June 1, 2023

Wally Yonamine and the Integration of Japanese Baseball

September 16, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

A rock whizzed by Wally Yonamine’s head. Jeers and taunts followed. “Yankee Go Home!” “Go Back to Hawaii!” Some yelled insults in Japanese, while a few yelled the only English they knew, “One, Two, Three!” The abuse had begun the minute Wally took his position in Koshien Stadium’s left field. The home-town Hanshin Tiger fans have always hated the Yomiuri Giants, but as the first new American to play pro ball in Japan since the end of World War II, Yonamine received special attention. Wally ignored the fans and concentrated on the game. From time to time, objects shot from the left field bleachers toward him, but none found its mark. Yonamine knew that he could not react.

Instead, he channeled his anger into the game, smacking a double and triple, and running the bases with abandon. As the Giants poured on the runs, the crowd grew more belligerent. Late in the game, the stadium lost power. Yonamine stumbled in the blackness toward the infield but the lights soon returned. Arriving back at his position, he starred down at a large rock jutting from the place he had been moments before. Had he not moved, the projectile would have hit him and the attempt to integrate Japanese baseball might have failed.

Ethnic pioneers are among the most revered sports heroes. And rightly so. These individuals are required to excel under extreme pressure—often battling the bigotry of teammates as well as hostile fans. They have to endure taunts and other injustices without comment as their behavior both on and off the field must be exemplary. Many ethnic pioneers become symbols—heroes to their ethnic groups embodying pride, hope, and sometimes assimilation. To their detractors, however, they represent unwanted cultural change and are the targets of abuse.

Wally Yonamine’s integration of Japanese baseball in 1951 seems unusual to Americans as it lacks a racial element. Yonamine was ethnically Japanese—the son of an Okinawan immigrant and a Japanese-American. Yet, the Japanese viewed him as an outsider—a gaijin—as he was brought up in the country of their recent enemy.

Yonamine was not the first American to play Japanese professional baseball. Seven Yanks participated in the inaugural 1936 season and the following year Harris McGalliard captured the MVP Award. In all, nineteen Americans served on Japanese teams before 1941. Most left prior to World War II, but some Japanese-Americans opted to stay in their new home throughout the conflict.

Following the war, the occupational forces restarted pro ball to help raise Japanese morale. Several Nisei who had remained in Japan continued to play during the occupation, but no new American players of consequence joined the league. Both Japanese and occupying officials felt that it was too soon to introduce an American player. Pro ball grew in popularity and in 1950 split into two leagues—the Central and Pacific—with the winners of each meeting in the Japan Series.

In December 1950, Matsutaro Shoriki, the owner of the Yomiuri Giants and father of Japanese professional baseball, summoned his advisors to his office. Shoriki got directly to the point. The first Japan Series had just been completed and his Giants had not reached the championship. Worse still, the Giants had finished in third place in the newly formed Central League.

“What can we do to bring the Giants back to the championship?” Shoriki asked. Then, without waiting for an answer he added, “Can we bring somebody in from the United States?” His advisors started. Shoriki had wanted to create an all-Japanese team strong enough to compete with the Major Leaguers. Importing an American ballplayer would undermine this plan. Seeing their surprise, Shoriki added, “We need some help to get us back on the winning track. If I have to bring in a player from the United States, then I’ll do so.”

Cappy Harada, a Californian Nisei who had served in the occupation force before becoming an advisor for the Giants, answered. “If we bring a Caucasian ballplayer, he might encounter problems due to the language barrier, living conditions and different culture. It might be better to get a Nisei. Someone who can speak some Japanese, knows Japanese culture, and can also play baseball at the Major League level. I know of a fellow named Wally Yonamine, who is in the San Francisco Seals organization. He would be perfect.”

