Wally Yonamine, Athlete Who Bridged US-Japan Gap After WWII, Dies at Age 85

Wally Kaname Yonamine, the first American to be inducted into Japan's Baseball Hall of Fame and a former running back for the San Francisco 49ers, died Tuesday, from complications of prostate cancer. He was 85.

Known as the "Nisei Jackie Robinson," Yonamine blazed a trail for Japanese and Americans on both sides of the Pacific.

"He was an outsider with the 49ers, and he moved to Japan and became an outsider for the opposite reason -- because he was American as opposed to being Asian," said author Robert K. Fitts, who wrote Yonamine's biography "Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball," released in 2008.

A native of Maui, Yonamine was born to immigrant farm workers. He began playing football as a child, and excelled as a star running back at Honolulu's Farrington High School. In 1944, his senior year, Yonamine led his team to an undefeated season and championship.

Considered one of the greatest athletes to come out of Hawaii, the football player was set to accept a scholarship from Ohio State University when the San Francisco 49ers came calling. He signed a two-year contract and headed to the Bay Area as the first Japanese-American football player to play professionally, just a year after the end of World War II.

Yonamine started three of 12 games his first year, rushed 19 times for 74 yards, and caught three passes for 40 yards.

A wrist injury forced him to end his football career after just one season, but his impact remained well beyond that. The 49ers established the Perry/Yonamine Unity Award in 2007, a title awarded to a 49ers player, a Bay Area youth football coach and a local company that demonstrate commitment to promoting unity with their team and community.

"Most people remember him for his accomplishments on the diamond, but our family, we have a great deal of respect for him for what he's done off the diamond," Paul Yonamie said in an interview with the Associated Press. "One hell of a guy."

Yonamine played in the American Pacific Coast League before heading to Japan in 1951, at the age of 26.

The left-handed infielder began his Japanese baseball career with the Yomiuri Giants, becoming the first American to play professional sports in Japan following the war.

Robert Whiting, author of "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat: The Game Japanese Play," and "You Gotta Have Wa," said Yonamine was recruited specifically because he was a Japanese-American. Occupation forces and Japanese government officials thought Yonamine would help forge closer ties between former enemies.

"The blond haired blue eyed American, they thought, wouldn't be a good thing," Whiting said. "Memories of the war were too vivid. Plus, there was a lot of trouble with the GIs during the occupation."

Yonamine made an immediate impression. In his first game, he was called on as a pinch hitter to sacrifice in a closely fought game and laid down a perfect bunt. Whiting said he surprised fans by "running furiously" to first base, something Japanese were not accustomed to seeing on a sacrifice bunt.

Yonamine quickly earned his way in to the starting lineup and transformed Japanese baseball from a passive-style game to an aggressive one. He introduced the hard slide at second base to break up the double play, demonstrating what American hustle was all about.

But success on the field didn't necessarily translate to acceptance off of it. As an American in Japan, Yonamine was constantly subjected to chants of "Yankee go home." He also experienced the resentment of Japanese who considered American Nisei -- or American-born Japanese -- traitors because they remained loyal to the U.S. during the war.

"I went through hell that first year," Yonamine said in Whiting's "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat." "I knew I had to make them change their minds for the others after me as well as myself. I tried to do everything exactly the same as the Japanese. I ate at the training table with them. I ate the same food they [did]. I lost a lot weight that first year."

Fans ultimately embraced him, as Yonamine went on to compile a .311 career batting average, won three battling titles and was named an all-star seven times.

In 1954, Yonamine became the first foreigner to win the Central League batting title with a .361 average, and led the league in hits, doubles and runs scored.

After his playing career ended, Yonamine served as a coach or manager with six teams over 26 years. His biggest accomplishment came in 1974, when he guided the Chunichi Dragons to their first Japan Series title, ending the Giants's nine-year championship reign.

In 1994, Yonamine became the first foreigner to be inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. Four years later, he was honored by the emperor of Japan for his career as a player and ambassador.

Following his career in baseball, Yonamine and his family ran pearl stores in Tokyo and the Los Angeles area.

"He opened the door for foreign players [in Japan]. He helped improve the image of Americans, in general," Whiting said. "He made people think, 'If there are people like him, maybe America's not such a bad country.'"

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