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New book on pioneer Yonamine a must-read

by Wayne Graczyk

There are a couple of new baseball books on the scene. One about the life of a foreigner who spent almost four decades in Japanese baseball, and the other a collection of heart-warming tributes by some well-known former players to those who convinced them not to give up chasing the dream of becoming a major leaguer.

“Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball” tells the story of the first post-World War II foreign player in Japan, the son of Hawaii, former NFL running back with the San Francisco 49ers who joined the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants in 1951. He went on to play 10 seasons with the Giants and two with the Chunichi Dragons before retiring after the 1962 season.

Yonamine stayed in Japanese baseball, going on to coach or manage with six teams: the Dragons and Giants, the Lotte Orions, Nankai Hawks, Seibu Lions and Nippon Ham Fighters. He finally retired in 1988 after 37 years in uniform.

Rob Fitts, Japanese baseball aficionado, card dealer and author of “Remembering Japanese Baseball: An Oral History of the Game,” wrote the Yonamine book.

He takes us through the years, beginning in 1950, when baseball bridge-builder Cappy Harada and then-Yomiuri Giants owner Matsutaro Shoriki collaborated to get Wally signed to a contract to play for the Giants.

We learn how Yonamine, known as “the Jackie Robinson of Japan,” changed Japanese baseball with an aggressive style of play, demonstrating hustle, baserunning skills, hard sliding, precision bunting and stellar defense, and how he opened the door for other Nisei from Hawaii and, eventually, Americans from the U.S. mainland, to play ball in Japan.

Of special interest to me are the recollections of the way things were back in the 1950s when Japan was still under U.S. Occupation, the country continuing to recover from wartime devastation, and Yonamine was breaking into Japanese baseball just four years after Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke the major league color barrier.

This was prior to the age of jet aircraft and long before Shinkansen service was inaugurated. It was not possible to fly from Tokyo to Fukuoka in 90 minutes or take a bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka in less than three hours. Travel must have been brutal.

Yonamine would later go on to lead Japan’s Central League in batting three times, and was named the CL MVP in 1957 while playing for the Giants.

Ironically, it was Wally who, as manager of the Dragons in 1974, stopped the Giants’ streak of nine consecutive (1965-73) league pennant victories and Japan Series championships.

Now 83, Yonamine has become almost as much of a beloved figure in Japan as he is in Hawaii, having established with wife Jane, his pearl shop business in the Roppongi district of Tokyo.

I got to know Wally in 1977 while he was still managing the Dragons, but wish I had seen him play 25 years earlier. Reading this biography is the next best thing.

Fitts leaves no stories untold about Yonamine’s life in this excellent book, published by the University of Nebraska Press, and Rob and Wally plan a book-signing appearance and Q&A session in Tokyo in November. When they decide on the date and venue, we’ll let you know about it right here in the BB-I.

Meanwhile, check out www.wallyyonamine.com for more about the man who changed Japanese baseball.

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“Dugout Wisdom,” another new volume, is a compilation of brief stories of inspiration and “life lessons from baseball” by former major league players, managers, coaches and front office executives.

Compiled by sports marketing man Dan Migala, the book contains a series of personal experiences, one to three pages in length, with testimony about how each writer was encouraged or motivated by a parent, teammate or coach.

Included are the thoughts of Sparky Anderson, George Brett, Jim Bunning, Rod Carew, Orlando Cepeda, Bob Feller, Whitey Ford, Goose Gossage, Ron Guidry, Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew, Tony La Russa, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Kirby Puckett, Frank Robinson, Nolan Ryan, Duke Snider and Billy Williams.

Know an aspiring ballplayer or other athlete who needs a shot of self-confidence?

Give them a copy of “Dugout Wisdom.”

The book was referred to me by Rodney Pedraza, former relief pitcher with the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks and Yomiuri Giants who came here as a so-so starting pitcher and accidentally became one of the best closers Japanese baseball has ever known.

You can get more information by visiting www.dugoutwisdom.com.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com