By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
Kaname “Wally” Yonamine could have had a pioneering career in the NFL as a running back with the San Francisco 49ers. But his destiny was playing professional baseball in Japan where he took a chance, overcame hate, and was embraced by a country that the United States had gone to war with just 6 years prior. Yonamine will be honored by the Asian Hall of Fame this year for his achievements.
Yonamine, a Nisei-Japanese American, was born and raised in Hawaii. In a family of seven kids, Yonamine tried to emulate his older brother who played sports. According to his daughter, Amy, he told his family that he was going to play pro sports so school was not his priority. He was right.
However, Yonamine was drafted by the Army in June 1945 just days after graduating from high school. While in the Army, he had the opportunity to play for their football team.
After his stint in the Army, Yonamine was recruited by many colleges to play before choosing Ohio State.
He was on his way to Columbus when a scout from the San Francisco 49ers persuaded him to skip college football and play professionally. He did.
The signing of a Japanese American player in 1947 was both inspiring and controversial. America was still healing from World War II, as were Japanese Americans, many of which were sent to internment camps.
The Bay Area had a close-knit Asian community at the time and the fact that one of their own would be playing American football gave it a sense of pride and distinction.
According to the San Francisco 49ers website, Yonanime first played for the 49ers in a 1947 intrasquad game in Salinas, California, where there were approximately 400 members of the Japanese community in a crowd of 3,000 onlookers to cheer him on. He did not disappoint as he scored two touchdowns. The San Francisco Examiner ran a headline reading, “YONAMINE STAR IN 49ER GRID DEBUT.”
After his rookie season in San Francisco, Yonamine was poised to return. However, he broke his wrist while training in the offseason in Hawaii.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” said Amy. “It was baseball that kept his athletic career going.”
Despite his short-lived career in football, he is a part of the Levi Stadium Museum in Santa Clara, California, the home of the 49ers. The team continues to celebrate his legacy through the Perry/Yonamine Award. It honors Yonamine and Joe Perry, the first Black athlete to play for the 49ers in 1948.
Yonamine hung up his football cleats and decided to put on his baseball glove as he was signed by a minor league baseball team. He found himself playing for the Salt Lake City Bees, managed by former major league baseball player Lefty O’Doul. It was O’Doul that suggested that Yonamine head to Japan to play. The former major leaguer had introduced the game of baseball in Japan prior to World War II. After the war, O’Doul rekindled his relationships with Japanese professional teams and Yonamine was interested in heading to Japan to play.
The move to Japan was a risk, but according to his daughter, he wanted to play.
“He wanted to be accepted there because he felt there was a future for American players in Japan.”
Yonanime signed with the Tokyo Giants and drew comparisons to America’s Jackie Robinson as he broke the barrier of being the first American, and Japanese American at that, to play pro baseball in the country since World War II. Similar to Robinson, he experienced great animosity from fans due to resentment over the war.
Amy recalls an incident when Yonamine was playing left field during a night game and the lights went out due to an outage. Not feeling safe standing in the outfield, Yonamine headed to the pitcher’s mound.
After several minutes, the lights went back on and he recognized that fans had thrown trash and bottles in the area where he would have been standing.
According to Amy, many people had issues with him at the beginning.
“They regarded him as a traitor,” she said. He was subject to people calling him to “go home” or “go back,” in reference to him being Japanese American. In addition to the taunts, he was ridiculed for introducing an aggressive style of play, notably sliding into second base to break up a double play by obstructing the second baseman to throw to first.
However, over the years, Yonamine endeared himself to the fans and his teammates. Although he could ride up front on trains, he stayed back in third class with the other players. He slept on the floors of the train instead of the sleeping cars that he could have been given.
Yonamine’s staying power in Japan along with his exceptional play eventually made him a fan favorite. He became a well-respected member of the team. He was known for inviting members of his team over to the house for meals and gave out advice to younger players.
“I think people were impressed with how king a man he was.”
After his playing days were over, Yonamine coached the Chunichi Dragons and took the championship of the Japanese league for the first time in 20 years. He then went back to the Tokyo Giants to become a coach. With his accomplishments, he was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.
Off the field, his wife developed a successful pearl business in Japan in 1964. Yonamine helped out and secured some notable celebrity customers. As the business gained momentum, Presidents George H.W. Bush, Reagan, and Clinton became customers.
Amy said that baseball was the center of their household growing up, but Yonamine always tried to make time to spend with his children. Even if he played a night game, he’d try to make sure he woke up in time to spend time with his kids and walk them to school. After retiring from managing and coaching baseball, he returned to Hawaii. He was inducted to Farrington High School Hall of Fame and the state of Hawaii’s Sports Hall of Fame.
He passed away at the age of 85 in February 2011 after a battle with prostate cancer.
Yonamine, along with others, will be honored by the Asian Hall of Fame in a virtual induction ceremony on Nov. 21. Visit asianhalloffame.org for more information about the program.
Jason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.