Twenty-four years ago, Wally Yonamine was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. Yonamine was the first American to play professional baseball in Japan following World War II and the only American to be admitted to the Japanese Hall of Fame as a player.
Wallace Kaname “Wally” Yonamine was born on June 24, 1925, in Olowalu, Hawaii. His father was a sugar cane worker who had migrated to Hawaii from Okinawa; his mother had been born on the Japanese mainland, according to some accounts (others say she was born in Hawaii to Japanese parents). Wally was a multi-sport athlete in high school and, after being drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces, played football, baseball, and basketball for the Army. After his military service, he became the first professional football player of Japanese American heritage to play professional football (he was a running back with the San Francisco 49ers in 1947). After injuring his wrist in the off-season, Yonamine did not rejoin the team. In 1951, he played baseball for the Salt Lake City Bees.
According to The Atlantic, after World War II Yonamine was recruited to serve as an unofficial U.S. sports ambassador to Japan:
“After the devastating atomic bombs in the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima brought World War II to a swift end, Allied forces occupied Japan until 1952. Yonamine was considered a natural ambassador to help repair the relationship between the two countries, but the unique suspicion toward Americans in Japan at the time didn’t preclude those with Japanese heritage. The wounds of the war were fresh, and anyone intimately engaged in Japanese society and culture from the United States (particularly if they were of Japanese descent) had to work to be trusted.
Yonamine’s orders, approved by the then Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, were simple: Go to Japan and play baseball, a celebrated national sport. With no formal command of the language or the intricacies of the culture, he dove in.”
Another source states that after the war it was the Japanese Leagues that did the recruiting. Nonetheless, in 1951, Yonamine set out for Japan. Between 1951 and 1960, he planed for the Yomiuri Giants in Tokyo. He played for the Chunichi Dragons in 1961 and 1962, before returning as manager in 1972. Yonamine managed the Dragons for six years, amassing a won-loss record of 388-349. In his 12 seasons as a player, he played in 1,219 games with a batting average of .311.
On June 19, 1994, Yonamine was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. Tomorrow, I’ll post more about his contributions to baseball and how he came to be known as the “Nisei Jackie Robinson.”