Japanese baseball royalty were on hand May 27 in Tokyo to mark the passing of one of their own.
Yomiuri Giants legends Sadaharu Oh and Shigeo Nagashima joined current Rakuten Eagles skipper Senichi Hoshino to say farewell to Wally Yonamine, who died in his native Hawaii on Feb. 28 at age 85 after losing a battle with prostate cancer.
About 500 people packed into the Franciscan Chapel to pay their respects to Yonamine. The church was where Yonamine would attend daily morning mass when he was in Tokyo.
Yonamine was a pioneer of Japanese baseball who spent 37 years in uniform as a player, coach and manager. After a brief stint as a running back for the San Francisco 49ers, Yonamine joined Tokyo's Yomiuri Giants in 1951, becoming the first American to play in Japan after World War II.
His proficiency with the bat--he was a career .311 hitter--and his aggressive baserunning helped the team secure eight Central League titles and four Japan Series crowns in the 1950s. Yonamine won three CL batting titles and was named the league MVP in 1957. He was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994 along with his former teammate Oh.
On May 27, Oh was among the dignitaries on hand who spoke about his experiences with Yonamine in what was less a mourning session and more a celebration of a unique life.
Hoshino, who pitched for Yonamine when Wally was manager of the Chunichi Dragons in the 1970s, related a story that brought plenty of smiles to the room. The fiery Hoshino spoke of facing the archrival Giants in a close game that took place on May 5, Children's Day. It was late in a tight game, and Yonamine approached the mound and told his ace to walk the next batter, who was none other than home-run king Oh.
"Yonamine-san told me to put him on, but I said no, I wanted to pitch to him," recalled the stubborn Hoshino. "He said it would really be a good idea to walk him, but again I said no. There were a lot of kids at the game, and I didn't want to let them down."
Finally, Yonamine gave up. Hoshino delivered and Oh promptly drove in the winning run to end the game.
"I was so mortified that I didn't want to go back to our dugout, and I thought about going instead to the Giants' side," said Hoshino, drawing laughter from those in attendance, including Oh. "Wally never mentioned that incident to me, ever, but after that I felt indebted to him for the rest of my life."
Yonamine, like Hoshino, was a fiery competitor on the diamond, often using football-like moves to take out opposing infielders. Off the field, however, Yonamine was warm and gracious.
Hiroshi Gondo, another former star pitcher for the Dragons in the 1960s who later coached under Yonamine, also related an amusing anecdote that had the crowd smiling.
"Wally taught me how to become a fighter in baseball, just like him," recalled Gondo. "One day he came to the ballpark limping, and I asked him what happened. He told me that he had a dream the night before where he got so riled up arguing with the umpire that he kicked the guy in anger. Of course, he had actually kicked the wall and severely injured his toe."
Also among those at the service were U.S Ambassador to Japan John Roos, player agent Don Nomura, best-selling author Robert Whiting, MLB Japan head Jim Small and Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese to play in the major leagues.