The three men understood the challenges this player would face. Living conditions in 1951 were harsh by American standards. High quality food was difficult to obtain and even fuel for heat was scarce. Would this player be able to adapt to the rugged lifestyle? Japanese were also distrustful of Nisei. Much of the population viewed them as traitors for not joining their mother country during the war. Furthermore, many of the Giants’ stars were war veterans. Would they accept an American as a teammate? The three executives knew that it would take a special man to succeed.

Wally Yonamine was the ideal candidate to integrate Japanese baseball. He was modest, friendly and most important had already integrated a professional sport. Born in Maui in 1925, Yonamine grew up in poverty on a sugar plantation. His childhood taught him how to overcome adversity, and gave him the drive to succeed. Wally watched his father toil from dawn to dusk, six days a week, for just $60 a month. As a teenager, Wally spent his summers in the fields, cutting cane with a machete. The plant’s leaves are stiff with saw-tooth edges and if drawn at the wrong angle can slice through skin leaving a deep gash. To protect themselves, cane cutters wore heavy clothes and hats. Although this shielded them from the plant, it made the work nearly unbearable and led to heat exhaustion. “I used to hate that job,” Wally remembers. “That’s where my drive to always try my best and never give up came from. I never wanted to work in the cane fields again.”

Yonamine learned to play football with a Carnation cream corn can covered with newspaper on the beaches of Maui and became a high school superstar. After two years in the Army, he declined an offer from the Pittsburg Steelers as well as several college scholarships before signing with the San Francisco 49ers in 1947. Only a year earlier, the Japanese American population had returned from the internment camps. As many felt it crucial to assimilate and stress their American identity, Yonamine became a symbol that Japanese-Americans could succeed in mainstream society.

In 1947 anti-Japanese feelings still ran high across the U.S. and often this bigotry was directed towards Nisei. Although Yonamine’s 49er teammates were friendly, his opponents were ruthless. When the opposition gang-tackled him, they would punch, kick, and pinch. Wally never complained to his teammates, coach, or the press about the abuse as he didn’t want to draw negative attention to himself or the Japanese-American community.

Yonamine spent most of the ’47 season as a reserve. 1948, he hoped, would be his chance to break into the starting lineup. But, after fulfilling his goal of becoming a professional football player, a baseball injury shattered his dream.

Wally played amateur baseball during the spring and summer to stay in shape for football. During a July exhibition game, he broke his left hand sliding into second base. Two weeks later, when he arrived at the 49ers training camp with arm in cast, the 49ers annulled his contract. For two years, Yonamine played football for the Hawaii Warriors and semi-pro baseball for the Hawaii Asahi until Lefty O’Doul invited him to the San Francisco Seals’ 1950 spring camp. Wally impressed O’Doul and signed with the Salt Lake City Bees. He excelled in professional baseball, leading the Bees in batting average and finishing second in the Frontier League in hits and stolen bases. After the season, O’Doul, who was advising the Yomiuri Giants, suggested that Yonamine continue his career in Japan to introduce them to American-style baseball.

Two weeks into the ’51 season, Yomiuri offered Wally a contract. Wally left for Tokyo at once but a final obstacle remained. Since the Allied Occupational forces had been using baseball to boost morale and forge closer ties between the U. S. and Japan, signing Yonamine was an important event. Giants players were in the spotlight with thousands of fans and dozens of reporters scrutinizing their behavior both on and off the field. The inclusion of the right American could help U.S.-Japanese relations, but the wrong player could be disastrous. If the player was perceived as arrogant or disrespectful, the popularity of the Giants could help fuel anti-American sentiment. Accordingly, before Yonamine’s contract could be finalized, the SCAP (Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers) needed to give his approval
Given Yonamine’s genial personality, his approval should have been a quick decision. SCAP, however, was in flux. On April 11, President Truman had relieved Douglas McArthur and in his place appointed Matthew B. Ridgway. In the midst of the Korean War and with plans to strengthen Japan’s security against the threat of communism, the new commander was occupied. Baseball, despite its importance to Japanese morale, was a low priority. It took nearly six weeks until the SCAP approved the contract. At last, on June 19th, Yonamine could play.

