HONOLULU – Wally Kaname Yonamine, the first American to play professional baseball in Japan after World War II and a former running back with the San Francisco 49ers, has died. He was 85.
His son, Paul Yonamine, told The Associated Press that two-sport standout died Monday night at a Honolulu retirement home after a bout with prostate cancer.
"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 Yonamine said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "One hell of a guy."
The outfielder 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.
The Maui-born Yonamine is considered one of the greatest athletes to come out of Hawaii.
"He was in Japan for a really long time, but he always stayed Hawaii," Paul Yonamine said. "He was always a local boy. Along with it, a lot of great values of Hawaii that he was able to share in Japan."
He played pro football for the 49ers in their second season in 1947, three years before the team joined the NFL. It was a time when many Bay Area residents of Japanese descent were returning to their homes after spending time in an internment camp in Utah during World War II.
Yonamine, who inked a two-year deal worth $14,000, is believed to be the first player of Japanese ancestry to play pro football. But he was released after one season after hurting his wrist while playing baseball in the offseason.
Despite playing just one season, the 49ers said Yonamine's impact in pro sports was far-reaching. The team established the Perry/Yonamine Unity Award in 2007.
"Wally will be sadly missed by me and those with a love of 49ers history," said John York, the 49ers' owner and co-chairman said in a statement.
Yonamine started three of 12 games with the 49ers, rushed 19 times for 74 yards, caught three passes for 40 yards and had intercepted a pass.
"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 released in 2008 titled "Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball."
"So he got used to being on the outside and having to deal with that the whole time," Fitts said. "There was a great deal of prejudice in both places toward him. But he managed to not let it get under his skin like most people would."
He returned to baseball and played in the Pacific Coast League before heading to Japan at the age of 26 in 1951.
Yonamine played for the Yomiuri Giants and the Chunichi Dragons, helping transform how the game was played in Japan where it was a more passive style of game then with no players sliding hard into second to break up a double play like Yonamine did in his first game to the shock of the fans.
"Wally is credited with introducing American-style baseball, a hard-nosed Pete Rose-style of baseball to Japan," Fitts said. "The change wasn't overnight. He was very unpopular at first. He was really booed and had rocks thrown at him. A lot of that was his play and not because he was an American. But the players saw quickly that was the way to win.
"The Japanese became a lot more aggressive and they hired a lot more Americans because of him."
With a .311 career batting average, the seven-time All-Star won three batting titles and was the 1957 Central League MVP before serving decades as a manager and being inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1994.
In 1954, Yonamine became the first foreigner to win the Central League batting crown with a .361 average. He also led the league in hits, doubles and runs scored. Two decades years later, Yonamine became the first foreign manager to win the Central League title with his Dragons beating the powerhouse Giants, his former team.
"He was a true pioneer breaking into two leagues. He was willing to adapt and check his ego at the door," said Fitts, who spent three years working with Yonamine on the biography. "Everybody you talk to will tell you the same thing. Wally was the nicest person you'll ever meet."
In 1998, Yonamine was honored by the Emperor of Japan for his long career as a player and ambassador.
"Just like Jackie Robinson was not the best black player at the time he was chosen to come to the Brooklyn Dodgers, but he was the best fit to make the jump," Fitts said. "Wally was the best fit to make the jump to Japan. And because he succeeded, now about 1,000 American players have played in Japan."
Paul Yonamine said despite all the adversity his father faced, he never badmouthed any one or cussed. He always stressed having integrity.
"The last several months, where he's having a real bad time with his health, he never complained once," he said. "It's things like that, where he always walks the talk. He didn't just talk about things. He always practiced what he preached."
After baseball, Yonamine and his family ran successful pearl stores in Tokyo and the Los Angeles area.
Yonamine is survived by his wife Jane; daughters Amy Roper and Wallis Yamamoto; and son Paul. Services are scheduled for Saturday in Honolulu.