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Japan baseball pioneer Yonamine dies at 85

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Japan baseball pioneer Yonamine dies at 85

by Rob Smaal (Mar 3, 2011)

Wally Kaname Yonamine, a true sporting pioneer and an NPB Hall of Famer, lost a long battle with prostate cancer Monday in his native Hawaii. He was 85.

In 1951, Yonamine became the first foreign-born player in Japanese professional baseball after World War II following a short stint as a pro football running back. Often referred to as the "Nisei Jackie Robinson," Yonamine would go on to revolutionize the way the game of baseball was played in Japan.

"I'm saddened and touched by the news of Wally Yonamine's passing," NPB Commissioner Ryozo Kato said in a statement. "Ever since 1951 with the Giants, he contributed to the development of Japanese baseball. Memories of his aggressive sliding and batting style still stick with me to this day."

Yonamine's eventful journey took him from humble beginnings in the sugar-cane fields of Maui to his 1994 enshrinement in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame along with fellow legend and former teammate Sadaharu Oh, who was inspired to become a ballplayer in part when Yonamine took the time to sign an autograph for Oh in his youth.

Yonamine's first love was football, however, and the young standout from the high school fields of Hawaii found himself playing running back for the San Francisco 49ers in 1947, becoming the first man of Japanese descent to play at that level. At times, Yonamine struggled to understand the ways of the "outside" world, where black teammates were often forced to stay at different hotels and eat at different restaurants than the rest of the 49ers.

Back in Hawaii, an offseason wrist injury playing baseball in 1948 prematurely ended Yonamine's pro football career and a chance meeting with baseball luminary Lefty O'Doul set him on the path to a 37-year career in professional baseball.

Yonamine was sent to Salt Lake City to play for the Pacific Coast League's San Francisco Seals farm club and his natural talent quickly became evident when he hit .335 in his first season of pro baseball. Seals manager O'Doul, who had several baseball contacts in Asia, then suggested that Wally take his game to Japan.

Yonamine signed with Tokyo's Yomiuri Giants in 1951, but he was unprepared for the scenes that greeted him when he arrived in postwar Japan--desolation, crumbled buildings and hungry people on the streets.

Yonamine struggled to adapt to his unfamiliar conditions--no heat in winter, no air-conditioning in summer, 15-hour road trips on rickety trains. Even the food was difficult for him to stomach as he was no fan of sushi. Yonamine would go so far as to sit near windows in the team mess hall so that food he didn't like could be disposed of discreetly without offending his hosts.

On the field, things weren't much better initially. Yonamine brought an American football-style of aggression to the Japanese game. Second basemen became bowling pins for the hard-charging Yonamine and at least one leg was broken. Opposing fans and players did not appreciate those tactics and it wasn't long before Yonamine was being showered with everything from death threats from local gangsters in Hiroshima to large rocks from irate fans in Osaka.

Through it all, Yonamine persevered, and then thrived. As the leadoff hitter for the most popular team in Japan, Yonamine became the Giants' sparkplug as he led the team to several championships. His first season he hit .354, following that up with a .344 average and 38 stolen bases in 1952. In '54, Wally won his first of three Central League batting titles by hitting .361 and he was named CL MVP in 1957. His .311 lifetime batting average still ranks among the highest ever in Japan over a career that saw him named an All-Star seven times.

But all that didn't come without a price. When Wally topped the team in hitting, it didn't sit well with the team's established star, "God of Batting" Tetsuharu Kawakami. Once Kawakami was promoted to manager of the Giants in 1960, Wally's days with the club were numbered. One of the first moves of Kawakami was to cut Yonamine.

Wally played two more seasons with the Chunichi Dragons before embarking on a lengthy career as a coach and manager. In 1974, Yonamine was the manager of the Dragons when they broke the nine-year stranglehold that Kawakami's Giants had on the Central League pennant.

Yonamine is survived by his wife Jane, daughters Amy and Wallis, and son Paul.

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