Wally Yonamine, the first Japanese-American to play baseball in Japan after World War 2, died of complications from cancer on Monday. He was 85.
Two years ago, I was fortunate enough to go to a book reading/signing at the Tokyo American Club, when Rob Fitts's Wally Yonamine biography came out. Rob and Wally were a two-man show, with Rob playing the straight man and answering questions about the book, and reading a scene from the book, and Wally sitting there with a big smile on his face, entertaining the crowd with stories about his life.
Wally told many stories that day, about dealing with the grim postwar Japan, about bringing his American football and baseball play style to Japanese baseball, about Hiroshima Carp fans lying in front of the bus and throwing things at him in the outfield, and about a foggy game at Koshien where he faked catching a fly to centerfield that really bounced off the fence, and so on. All of these stories are in the book, but getting to hear them straight from the man himself made them that much more real and amusing.
I feel really lucky that I got to meet him, even if only for a few minutes that afternoon. He was a Japanese Baseball Hall of Famer but also just a real class guy; by the sheer number of people gathered at the Tokyo American Club that day, he clearly had a very full life with a huge circle of family and friends, both in Tokyo and back in Hawaii. I felt a little bit nervous as a complete stranger (I think many of the people there knew Wally through his family or his church, and it was my first time meeting Rob, too) but when I went up to ask him to sign my book and told him how much I enjoyed his speech, he was very friendly and kind.
Wally making a point in one of his stories.
Rob's on the left, Wally's on the right, I'm in the back!
I never reviewed the Yonamine biography here because I got sidetracked from the blog that winter when my father died of cancer. Now I feel really bad about that. Really, if you want to know more about Wally, and certainly if you want to know more about the 1950's era of baseball in Japan, I recommend reading the book. There were some typoes in the first edition that I think were fixed for a second printing, because other than that, it's a pretty solid account of the 1950's Giants, the 1970's Dragons, and the state of postwar Japan, as well as Hawaii in those days. There really aren't nearly enough accounts in English of Japanese baseball, especially historical; this and Rob's other book Remembering Japanese Baseball are both a good read both for stories about Wally and stories about the era.
It's never easy to be a foreigner in the world of Japanese baseball, but certainly, it's nowhere near as difficult as it must have been right after the war, so you have to respect and admire him for what he accomplished, and for being who he was and enabling so many other foreigners to play baseball in Japan, and bringing the two worlds closer together.
You can also read a few other obituaries of Yonamine here, here, here.