Wally Yonamine, the only American inducted into Japanese baseball's Hall of Fame as a player, died on Monday in Honolulu at the age of 85.
A former pro football running back with the San Francisco 49ers, Yonamine came to Japan in 1951 and played 12 seasons, 10 with the Yomiuri Giants, where the outfielder was a teammate and rival of Hall of Famer Tetsuharu Kawakami.
A three-time batting champion, Yonamine was famous for his intense physical style on the base paths.
"His aggressive play left me in shock," lifetime honorary Giants manager Shigeo Nagashima said. "He slid hard without any fear of colliding with fielders. We owe him a debt for teaching us that battle technique was a part of the game."
Off the field, however, Yonamine was the ultimate gentleman, something Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said is in stark contrast to his image as a base path juggernaut.
"It is hard to imagine him like that [on the bases]," Hara told The Daily Yomiuri on Wednesday.
"Whenever I spoke to him, I was awed by his sense of peace and dignity. He always left me feeling happy."
When Yonamine arrived in Japan, the Giants were Kawakami's team. Kawakami won the 1951 Central League batting crown and again in 1953, and the pair alternated titles for the next three seasons. Yonamine added a third in 1957, but his string was stopped by Nagashima's emergence as a rookie star.
"He revolutionized Japanese baseball," commissioner Ryozo Kato said. "His combative sliding was one element of that. His artistic style of batting is something I can still see in my mind's eye."
When Yonamine's average dipped to .228 in 1960 and the Giants failed to win the league for the first time since 1954, manager Shigeru Mizuhara was let go. The Giants hired Kawakami to manage and Yonamine was released.
"I think he [Kawakami] was the one who got rid of me," Yonamine told The Daily Yomiuri in 2002. "After all, we were rivals."
Yonamine was picked up by the Chunichi Dragons for two more seasons before he hung up his spikes. Yonamine finished with a career .311 average, eighth on Japan's all-time list just two points behind No. 7, Kawakami.
Kawakami's run as Giants manager was unrivaled, featuring nine straight Japan Series titles. The Giants V9 Era, however, came to an end at the hands of the 1974 Dragons, who won the pennant with Yonamine in his third year as manager.