents, not wanting their boys to get hurt, discouraged football and pushed them toward baseball. Wally's triumphs made him a celebrity in the Nisei community and a source of pride in that troubled time. [...]
One of the truly interesting thing about this biography is how Fitts-san will tie in what is going on in Wally's life within the social and historical context of the time. I can't say that I really learned much about history growing up. At least, it doesn't seem like it when I feel that I've learned more about history from watching The Discovery Channel than in middle and high school. This biography brings even more history to light, and makes it relevant as one watches Wally grow up in the midst of these social changes.

I think that at this point it's important to say that I'm not a passive reader, who just reads the words and notes them as facts to be pulled out as trivia at a later date. I like books that say something about society, give insight into how others think - be they real or fictional characters.

Following Yonamine from his sugar cane plantation roots, through his maturing as an athletic star in Hawaii during WWII, to his role in bringing nisei back into American society by playing football and later baseball in the minor leagues after The War, until his move to Japan, there is a constant undertow of social change going on.

Those who have read the Interview with Rob Fitts at East Windup Chronicle may recall Rob stating, "I was a professional archaeologist specializing in 19th century New York City [...]." Reading this biography, you really get the feel for Fitts-san's background in history. I can't say that I've ever been much of a history buff (with the usual exception of dinosaurs and mummies as a kid), but the way that Rob brings history alive in this book is gripping.

The story about becoming a San Francisco 49 is interesting. As mentioned above, this adventure helps to heal a lot of wounds in the nisei communities in America. An injury sidelines that career, and Wally goes into baseball. After just missing the cut with the San Francisco Seals, Wally opts for the Salt Lake Bees where he does more good in integrating back the nisei to their communities.

One thing leads to another and Wally finds himself a Giant. And this is where all of the Jackie Robinson comparisons start coming in. Like the title that seems to be hyperbole, the Jackie Robinson comparisons seem to be another point where those who do not read the book find contention.

Have you ever thought about what kind of person it took to break the color barrier to MLB? I know that I never did before reading this book. I figured it just needed to be somebody really good at playing baseball. But reading how careful the planning was to choose Wally as the first post-war foreigner, I realize that the selection of Jackie Robinson was most likely similarly scrutinized. Both men had to bear the responsibility that if the "experiment" of their employment didn't work out, that there probably wouldn't be another for a long time. Both had to endure a great deal of taunting from the crowds. And in Yonamine's case, there were actual riots erupting on the field on numerous occasions.

Anyway, chapters 7 through 16 chronicle the Giants year by year while Wally played for them. If you like to watch a pennant race unfold, the pennants in the 1950s were absolutely incredible! The detail of various games, as important as the Emperor's game, to as little as one where Wally broke a slump or went 0 for 4. Each game has its point. Each game makes you feel as though you were there in the stands. Even the most anti-Giants of fans will be swept away in the excitement and start rooting for Yomiuri to prevail. And, no, knowing the ending already doesn't ruin the excitement of reading about those incredible past seasons.

Once Wally becomes a coach, then manager, the pace of the book picks up until it reaches its conclusion of Wally being inducted in the Japanese Hall of Fame. In stark contrast to the beginning of the book where any and every minor detail is included to reveal Yonamine's development into the person he became, the last few chapters just kind of skim over the rest of his career in a bit of a blur.

Of course, it's probably much like life. One develops and works hard to become defined by ones job, just to fall into a routine as the years go by. In that respect, I suppose that the final chapters did a good job in reflecting what eventually comes to us all - appreciation from the ones we care about (family) while leading rather anti-climatic lives.

Rather than ending on that note, I'd like to take you to perhaps my favorite passage in the book (page 107):
One day, perhaps on this home stand, an eleven-year-old boy stood in the crowd. He had tried many times to get players to sign, but, as he remembered later, "The players would walk past me as though I didn7t exist. My brother would tease me because I always wound up feeling so hurt that I wanted to cry." On that day, too, the players walked by him. Then the last player, Yonamine, stopped, looked directly at the boy and smiled. "He took my board, asked my name -- which I could barely get from my lips -- and signed his autograph."

Sadaharu Oh still treasures that shikishi. [...] Oh commented, "When I became a player it was always remarked how readily I gave autographs -- which is true -- but I did so for the best of reasons: because of the joy Wally Yonamine brought into my life one afternoon in my boyhood.
Excuse me while I blow my nose. I was on the train when I read that passage, and had to do my best to restrain my swelling eyes. With this one selfless act, it seems to me that Wally did much more than just change Japanese baseball.
Comments
Re: Wally Yonamine
[ Author: Mischa | Posted: Sep 9, 2008 8:07 AM | TYS Fan ]

I certainly second (or third) the positive reviews of the book. I loved "Remembering Japanese Baseball" and the Yonamine bio is another hit for Mr. Fitts. My only three "complaints":
  1. There seems to be a bit of copy-and-paste from "Remembering Japanese Baseball." The book is at least 95% new material, but that bugged me a little.
  2. Mr. Fitts accidentally calls Gary Garland's site JapanDaily.com instead of JapanBaseballDaily.com
  3. The "Yakult Swallows" are once identified as the "Yakult swallows"; minor typo. Most baseball books have lots more unfortunately.
I loved reading the day-to-day pennant race details. I learned a lot more about Tetsuharu Kawakami, Okinawan-mainland Japanese relations, Jyun Hirota, and Bill Nishita in addition to Yonamine. And the Oh autograph anecdote is amazing. Great book overall.
Re: Wally Yonamine
[ Author: westbaystars | Posted: Sep 9, 2008 8:35 AM | YBS Fan ]

Sure, there were a few errors in the book. The most confusing part for me was some of those early football accounts. Why does there have to be a New York Yankees in football? (Not Rob's fault.) But he did call the Los Angeles Dons the Los Angeles Dodgers at least one time.

