Few Americans know about Wally Yonamine, who was both the first Asian to play in the NFL and the first American to play in Japan after World War 2. Known as the Jackie Robinson of Japan, Yonamine overcame the bigotry of hostile fans and teammates and the difficulties of post-war Japan to eventually become a member of Japan’s baseball hall of fame.
I have just published a biography of Yonamine (called Wally Yonamine: The Man who Changed Japanese Baseball) with the University of Nebraska Press and I wanted to spread the word. I’ve posted a blurb about Yonamine below. If you would like more information, please visit the book’s website http://www.WallyYonamine.com
Wally Yonamine - A very short bio
At the end of World War II, American and Japanese hatred remained high. Many Americans considered Japanese dishonest and extended this bigotry to Japanese Americans. Many Japanese resented the victorious Americans who now occupied their homeland. In that hostile environment, Wally Yonamine broke down ethnic barriers and overcame stereotypes in both countries as he became both the first Asian to play professional football in the United States and the first American to play professional baseball in occupied Japan.
Wally Yonamine did not plan to become an agent of social change, but throughout his career was thrust into situations where his athletic accomplishments had larger social consequences. Yonamine was born in 1925 on a Maui sugar plantation to poor Japanese immigrants. He learned to play football on the island’s beaches with a can of Carnation creamed corn covered with newspaper as the family was too poor to buy a football. His success on the gridiron allowed him to escape the plantation, become a high school sensation and eventually sign with the San Francisco 49ers in 1947.
Wally went to California to play football, but for many he was more than an athlete. Just a year earlier, thousands of San Francisco’s Japanese-Americans had returned after three years in the internment camps. Yonamine became a symbol that Japanese-Americans could succeed in mainstream society, providing hope to the community, while his presence on the 49ers helped ease racial tension in the Bay area.
After an injury ended his football career, Yonamine turned to baseball. He played one year in the minor leagues at Salt Lake City before signing with the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants in 1951. Once again, his presence had social consequences. Tension between the occupying forces and the Japanese remained high. As the first American to enter Japanese professional baseball since the war, Wally’s behavior both on and off the field needed to be exemplary. If he was perceived as arrogant or disrespectful, the popularity of the Giants could help fuel anti-American sentiment and perhaps even ignite violence in the ballparks.
Yonamine adopted his football skills to baseball and played hard—stealing bases, sliding hard, and knocking down opponents. At first, the Japanese were aghast at the aggressive American. Opposing fans hurled insults and rocks at him, but he quickly became one of the most dominant players in the league, earning the begrudging respect of players and fans alike. Living conditions were harsh by American standards—high quality food was difficult to obtain and even fuel for heat was scarce. But Yonamine rarely complained and adapted to life in post-war Japan. His success, both on and off the field, changed the way the Japanese played the game and opened the door for other Americans to come to Japan.
Blending the American and Japanese approaches to baseball, Yonamine stayed in Japan as a player, coach, and manager for 37 years. He won three batting titles, the 1957 Most Valuable Player Award, and led the Chunichi Dragons to the 1974 Central League title winning the Manager of the Year award. In 1994, he was elected to the Japan Baseball Hall of Fame.
In retirement, Yonamine remains a role model. He has strived to strengthen ties between his native Hawaii and Japan, promoting both baseball exchanges and tourism. Through the Wally Yonamine Foundation, he has helped thousands of Hawaiian children build their bodies and characters by sponsoring Little Leagues, youth programs, and the Hawaiian High School baseball championship tournament. For his contributions, Yonamine has been honored by the Emperor of Japan, the Governor of Hawaii, and the San Francisco 49ers, who have named an annual award for community service after him.