Wally Yonamine, a multi-sport athlete, has broken barriers twice: as the first person of Japanese ancestry to play NFL in the U.S. and the first American to play professional baseball in Japan after WWII. After years of standing up to prejudice from Americans and the Japanese, Yonamine lost an extended battle with prostate cancer last week in Honolulu.
According to the Washington Post, Yonamine played pro football for the 49ers in 1947, three years before the team joined the NFL. It was during a time when many Bay Area residents of Japanese descent were returning to their homes from WWII internment camps.
But Yonamine’s pro football career was short-lived. He suffered a wrist injury that many believed would end his athletic career. Yet three years later, Yonamine transitioned to playing baseball with minor league teams in Salt Lake City. Then, as Racialicious notes, he set out on a journey that was the mirror image of the one he started with the Niners by becoming the first American to play pro baseball in Japan.
Yonamine played for the Yomiuri Giants and the Chunichi Dragons. Robert K. Fitts, author of Yonamine’s biography Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball, said “the Japanese became a lot more aggressive and they hired a lot more Americans because of him.”
Besides breaking into two leagues, the seven-time Japanese All-Star had a .311 career batting average. He was the 1957 Central League MVP before serving as a manager for decade, and was finally inducted into the Japanese Hall of Fame in 1994.
However, there were critics. The outfielder faced a language barrier in Japan and was met with hostility for being an American and a U.S. military veteran. But his ability to deal with that hostility earned him the nickname of the “Nisei Jackie Robinson.” According to Fitts
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. 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.
After baseball, Yonamine and his family founded a pearl company that operates in both Tokyo and Redondo Beach, California. In the 1990’s, his family began donating $10,000 a year to fund the state high school baseball tournament, which was renamed in his honor.