A shy young man, he was Nisei (second generation) born on June 24, 1925, in Olowalu, Maui, where his father Matsusai, an Okinawan, had moved to find work in the sugar cane fields and met his mother Kikue, whose family was from Hiroshima. He is considered one of the greatest athletes to come out of Hawaii. (Weber)
He starred at Lahainaluna before he attracted the attention of Honolulu’s football coaches and transferred to Farrington, starring on the baseball and football teams – and led the Governors to their first football championship in 1944.
It was there when Kaname Yonamine changed his first name to Wallace – he was then known as Wally.
Yonamine graduated from Farrington in 1945 and was drafted into the US Army the next morning. Stationed at Schofield Barracks, he was supposed to be shipped to Europe to support the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. However, within two months, World War II was over. (Hawai‘i Tribune Herald)
He never went to college, though he turned down at least one football scholarship, to Ohio State. In the period after the war, Yonamine remained at Schofield, where he joined the Lei-Alumns, a football team comprised of former Leilehua High School players.
During a fateful game against Portland University, he scored several touchdowns and caught the eye of a San Francisco 49ers scout, who was there to evaluate Portland’s quarterback.
In 1947, Yonamine signed with the San Francisco 49ers of the All-America Football Conference, a post-World War II rival to the National Football League. This was the 49ers’ second season, three years before the team joined the NFL. Yonamine inked a two-year deal worth $14,000. (AP)
He was the first Asian-American to play professional football. This was at a time in San Francisco when emotions were still raw as thousands of Japanese – most of them American citizens – who had been rounded up and forced from their homes and businesses in The City’s thriving Japantown returned from desolate internment camps. (Chapman)
Therefore, Yonamine’s signing with the 49ers took on special significance in the Asian American community. In 12 games (three starts), he rushed for 74 yards on 19 carries, caught three passes for 40 yards and recorded one interception for a 20-yard return. (49ers)
Yonamine’s football career was cut short after fracturing his wrist playing baseball in 1948. He then turned his sole focus to baseball. (49ers)
His baseball talents were immediately noticed by the legendary Lefty O’Doul, a former National League batting champion, who had been instrumental in promoting the professional game in Japan. He signed Yonamine and sent him to the Salt Lake City Bees, where Wally did well.
One of O’Doul’s contacts was Matsutaro Shoriki, owner of the Yomiuri Giants, the premier professional franchise in Japan. A deal was worked out, and, in 1951, Wally Yonamine found himself the starting center fielder of the Giants (or, “Kyojin,” as they are called in Japan.) (Gillespie)
In 1951, he arrived in Japan as the first American to play baseball after World War II. At first he was met with much adversity for being American, but also for his hard hitting style of baseball. This proved to be the introduction of a new style of baseball in Japan. (Fitts)
In his debut for the Giants, he bunted for a hit in his first at-bat, a show of daredevilry that became his trademark. To the orderly and respectful game as the Japanese played it, Yonamine brought what was considered bad behavior: beating out a sacrifice bunt, sliding hard to take out the pivot man on a double play, expressing outrage at the umpire. (Weber)
Without speaking the language, he helped introduce a hustling style of base running, shaking up the game for both Japanese players and fans. Along the way, Yonamine endured insults, dodged rocks thrown by fans, initiated riots, and was threatened by yakuza (the Japanese mafia). (Fitts)
Yonamine was a gifted athlete. He was a great left-handed contact hitter and was a Gold Glove-level defender, and a very aggressive base runner. In fact, Yonamine changed Japanese pro baseball forever, when he started thrilling crowds by stealing third base and home.
Before Wally, this was not a part of the Japanese style of play. Yonamine stole home 11 times in his career, a record for Japan’s major leagues. (Gillespie)
He also won batting titles, was named the 1957 MVP, coached and managed for twenty-five years, and was honored by the emperor of Japan. Overcoming bigotry and hardship on and off the field, Yonamine became a true national hero and a member of Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame. (Fitts)
In 1957 he received the MVP award and led the Tokyo Giants to the Japan World Series title. Today, he still holds the highest batting average ever for a Giant.
Wally went on to play for and manage the Chunichi Dragons, and succeeded as the first foreign manager to win the Central League title (beating the Giants.) (Yonamine Pearls)
Yonamine went on to coach or manage various professional teams in Japan for 26 years. He was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994.
In 2002, the San Francisco 49ers honored Yonamine’s football legacy during an exhibition game on August 3 at Japan’s Osaka Dome. Serving as an honorary team captain, Yonamine was greeted with a standing ovation. (49ers) Wally Yonamine died February 28, 2011.
Here’s a short video on Wally Yonamine:
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