Japanese Baseball Pioneer Met With Threats, Taunts, Eventual Triumph
Rocks and debris often flew out of the stands at the player as he stood in the outfield.
Once, a couple of fans charged out of the stands and threatened to kill him on the spot. Taunts from opposing fans were incessant. Hate mail? Perhaps, but it probably was intercepted by the front office.
Another Jackie Robinson story?
No, this is about Wally Yonamine, the first non-Japanese national to play professional baseball in Japan after World War II.
The harassment was not so much racial, although Yonamine did go to the land of his ancestors with some trepidation.
As a Hawaii-born nisei (second-generation Japanese), Yonamine wasn’t sure how he would be accepted when he joined the Tokyo Giants in 1951. He was the first “foreigner” to play in Japan, and it was only a few years after the end of the war.
“I didn’t know what the reaction of my teammates would be since they were all guys who had fought against the United States,” said Yonamine, a native of Olowalu, Maui.
“I was concerned, but they never mentioned anything about the war. It was rough at times, but I’m sure not as rough as Jackie Robinson.”
But, like the player who broke the color line in major league baseball four years earlier, Yonamine quickly made his mark, hitting .354 his first season and .344 the second.
In doing so, however, he touched a nerve in Japan’s baseball psyche that prompted fan resentment.
In polite Japanese society, breaking up a double play or bowling over a catcher is not considered fair play.
“When I first went there, I played aggressive ball,” said Yonamine, now 73. “I slid hard into a base to break up plays. I knocked down catchers.
“It was the first time they saw things like that. So the fans got mad at me. They told me, ‘Hawaii kaere’ [go back to Hawaii] and stuff like that.”
Through it all, Yonamine persevered, finishing an 11-year playing career with a .311 batting average and three batting titles. In 1994, he became the first postwar foreigner to be elected to Japan’s baseball Hall of Fame.
A few foreigners played in Japan before the war, with one--Hawaii’s Bozo Wakabayashi--being voted into the Hall of Fame.
Yonamine also managed the Chunichi Dragons to the league championship in 1979.
The crowning touch came earlier this year, when Yonamine received one of Japan’s highest awards, the Emperor’s Order of the Sacred Treasure with Gold Rosette, for his role in fostering better relations between the United States and Japan.
On the field, he was encouraged by his manager, Shigeru Mizuhara, to play “American-style” baseball.
“He told me, ‘What you learned in the United States, I want you to do here,’ ” Yonamine said. “He liked that style of all-out play. He later went to the Dodgers’ training facility in Florida to learn more.”
As for acceptance, Yonamine got a heartwarming send-off from the assistant manager after his first season.
“He pulled me aside and said, ‘As a rule, we don’t like nisei. But you didn’t grumble. You’re a good nisei.’ That made me feel good.”
Yonamine gained his teammates’ respect by doing everything they did.
“We slept six guys to a room on a tatami [straw] mat floor. We rode trains in the third-class section with no air conditioning. Sometimes we ate the same meal three times a day,” he said.
With a grimace, Yonamine added, “Tamago-meshi [raw egg over steaming hot rice].”
“But I didn’t dare grumble. I didn’t want to make my teammates think I was better than them. I just wanted to do well so other Americans would have a chance to play in Japan.”
All this on a salary that was laughable by today’s standards.
“I got a $2,300 signing bonus and made $300 a month--U.S. dollars,” he said, adding: “But everything was so cheap in those days.”
Yonamine’s journey to Japan was hatched by former National League hitting star Lefty O'Doul, who was then managing the San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League and had visited Asia before the war.
Although Yonamine hit .335 at Salt Lake City in the lower-level Pioneer League in 1950, O'Doul couldn’t clear a roster spot on the Seals.
Knowing that Yonamine faced a long journey to the major leagues, which had no Asian players then, O'Doul suggested he go to Japan.
Yonamine also could have stayed put and played football for the San Francisco 49ers. Even without college experience, he played one year in the NFL and still had another year left on his guaranteed contract.
O'Doul prevailed, but not before reminding Yonamine to take his aggressive style with him across the Pacific.
“He told me to play my style. He said, ‘You’re going to change Japanese baseball because of your aggressiveness. The Japanese will love the way you play,’ ” Yonamine said.
“At the end of my playing career, many old-timers came up to me and said I had changed Japanese baseball. If I had anything to do with that, I’m happy.”