OBITUARY: Wally Yonamine

TOKYO, Japan - File photo taken in an unknown location in February 1959 shows Wally Yonamine, then outfielder for the Yomiuri Giants professional baseball club. Yonamine, the first foreigner to play professional baseball in Japan after World War II, died in Honolulu on Feb. 28, 2011, aged 85 after battling prostate cancer. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) — Former Yomiuri Giants and Chunichi Dragons outfielder Wally Yonamine, the first foreigner to play professional baseball in Japan after World War II, died Feb. 28, 2011 in Honolulu after battling prostate cancer, his family said. He was 85.

A former multisport second generation Japanese American who played pro football for the San Francisco 49ers in 1947, in 12 games (three starts), he rushed for 74 yards on 19 carries, caught three passes for 40 yards and recorded one interception for a 20-yard return.

Yonamine joined Yomiuri in 1951 after playing in the U.S. minor leagues.

Noted for his flexible batting style and aggressive baserunning, Yonamine was a three-time batting champion and was the Central League’s MVP in 1957. He moved to Chunichi in 1961.

TOKYO, Japan - File photo taken in October 1974 shows Wally Yonamine (C), then manager of the Chunichi Dragons professional baseball club, being tossed in the air by Dragons players and fans after the club won the Central League championship at the former Chunichi Stadium in Nagoya. (Kyodo)

Known in Japan as Kaname Yonamine, he was also a seven-time Best Nine award winner and had a career 82 home runs, 482 RBIs with a .311 batting average in 1,219 games.

After retiring as an active player, Yonamine joined the coaching staff at the Lotte Orions (now Lotte Marines) before going on to become manager of the Dragons and in 1974 helped the team win their first pennant in 20-years.

He was inducted to the Japanese Hall of Fame in 1994 for his achievements during his 12-year career.


TOKYO, Japan - Former Yomiuri Giants and Chunichi Dragons outfielder Wally Yonamine throws the ceremonial first pitch at a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California, in April 2004. (Kyodo)



“A very sad day to lose our Nisei ‘Jim Thorpe’ … Wally endured so much hardship and sacrifice inside and outside the lines of baseball in Japan. He was determined to succeed so other Americans would be accepted as well. Having miso soup three times a day, traveling in third class trains, being pelted with coins, batteries and hearing “go home gaijin” from the fans could not have been fun for the Yonamine family. I will always be inspired by the story of Wally walking down the tunnel with his Tokyo Giants teammates and seeing this kid hanging down from the wall holding his ball for anyone to sign. Wally was the only one that took the time to sign it. The kid was Sadaharu Oh and they were both inducted into the Japan Hall of Fame the same year. Getting drafted straight out of high school to the 49ers and playing both ways … San Francisco Seals, Salt Lake City Bees, Tokyo Giants, Chunichi Dragons… Wally should have played in MLB much like Sadaharu Oh; they would have been incredible … Wally was so humble and never forgot the Hosoda family that fed him Japanese meals and treats when he was with the 49ers.”

—     Kerry Yo Nakagawa, director, Nisei Baseball Research Project and author of “Through a Diamond: 100 Years of Japanese American Baseball”


“One day, I was surprised by an unknown caller on the telephone. Wally Yonamine reached out to me and asked that I present him into the Japanese American Sports Hall of Fame, in 2002. That phone call introduced me to a wonderful new friend and a man that is very important in 49ers history, the 49ers’ first Asian American player. Wally will be sadly missed by me and those with a love of 49ers history.”

—     Dr. John York, Owner and Co-Chairman, San Francisco 49ers


“Wally was a hero before we really had any heroes in our Japanese American community. A couple of years prior to him being drafted by the San Francisco 49ers, Japanese Americans were still in the deserts of America behind barbed wire fences. Wally gave our community something to be excited and proud about as our community began to rebuild their lives again after WWII. Wally was not only my hero but a dear friend.”

—     Paul Osaki, Executive Director, Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California


  1. In a way, Wally Yonamine was my first baseball hero between the late 40’s to early 60’s. I used to watch him play against the Tigers at Koshien Stadium quite often then. There were two other Nisei players also I remember whom Wally probably knew very well : Satoshi “Fibber” Hirayama (San Jose) of the Hiroshima Carp and Wally’s teammate Andy Miyamoto (Hawaii). Wally and Andy were the pre-Mantle-Maris combo of the Tokyo Giants. Wally was the first post-war expatriate to play in Japan, if I remember it correctly.

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