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Written by Jim Rednour   
Sunday, 28 February 2010
Wally Yonamine inspired a generation of Japanese athletes; including a young Sadaharu Oh

There’s no doubt that Sadaharu Oh “The Japanese Babe Ruth” was – and continues to be – one of the most influential figures in Japanese baseball history. But what most people don’t know is he was following in the footsteps of a man known to many as the Jackie Robinson of Japanese Baseball: Wally Yonamine.

According to a new book entitled “Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball” featured in Baseball Daily Digest , a young Sadaharu Oh personally met and was inspired by the talent and fortitude that Yonamine exhibited throughout his career playing professional baseball in Japan…as well as the first pacific basin player to succeed in American football playing in the fledgling NFL with the San Francisco 49ers. For details, visit http://wallyyonamine.com/yonaminephoto.htm.

Hawaiian-boarn Wally Yonamine was actually a pioneer in two countries, in America and Japan. The first NFL player of Asian descent and the first American player in postwar Japanese baseball. His tough-edged flair for the game changed how Japanese players approached the game, while his smiling nature smoothed over racial divisions, earning him the nickname “The Jackie Robinson of Japanese Baseball.”

From left: Special attendees at the Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball" book release event were Japan’s Baseball Commissioner Ryozo Kato, Shigeo Nagashima, Sadaharu Oh, Shigeru Sugishita, and Wally Yonamine

Check out "Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball", by Robert K. Fitts, for yourself. It’s a marvelous piece of baseball history writing, authored by the 2005 Sporting News-SABR-award winner Fitts. In it you will read how Yonamine was a star high-school halfback, when football was less specialized, played offense and defense, and could run, pass, kick, and return kicks. This talent would lead to a $14,000 contract from the San Francisco 49ers in 1947, right out of high school. A brand-new NFL team, the 49ers recognized Yonamine’s talent as well as his appeal to Asian-American fans in the community. But he played little his rookie season, often seeming intimidated by the big crowds (and racist catcalls) and never found a starting spot.

In the offseason, Yonamine kept in shape playing semi-pro baseball in Hawaii, where his speed, athleticism and hustle made up for his raw skills. His Japanese-American team emphasized the small-ball tactics that would allow them to succeed against their bigger, stronger rivals.

Yonamine learned all he could; these techniques and the exposure he had with the team would change the face of sports on two continents.

Yonamine had learned the small-ball techniques and merciless American game, however, and didn’t have any of these preconceptions. On his first sac bunt, he sped down the line, surprising the third baseman so much that he didn’t even throw. The opposing players were shocked, but the Yomiuri fans loved it. When Yonamine broke up a double play, the crowd again went wild, while the opposition grumbled at what they saw as rough play. But soon every Japanese player was adopting these Western hustling techniques.

Yonamine would go on to blaze a trail that many other Americans followed, and his tactical revolution would pave the way for the Asian Invasion begun by Ichiro Suzuki. Without the influence of Yonamine, Japanese players would have never had the skills to succeed in MLB.

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