Wally began his first game on the bench. Americans often assumed that the smaller Japanese would play a fast game emphasizing speed. But this was not the case. The game was painfully slow. Players strolled to and from their positions. Even when the ball was in play, players rarely hustled. The Japanese seldom ran out ground balls, but jogged to first, putting no pressure on the defense. When sacrificing, batters did not bother to run toward first base. On the base paths, they rarely took an extra base, and instead of breaking up double plays, runners would politely turn into the outfield, allowing the pivot man to throw unmolested. Outfielders played sinking liners on a hop, rather than risking a diving catch.

Wally Yonamine is often called the man who changed Japanese baseball. This transformation began with his first at bat. In the seventh inning after the first two Giants reached base, Wally was sent in to bunt. Instead of laying down a sacrifice and remaining at the plate as a Japanese would, Yonamine bunted down the third base line and streaked toward first. By the time the surprised defenders reached the ball, Wally was safe with a single.

Wally introduced another element of American baseball the following day as he ran to his position in left field each inning and sprinted back to the dugout, reaching the bench before several of the Giants infielders. Impressed with his hustle, the crowd cheered. His new teammates were less pleased as they believed the American was trying to show them up. Wally reached base twice, slamming a double and a single, and swiped two bases easily. By the end of the 8-3 win, Yonamine’s aggressive style had begun to win over his teammates. A few days later, however, Wally’s American-style baseball stunned both the crowd and players.

Yonamine led off first base as the batter hit an easy grounder to short. The second baseman received the throw, pivoted and prepared to throw to first. To his surprise, there was Yonamine, a few yards away, bearing down at him at full speed! The Hawaiian had not turned into right field as a Japanese would. Instead, the former San Francisco running back was about to knock him flat. Wally slid hard, spikes high toward the second baseman’s pivot leg. The second baseman panicked and jumped out of the way, still clutching the ball. The crowd was stunned. They had never seen such a dirty play.

The Giants players and fans soon became accustomed to Wally’s aggressive style. Second baseman Shigeru Chiba commented that Yonamine’s “dynamic speed with his weight was terrifying. The speed of a Japanese running can be likened to a squirrel, but Wally was different, nothing cute like a squirrel. He reminded us of a leopard or a tiger. He didn’t run with the wind. He charged ahead generating wind.”

On the diamond, Yonamine adapted instantly to Japanese baseball, going 10 for 17 and stealing three bases in his first week. But socially, it was the loneliest week of his life. His new teammates were reluctant to approach him and not being able to speak Japanese, Wally could only converse with his translator. “I got so homesick after a week in Japan that I wanted to go straight back to Hawaii,” Yonamine remembers.

In late July, Yonamine began his first extended road trip in Japan — an experience he would never forget. In Osaka, the team settled in at a rundown traditional inn or ryokan. The sewer system in that area had not been restored after the war so the ryokan lacked flush toilets. Instead, guests used an unsanitary outhouse. Yonamine wrapped his face in towel to fight the stench and charged in and out of the toilet.

At dinner, the players sat on the floor to eat a traditional Japanese meal on low wooden tables. Wally thought the fare both looked and smelled unappetizing. The odor of raw fish and fermented soy beans revolted him and the fatty veal cutlet was particularly unpleasant. He had heard that Japanese used human manure on their fields so, fearing worms, he dared not eat the fresh vegetables. Wally worried that if he declined the meal, or left it uneaten, his teammates might think that he was stuck up. So he forced the food down.

Yonamine soon figured out how to avoid the unsavory meals. At first, he would sit next to a window. As Japanese summers are hot and sticky, the windows were always open. He would pick at his meal and move it around the plate; then, when nobody was looking, he would throw it out the window. Soon, however, he tasted raw eggs served on top of hot rice with Japanese pickles. During road trips, he ate it three meals a day.

