Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The player you may never have heard of

He was called the "Nisei Jackie Robinson", the first American-born baseball player to play in Japan's professional leagues. He also, briefly, played football with the San Francisco 49ers in the late 40's. However, you'd be hard pressed to find any hardcore baseball or football collector that has heard of Wally Yonamine, who passed away Monday at 85.

Born and raised in Hawaii, Yonamine brought the American style of baseball to Japan in the late 40's & early 50's, helping to foster a mending of fences between the US & Japan following World War II. While playing for the Chunichi Dragons & Yomuiri Giants, Yonamine was a 7-time All-Star, and was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994. As late as 2008, Yonamine was still on the diamond as a coach and part-time player at the age of 83.

After his playing career had initially ended, Yonamine opened a pearl shop in Tokyo, with a branch in Los Angeles, which his children operated.

As Jackie Robinson became celebrated for shattering the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Yonamine similarly had opened doors for American players to continue their careers overseas. To this day, over 1,000 American ballplayers have played in Japan, some becoming far more successful than they were in the US. But while Robinson is in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Yonamine isn't. Given the global impact baseball has had since Yonamine first played in Japan, shouldn't he be given a place in our Hall of Fame, too? I think so.

Rest in peace, Wally.

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