Wally Yonamine, the first foreigner to play in Nippon Professional Baseball in the post-World War II era, died of prostate cancer in Honolulu on Monday, his family said. He was 85.
The Japanese-American played running back for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers in 1947 and made three starts. A wrist injury sustained in a baseball game in the summer of 1948 led to his release from the 49ers, and he later opted to pursue a baseball career.
Years later, according to his website, Yonamine summed up his historic football achievements this way, when he was recognized before a 49ers exhibition game at Osaka Dome:
“It was an honor to be the first Asian American in the NFL. I hope that other players from Japan can reach the same level.”
After playing for the San Francisco Seals’ Salt Lake City farm team and the Hawaiian Asahi club, Yonamine joined the Yomiuri Giants in 1951. An outfielder, Yonamine won three batting titles and was selected the Most Valuable Player of the Central League in ’57. In ’61, the native of Maui, Hawaii, moved to the Chunichi Dragons.
The left-handed Yonamine was a career .311 hitter in 1,219 games, retiring after the 1962 season. A seven-time Best Nine award winner, he had 1,337 hits, including 238 doubles, and 482 RBIs. He batted .300 or better in each of his first seven seasons in Japan, including a career-high .361 in 1954.
After his playing career, Yonamine served as a coach or manager with six teams over 26 seasons: the Dragons, Giants, Seibu Lions, Lotte Orions, Nippon Ham Fighters and Nankai Hawks.
Yonamine’s most significant moment as a skipper came in 1974, when he led the Dragons to the Central League pennant. Chunichi put a stop to the vaunted Giants’ nine consecutive championships (1965-73).
Yonamine, who was also known as Kaname Yonamine in Japan, was inducted into the Japanese baseball Hall of Fame in ’94.
In addition to his significant achievements as a player and mentor, Yonamine made a lasting impression on one of the game’s all-time greats.
“The first autograph I got was from Mr. Yonamine. He taught me about the game of baseball when I entered the pro league, and he was like my mentor,” said Sadaharu Oh, Yonamine’s former teammate with the Giants, in a statement released on Tuesday. “He was such a gentle man and it’s a shame that I have to part from him this way.”