The Giants stayed in Osaka for a week, playing several different teams including their long-time rivals the Hanshin Tigers. In one of the first games, Yonamine broke up a double play by going hard into the pivot man. Once again, the slide shocked the crowd, but this time there wasn’t stunned silence. Instead, the crowd started hurling insults at him. Whereas Giants fans loved his hustle and aggressive style of play, opposing fans regarded Yonamine as a dirty player who typified the bullying American occupiers. Late in the final game, a Tigers fan vaulted over the wall surrounding the field and sprinted towards Yonamine. He stopped a few feet away screaming at Wally in Japanese. Security guards removed the intruder and the game continued.

Shaken by the encounter, Wally questioned himself: “Perhaps I am a dirty player. Maybe my style is too aggressive for Japan.” He asked his manager, Shigeru Mizuhara, for advice. Mizuhara, a former star third baseman, had played against Babe Ruth and the Major League All-Stars in 1934 and in over 100 games against Americans during the Yomiuri Giants 1935 U.S. tour. He had seen American baseball and wanted to bring the more aggressive style to Japan. He told Yonamine, “Don’t let the fans bother you. What you did in the States, what you learned there, you do that in Japan.” Wally smiled. He vowed to not hold back and became even more aggressive on the base paths.

Yonamine had been in Japan for about two months and was picking up the language. He had become friends with many of the younger players, but the older players remained distant, some were even cold. At the time, a rigid hierarchy based on seniority dictated Japanese social relations. Younger individuals (known as kohai) had to serve and obey their seniors (senpai). In return, the senpai were expected to guide and use their influence to help their kohai. Under the senpai/kohai system, the older players received many privileges. For example, they entered buses and ate before the younger players. After the games, the team would bathe in a communal tub in the clubhouse. Here too, the kohai had to wait until their seniors finished bathing. By the time the younger players entered, the bath was cold and the water dirty.

As a rookie, Wally ate, roomed, and bathed with the younger Giants. But unlike the other youngsters, Yonamine was a starter. He was also a foreigner and he knew that the rules that bound the Japanese didn’t always apply to him. He was learning which customs he must respect and which he could test. Maybe it was the fan abuse, maybe the oppressive heat of Osaka in the summer, but during the road trip Yonamine had enough of the dirty, cold baths. “I said to myself, I’m going to go in with the old timers,” Yonamine recalls. “So I put my head down and walked into the room. I could see the guys poking each other. I knew they were thinking, “What is this rookie doing in here?” I just got in the tub. I knew that they wanted to tell me to get out, but I was playing everyday and I’m a foreigner, so they wouldn’t say anything to me.”

What seemed like a small action was the first step in a larger process. Wally had asserted himself as one of the regulars but had also challenged the senpai-kohai structure. Strong cultural practices do not collapse instantly, but the club’s rigid social structure began to change. Over the next few years, many of the Giants’ hierarchical traditions would break down.

Returning from Osaka, the Giants played several games in Tokyo before embarking on a road trip to northern Japan. The trek took about fifteen hours by train and the team traveled third class. The seats were uncomfortable wooden benches, making sleeping difficult. Many players slept in the dirty aisles as teammates and passengers stepped over them. Others brought along boards and made rough beds by laying them between two facing benches. Saburo Hirai, the shortstop, found a novel solution. Only 5’5″ and weighing just 132 pounds, Hirai would climb onto the luggage rack to sleep. To protect himself from the swarms of mosquitoes that fed off the passengers, he brought netting and placed it over his perch.

In the August heat, the cars soon became stifling. The players, dressed in their compulsory jackets with neckties, opened the windows. The rushing air brought relief, and another problem. The trains were not the modern diesel or electric models, but old-fashioned steam engines run on coal. The open windows drew in the soot and soon the fine black dust covered the players, benches, and luggage.

Once north, the team stayed at ryokan, which, in Wally’s opinion, served more inedible fare. The long train rides and the poor food were taking a toll on Yonamine. He thought about returning to Hawaii, but didn’t want to return a failure. Mizuhara, recognizing Wally’s discomfort, offered him a second-class ticket, where he would have his own seat. “I was tempted,” Yonamine recalls, “but … one thing I had learned from being the new guy—at San Francisco and Salt Lake—was that your teammates had to respect you before they’d accept you. I wanted to be accepted so I tried to do everything the way they did.”

