Wally Yonamine’s legacy of unifying Japan and United States through sport
After World War II, Japan was being rebuilt from the devastation the war wrought on their land. Part of American policy was to be part of this reconstruction. More than just bricks, cranes, and labor, the United States recognized that it was also important to rebuild relationships. Wally Yonamine would be part of this effort.
Yonamine was a superb athlete. He boxed skillfully; he was good enough to earn a scholarship to Ohio State for football, which he turned down to help support his parents. But it was baseball that would be the path by which he would shape his future.
After showcasing a .335 batting average for his Pioneer League manager, Lefty O’Doul, and with no Asian players as examples in the Major Leagues at the time, Yonamine, at O’Doul’s suggestion, decided to be a part of the effort to bridge the two countries in 1951. Baseball thrust Yonamine, a Japanese-American athlete born in Hawaii who did not speak Japanese, into war-ravaged Japan to mend fences with his bat, glove, and heart.
Yonamine remains an inspiration because he turned this opportunity into a force for global change. He endured a difficult transition just to be respected in Japanese culture, given he was coming from a country with which Japan had been at war. He had to tread lightly, every year placing his job with the Yomiuri Giants on shaky ground, unsure if he would have a position the next day. He trained on off-days, sometimes playing in their minor league games to workout anywhere he could. There was no such thing as a day off.
All this while he was also slowly building a family with his wife, a family that would grow to two daughters and a son.
Yonamine let his bat do the talking en route to four championships, eight all-star appearances, and ultimately a hall of fame induction in 1994 as the first American to accomplish this feat in Japan. He won three batting titles during his 12-year career and was named league MVP in 1957. His athleticism and his tenacious playing style led the way.
Outside the numbers, he shifted the culture of the game. From his football background, Yonamine brought a hard-nosed approach to baseball that was unfathomable in the 50s version of baseball in Japan. He slid hard, broke up double plays, ran into catchers, even instigated a few brawls. At first, it was received poorly, but as he became established, he started a revolution around a new way of playing the game.
The legendary Sadaharu Oh, the world’s all-time home run leader, learned from Yonamine on his way to his incredible home run record. It was Yonamine that changed position to give Oh a chance to break into the league, a significant step in demonstrating the importance he placed on mentorship.
Once his career wrapped up with a trophy case full of awards, Yonamine would go on to coaching, changing the culture again by connecting his family with his baseball world. His children were welcomed in sacred places in the stadium that, before Yonamine, were never options. Soon, players and coaches alike would bring their families around for the summers. In 1974, Yonamine managed the Chunichi Dragons to a Central League title and a Nippon Series appearance.
Yonamine did not accomplish this by himself. His wife, Jane, became a pioneering entrepreneur by opening a pearl shop in Tokyo that soon became a renowned provider of pearls throughout the world. People, including U.S. Presidents, would seek her pearls as a symbol of style and quality. The Yonamine children kept this legacy going by helping to run the business for years.
But it did not end there; Yonamine’s reputation still endures for his service. The Emperor of Japan gave the skilled outfielder a high honor for his ambassadorship, the Order of the Sacred Treasure, to recognize his bridge-building efforts between the US and Japan. Yonamine gave of himself for the important task of unifying countries through sport and by his leadership.
In addition, and despite only playing the 1947 season for the San Francisco 49ers, the football organization placed his name – along with fellow groundbreaker Joe Perry – on the community service award. The Perry/Yonamine award honors a current 49ers player, a youth sports leader and a nonprofit agency exhibiting an exceptional commitment to promoting unity within their team and community.
Wally Yonamine was a powerful testament to how sports can change society. His parents were from Japan, he grew up in the United States, and he was able to combine these worlds with great pride by centering around the common ground we all share. Through patience and excellence, he was able to perform at the highest level on the field, and through humility and perseverance, he was able to set an enduring example off the field.
He is remembered for his dedication and service to baseball in Japan and beyond. The annual Hawaii high school baseball state tournament is in his name, and there is an exhibit in the Honolulu airport in his honor.
Wally Yonamine lived until the age of 85, when he passed away in 2011.
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Photo credit: San Francisco 49ers