Also, the way some of the Hawaiian nisei had their names spelled was a bit confusing (like Senator Daniel K. Inouye), but I assume that they're correct, having been transliterated in a different time period and staying that way.

I also found it interesting that Rob didn't go into the controversy surrounding Nagashima's home run during the Emperor's Game.
Re: Wally Yonamine
[ Author: Guest: Mischa | Posted: Sep 10, 2008 12:24 AM ]

- I also found it interesting that Rob didn't go into the controversy surrounding Nagashima's home run during the Emperor's Game.

What was the controversy?
Re: Wally Yonamine
[ Author: westbaystars | Posted: Sep 10, 2008 10:29 AM | YBS Fan ]

Sorry, I thought it was common knowledge. Murayama, the pitcher when Nagashima hit the historic home run allowing the Emperor to see the game to its conclusion, swore to his grave that it was a foul ball. By all accounts, Nagashima stood at home plate for a long time to see if the ball would be fair or foul, as it was heading for the foul pole. Before the ball got there though, Nagashima decided it was going to stay fair and started into his home run trot. Conspiracy theorists claim that it was called fair so that the game would end before the Emperor, who was getting ready to leave, left.

From the old footage that I've seen of the game, I can't tell if it was fair or foul. The third base camera angle isn't good enough, and that's the only angle I've ever seen it from. (And the quality of TV recordings from 1959 isn't very high.)
Re: Wally Yonamine
[ Author: Guest: Rob Fitts | Posted: Oct 2, 2008 10:22 PM ]

I'm pleased to announce that the Yonamine book will go into a second printing. That gives me a chance to correct some of the typos. You guys mentioned a few, can you please tell me the page numbers? I couldn't find any LA Dodgers that should have been the Dons - Brooklyn had a football team named the Dodgers in '47 - but if there are, please tell me.

Also Wally Yonamine and I will be doing a book signing in Tokyo on November 9 - details to follow.
The Dodgers
[ Author: westbaystars | Posted: Oct 2, 2008 10:53 PM | YBS Fan ]

As I said, I don't know anything about football, historically or now.

There was the Los Angeles Dons on page 41, then the Brooklyn Dodgers on page 42, then back to the Dons on page 43. I guess I've just got too much baseball in my head because I missed the transition from Los Angeles to Brooklyn and back with the team mascots being kind of similar.

Re-reading it, I get the difference. Sorry about that. The baseball stories were much easier to follow.
Re: Wally Yonamine
[ Author: Mischa | Posted: Oct 3, 2008 8:43 AM | TYS Fan ]

The typo for Gary Garland's website is on page 324 - it should be japanbaseballdaily.com not JapaneseDaily.com.

The "Yakult swallows" instead of "Yakult Swallows" is on page 274, about 15 lines down.

Hope that helps. Glad to hear the book has been selling well.
Re: Wally Yonamine
[ Author: Guest: Rob Fitts | Posted: Oct 4, 2008 8:27 AM ]

Thanks guys!
Re: Wally Yonamine
[ Author: DaClyde1 | Posted: Jun 17, 2009 3:00 AM | OBs Fan ]

I just finished the book, and as with most books like this, my main complaint is that it wasn't 100 pages longer! It's a real shame that the English speaking world doesn't have access to translations of more Japanese players and managers biographies. I would absolutely love to read Sadaharu Oh's bio to get a different perspective on Yonamine and Japanese baseball in general around the same time period.

Not only was Wally Yonamine a contemporary of Jackie Robinson in his accomplishments, but he was also something of a predecessor to the likes of Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, doing the baseball/football thing. Reading a lot of his early years, it sounds like the man just couldn't sit still for long without a sport to play.

I think something the book could've benefited more from would have been interviews with fans from the time period. Especially fans from opposing teams. The Hanshin fans sound like they were worse than the British soccer hooligans we heard so much about a decade ago.

Now I'll have to pick up a copy of Remembering Japanese Baseball!
Re: Wally Yonamine
[ Author: Guest: Rob Fitts | Posted: Jun 27, 2009 11:46 AM ]

Your comment, "the book could've benefited more from would have been interviews with fans from the time period. Especially fans from opposing teams." is really good. I spoke to several Yomiuri fans but never thought of interviewing Hanshin fans to see if, or how, Wally was really hated. Maybe I can include your idea in an article on Wally.

Rob
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