During the road trip, Yonamine got to know his teammates better and several of the veterans, impressed with both his ability and genial personality, began to accept him. But the team’s captain, Tetsuharu Kawakami, remained hostile. Known as “The God of Batting,” Kawakami was Japan’s greatest player. Several American writers have labeled Kawakami a nationalist and have attributed his dislike of Yonamine to a general hatred of Americans and Nisei. Former teammates, however, emphatically state that this is incorrect. The dislike was personal and directed solely at Wally. As Yonamine continued to excel on the diamond and draw fans to the ballparks, Kawakami’s dislike of the Hawaiian grew. The God of Batting jealously guarded his position as Japan’s most popular player and resented Yonamine upstaging him. Over time, the rivalry would increase and would influence Japanese baseball for decades.

With Mizuhara’s blessing, Yonamine continued to play hard—diving for balls in the outfield, bowling over opponents on the bath paths, and stealing bases with abandon. On September 11th against the Swallows, Wally pulled off one of the greatest heists in the history of baseball on either side of the Pacific, stealing home in the sixth inning and all three bases in the seventh inning. It was the first time in the history of Japanese ball that anyone had stolen home twice in one game, or all three bags in one inning.

With Yonamine in the lineup, the ’51 Giants jelled into one of the best teams in the history of Japanese ball, winning 81 percent of their games. Wally hit .354, stole 26 bases, and reached base in 45 of his 54 games. After Yomiuri won the Japan Series, veteran second baseman Shigeru Chiba pulled Yonamine aside, “Wally, I was first opposed to having a foreign player on the team. I didn’t want to grip hands with a player from the victor nation. As a whole, we don’t like Nisei, but you did everything we did. You slept with us. You ate the food. You didn’t grumble. You’re one good Nisei. So go back to Hawaii, get married, and bring your wife. I’ll back you up 100% from here on in.”

Wally took Chiba’s advice and remained in Japanese baseball for 35 more years as a player, coach and manager. He captured three batting titles, the 1957 MVP Award, seven straight Best Nine awards (given to the top player at each position), a Manager of the Year Award, and was elected to the Japan Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994. When he retired as a player in 1962, his .311 career batting average was the second best in the history of Japanese ball.

American writers often call Wally Yonamine “the Jackie Robinson of Japan.” Like Robinson, Yonamine was a pioneer in breaking down ethnic barriers. Both had to endure hostile fans without complaint and win over their fellow ball players. If they failed either on or off the field, other members of their ethnic groups would not receive offers to play. Both were also former football players who played baseball aggressively and helped change the game. Wally introduced the drag bunt and the hook slide to Japan. His tactics on the base paths, in the batter’s box, and in the outfield unraveled the passive Japanese approach. Players and fans alike realized the need for a higher level of play.

After the ’51 season, other Japanese teams began signing Americans. The following year, a dozen joined the league. Thirteen more came over in ’53. Most were Hawaiian Nisei but several African-Americans and Caucasians also joined. They integrated smoothly, without recorded protest.

To date, over 700 North and South Americans have followed in Wally Yonamine’s footsteps.


Rob Fitts has published numerous articles and three books on the topic of Japanese baseball. The first, Remembering Japanese Baseball: An Oral History of the Game, won the 2005 SABR/Sporting News Award for Best Baseball Research. His second book, Wally Yonamime: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball, is a biography of the first American to play professional baseball in Japan after World War II. Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan (forthcoming early in 2012) is the story of the attempt to reconcile the United States and Japan through the tour of Major League all-stars in 1934 and the efforts of fanatical ultra-nationalists to drive the nations apart. The story involves international diplomacy, espionage, attempted murder, and, of course, baseball. More of his work can be found here.


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