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THE HOT CORNER: The original 'Flyin' Hawaiian'

by Jim Allen (Mar 10, 2011)

Baseball lost a difference maker last week with the death of Wally Yonamine at the age of 85. Although the Hall of Famer won three Central League batting titles and an MVP award, he was less famous for his hitting than his aggression on the field and his dignity off it.

When he began playing for the Yomiuri Giants in 1951, Yonamine became America's first pro ballplayer in Japan after World War II. Yet, it was not the first time the Hawaiian native had made history

An Asian-American football pioneer, Yonamine played in 12 games for the 1947 San Francisco 49ers. For his history as a breaker of barriers, Yonamine has been called the "Nisei Jackie Robinson."

A few months before Yonamine's 49ers debut, Robinson, a college football star at UCLA, had shattered 63 years of racial segregation in the major leagues.

Although Yonamine's pro football career was curtailed by injury after one season, his skills on the diamond allowed him to become, like Robinson, a powerful force in baseball's evolution.

Yonamine was always quick to point out the differences between his accomplishments and Robinson's. Although the nature and scale of the changes they triggered were different, each man's success opened the door for others.

Robinson and the black players who followed altered Major League Baseball forever. Their process of painful integration changed the leagues' racial makeup, but they also electrified a game that had become slow and predictable.

From the time the home run became a viable weapon in the 1920s, speed became less valuable to major league clubs with each passing year. The stolen base and the sacrifice became marginalized after 1921, when the major leagues began keeping clean balls in play and banned the spitball--changes that favored hitters.

In the free-wheeling Negro leagues, however, conditions favoring speed remained. When black players finally moved to the majors, they brought their speedy style with them.

Robinson's revolution sparked an evolution, improving the game by reintroducing the speed that had fallen into disuse.

When Japanese pundits use the words "speed and power" to describe play in the majors, the speed they are talking about is that part of the game the Negro leagues nurtured and kept alive.

On this side of the Pacific, a similar process had occurred. Although Japan's first pro league started in 1936--after the longball had become a way of life in the majors--the nation's leading baseball lights had come out of the university teams that had mastered America's dead-ball tactics. The speedy, high-average game now employed by Ichiro Suzuki in the majors was Japan's ideal in 1936 just as it was when Yonamine arrived.

He did more than just endure harsh playing conditions to win the acceptance of teammates, he became a force for change.

Japanese baseball had strongly been influenced by the martial arts, but the physical intensity Yonamine brought from his football background was something new.

Japanese ball had long been imbued with a warrior-like stoicism, enduring brutal practice regimens in order to hone the skills and teamwork necessary to dominate games. The former running back added a dimension to that, jarring balls loose and breaking up double plays with his high-impact base running.

In 1952, Yonamine scored 104 runs in 114 games. In comparison, just six men have eclipsed that run rate in 100 or more games since 1985: Tuffy Rhodes (2001), Michihiro Ogasawara (2000), Nobuhiko Matsunaka (2004), Hiromitsu Ochiai (1985) and Akinobu Mayumi (1985)--that's some elite company.

Forget Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino. If anyone was ever the original "Flyin' Hawaiian," it was Yonamine.

Although his style of combative base running is seen too infrequently in today's game, Yonamine's success made it easier for Japanese teams to add foreigners to their rosters. Within a year of his debut, 10 more were playing in Japan.

Robinson's greatest achievement was opening the door for those who could expose the majors to diverse styles and ideas. Yonamine's principle impact was the same.

Japan's acceptance of foreigners has helped the game evolve and grow simply by exposing it to vastly more diversity.

That is Yonamine's lasting legacy.


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