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Wally Kaname Yonamine, first American to play pro baseball in Japan, dies at 85

YonamineWally Kaname Yonamine, the first American to play professional baseball in Japan after World War II and a former running back with the San Francisco 49ers, has died. He was 85.

Yonamine died Monday night at a Honolulu retirement home after a bout with prostate cancer, said his son, Paul.

He was an outfielder known as the "Nisei Jackie Robinson" for breaking into Japanese baseball and building ties between the countries in a highly sensitive period after World War II. Facing a language barrier, he was sometimes met with hostility, including rock throwing, for being an American and for his aggressive style of play.

Yonamine, who was born in Maui, is considered one of the greatest athletes to come out of Hawaii.

He played pro football for the 49ers in their second season in 1947, three years before the team joined the National Football League. Yonamine, who signed a two-year deal worth $14,000, is believed to be the first player of Japanese ancestry to play pro football. But he was released after one season after an injury.

"He was an outsider with the 49ers and he moved to Japan and became an outsider for the opposite reason — because he was American as opposed to being Asian," said Robert K. Fitts, who wrote the 2008 biography "Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball."

He returned to baseball and played in the Pacific Coast League before heading to Japan at the age of 26 in 1951. Yonamine played for the Yomiuri Giants and the Chunichi Dragons, helping transform how the game was played in Japan.

"Wally is credited with introducing American-style baseball, a hard-nosed Pete Rose-style of baseball to Japan," Fitts said. "The change wasn't overnight. He was very unpopular at first. He was really booed and had rocks thrown at him. A lot of that was his play and not because he was an American. But the players saw quickly that was the way to win."

With a .311 career batting average, he was an 11-time All-Star, won three batting titles and was the 1957 Central League MVP.

In 1954, Yonamine became the first foreigner to win the Central League batting crown with a .361 average. He also led the league in hits, doubles and runs scored. Several years later, Yonamine became the first foreign manager to win the Central League title as his Dragons defeated his former team the Giants.

--Associated Press

 Photo: Wally Kaname Yonamine in 1959. Credit: AP Photo/Kyodo News

 
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