Yesterday, I told the first part of the story of Wally Yonamine, the first American to be inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. According to Joel S. Franks, author of Asian Pacific Americans and Baseball, in 1951, Yonamine signed with the Yomiuri Giants for a million yen bonus ($3,000) and a 100,000 yen ($300) per month salary. Later Yonamine would state that he decided to play in Japan because he felt he would never make it to the Major Leagues. He was quoted as saying, “I figured my parents are Japanese. Why not give it a try.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, in Japan Yonamine transformed how the game was played, which was “a more passive style of game then, with no players sliding hard into second base to break up a double play as Yonamine did in his first game, to the shock of fans.” Hard slides, arguing with umpires, and bunting to get on base were seen as bad behavior and were not part of the game in polite Japanese society before Yonamine arrived.
In fact, when he first arrived in Japan, neither the fans nor players supported him. In post-war Japan, anti-American sentiment remained. Worse yet, as the American-born son of Japanese immigrants, his family were seen as traitors. Thus, at first, Yonamine endured catcalls and was otherwise treated as an outsider. The Washington Post stated that he was “known as the ‘Nisei Jackie Robinson’ for breaking into Japanese baseball and building ties between the countries in a highly sensitive period after World War II. Facing a language barrier, he was sometimes met with hostility, including rock throwing, for being an American and his aggressive style of play.” Yonamine, however, was never comfortable with the comparison to Robinson, noting that his experiences were not nearly the same as Robinson’s.
Yonamine was inducted into Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994 and the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame in 1998. That same year he was honored by the Emperor of Japan with the Order of the Sacred Treasure with Gold Rosette, for his role in improving relations between the U.S. and Japan. In 2007, the San Francisco 49ers established the Perry/Yonamine Unity Award in honor of Yonamine and Joe Perry.
Hawaii News Now reported that after his retirement from the Japanese Leagues, Yonamine returned to Hawaii. There he funded kids’ baseball clinics, all-star team travel the mainland, and the Hawaii High School Athletic Association’s state tournament. Wally Yonamine passed away in Hawaii on February 28, 2011, at the age of 85.
Thank you for your contributions to baseball, Wally.