Wally Yonamine was both the first Japanese American to play for an NFL franchise and the first American to play professional baseball in Japan after World War II. He is also the subject of Robert Fitt’s biography Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball, which is the unlikely story of how a shy young man from the sugar plantations of Maui overcame prejudice to integrate two professional sports in two countries.
The two-sport star died Monday at the age of 85. The San Francisco Chronicle said he “was known as the ‘Nisei Jackie Robinson’ for breaking into Japanese baseball and building ties between the countries in a sensitive period after World War II.”
“Nisei” is a Japanese term for children born to Japanese people in a new country, and which also describes the obstacles that Yonamine had to overcome throughout his life. He entered Japanese baseball when distrust of Americans was high—and higher still for Japanese-Americans whose parents had left the country a generation earlier. Without speaking the language, he helped introduce a hustling style of base running, shaking up the game for both Japanese players and fans. Along the way, Yonamine endured insults, dodged rocks thrown by fans, initiated riots, and was threatened by yakuza (the Japanese mafia).
He was named the 1957 MVP, coached and managed for twenty-five years, and was honored by the emperor of Japan. And he is the only American in the Japanese Hall of Fame.