Entries in Japanese-American (1)


Japanese-American Sports Pioneer Dies at 85

Photo Courtesy - Getty Images(TOKYO) -- 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 the 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, and his football career ended 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 demonstrates commitment to promoting unity with their team and community.

Yonamine played in the 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.

He helped transform Japanese baseball from a passive style game to an aggressive one, when he slid hard into second to break up a double play in his first game. He achieved a .311 career batting average, won three batting 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 he led the league in hits, doubles, and runs scored.

Years 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' 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 pear stores in Tokyo and the Los Angeles area.

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

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