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WARMING UP TO WALLY : Yonamine, First American to Play in Japan, Was Not an Instant Hit

June 18, 1989|EARL GUSTKEY | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — He's been called the Jackie Robinson of Japanese baseball, and if that might be stretching things a bit, there is truth in what the designation implies.

Wally Yonamine sat in the small Tokyo pearl shop he runs with his wife, Jane, in Tokyo's trendy, nightclub-dominated Roppongi district. From beneath their second-story shop, the moaning sounds of congested street traffic--there is no other kind in Tokyo--wafted up the stairwell.

"You can call me the Jackie Robinson of Japanese baseball only in the sense that I was a pioneer, the first American, but not really in the sense of the kind of discrimination (Robinson) put up with," he said.

"I mean, at first the fans over here threw stuff at me and yelled at me, but I never had to deal with anything like Robinson did."

For Robinson, who in 1947 became the first black in major league baseball, it was, "Nigger go home!"

For Yonamine--pronounced: Yo-na-meena--who in 1950 became the first post-war American to play baseball in Japan, it was, "Yankee go home!"

Since Yonamine made the leap from Class B baseball at Salt Lake City to the Yomiyuri Giants in Tokyo, about 350 Americans have played in Japan's major leagues since World War II.

But for the first one, it wasn't easy.

He grew up in what was then a tiny Maui village, Lahaina, the son of a father who had left Okinawa for Hawaii in 1907, at 17, as a contract sugar cane field laborer. His father died last year, at 98. Yonamine's mother, 89, who was born on Maui, lives in Honolulu.

"I was a good athlete my first two years in high school on Maui, but the school was very small and my father wanted me to go to a big Honolulu school to play football," Yonamine said.

In the last two years of World War II, Yonamine was a standout running back at Honolulu's Farrington High. He had a bow-legged, jump-start, slashing running style that caused almost as much excitement at Honolulu prep games as had the running of 'Squirmin' Herman Wedemeyer, two years older than Yonamine, who had gone from Hawaii high school stardom to St. Mary's College in California.

Longtime Honolulu newspaperman Bill Wong remembers Yonamine.

"He had a slashing kind of running style that made him very hard to tackle," Wong said.

"You could call him a prep superstar in the post-war period over here. A lot of old-time Hawaii people remember him very well."

In a sports trivia encyclopedia, Yonamine could be named in three categories:

--First American to play post-World War II baseball in Japan.

--He's possibly the only Japanese-American ever to play major league pro football in the United States.

--He's on the short list of those who have played NFL-level football with no college background, as did Cookie Gilchrist and Otis Sistrunk.

In 1945, his dream was to play football at Ohio State, which had awarded him a football scholarship. But the world was still at war, and for a young, athletic Japanese-American, Ohio State was a goal out of reach.

The day after he graduated from Farrington High in Honolulu, in June, 1945, he was drafted by the U.S. Army.

"I figured going in I was going to get shipped out to Italy (to the 442nd Regimental Combat Battalion, the heavily decorated all-Japanese-American unit that served in France and Italy)," he said.

"But then the war in Europe ended and then Japan surrendered. So I spent two years at Schofield Barracks on Oahu, peeling potatoes and playing football and baseball."

Yonamine must have caught the eye of at least one pro scout, because immediately upon his discharge, in 1947, he joined the San Francisco 49ers of the All America Football Conference as a reserve halfback. The 49ers joined the National Football League in 1950.

In the club's 1947 team photo, which hangs on his pearl shop wall, Yonamine is in the back row, second from left. His salary that season was $7,000.

"I had a lot to learn, so I sat on the bench for most of that '47 season," he said.

"I was playing more in '48 until I broke my wrist. But by then I was playing a lot of off-season baseball, and thinking about pro baseball."

Yonamine had been a headliner as a prep football player in Hawaii, but he had been equally adept at baseball. And in his Army stint, he played against the best competition in the world--touring U.S. major leaguers.

"I played against Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial--I learned a lot of baseball in two years," he said.

He also met a San Franciscan named Lefty O'Doul, who as an 11-season National Leaguer hit a career .354. Later, he managed the Pacific Coast League's San Francisco Seals.

"I had met Lefty O'Doul in Hawaii when he brought some major league all-stars over there during the war," Yonamine said. "He liked the way I played.

"So after I got hurt with the 49ers, I contacted him. In 1948, he was managing the Seals. He signed me to a minor league contract and I was sent to Salt Lake City, which then was Class B ball.

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