I couldn’t think of a catchy title for this post, there’s so much more to this man and the way I feel about his passing that I think focusing on an interesting tagline would detract from the comments I could make here.
The news of Wally Yonamine’s passing on Monday, Feb 28 at the age of 85 after a long battle with Prostate cancer definitely brought my Spring Training elation to a unique numbing point. Wally was and always will be one of my favorite baseball players of all time, a guy who loved the game, broke a significant barrier in the Japanese world of the sport (a barrier that opened doors for just as many folks worldwide as the barrier in the states broken by Jackie Robinson), and beyond all that, embraced the opportunity to single-handedly change the behavior of an entire nation and ultimately, the way that nation played and cherished the great American game of Baseball, in a way that Americans can truly appreciate.
You don’t have to have seen him in a game to admire his gutsy attitude and his passion for baseball, you only need to read "Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball” by Robert Fitts to understand just about any aspect of his career and personal life. I had always admired him deeply, but I felt that my relationship with his essence was absolutely sealed when I read this fantastic book.
(You should also read Fitts’ excellent “Remembering Japanese Baseball: The Oral History of the Game” which features lengthy discussions with Yonamine, and was the catalyst for the Yonamine book itself)
Wally was born Kaname Yonamine in Hawaii in 1925, even though he was of primarily Japanese ancestry this still made him a foreigner to the Japanese, a Nisei (second generation) in their own terms. The stoic xenophobia of the Japanese restricted him from being considered a countryman by heritage. He was a stunning athlete from a very young age, with considerable skill and ability in Football – in fact, he was drafted and signed by the San Francisco Giants in the late 40s and played on their squad in 1947. It was by principle that he ended up playing baseball to mitigate his risk and recovery from Football injury, and by chance that his success in baseball eventually led to his signing by the Yomiuri Giants as the first American to play professional baseball in Japan since World War II.
When you consider the duality of this situation, the true enigma of Wally’s achievement shines through. As a Japanese American in the late-40s, he was the subject of suspicion due to the resilience of wartime distrust of these people. On the other side of the coin, derision prevailed when he existed as an interloper into the starch-encrusted traditional and nationalistic game of Japanese Baseball during the very same period of time. There was no win-win for Wally, the only thing he had to hold on to…was WIN.
His achievements in NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) not only set a personal standard he consistently set out to improve upon, but also showcased a new style of playing to the Japanese…yes, an American style of playing. He was an American, and was unique in not accepting but in joyfully professing this trait.
Wally’s premise as a player and his attitude towards the game – and aggressiveness on the field – turned heads in Japan to the point of enabling (not forcing) the traditional pundits of the game to heed and ultimately adopt his style and love of the game over a brief period of time. You see, this was one person who changed the way an entire nation enjoyed, as well as played, the American game of Baseball. Just think what a Wally Yonamine could do today, here, to break the ice that has hardened so many hearts to the National Pastime. A guy who enters the arena with no love, and proves everything you think about him, his people, and the game he plays with a smile and an effective hook slide.
Wally made it possible for players from other countries, not just America, to enter and share the unique karma that is Japanese Baseball. Matt Murton, who broke Ichiro Suzuki’s single season record for hits in 2010, would have never been afforded that opportunity if Wally hadn’t pushed that door open in the manner that he did. Here is where you consider the similar actions of Jackie Robinson, who never blew his cool, thus improving the electricity and opportunities of Baseball in the U.S.
Wally was also a practicing Catholic, again in a country that systematically rejects this type of Christian faith (and Christian faith as a whole). Always flashing that smile, Yonamine flew the Baseball Flag proudly.
It was Japanese Baseball that changed the way I felt about American Baseball many years ago, it was Wally Yonamine to whom I will always endow the credit for his part in making Japanese Baseball – and American Baseball, too – the institution I love so much today.
Thanks, Wally…you are in a much better place today, and shagging fly balls with the best of the best. It’s our personal pain in missing your presence in our lives here that will someday translate into the benefits of our lives everlasting. Rest in peace, champ!