There are many candidates… Buster Crabbe, Gerry Lopez, the legendary Duke Kahanamoku… and several other worthy athletes. For my money, the greatest athlete in the history of Hawaii is… the man from Maui, Wally Yonamine, the amazing center fielder for Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants.
He was born Kaname Yonamine in 1925 in Olawalu, a small community just down the road from Lahaina. As a youngster, he played all sports, especially football and baseball. He started high school at Lahainaluna, but his running back exploits on the gridiron quickly got the attention of the Honolulu coaches. Soon, he found himself on the Farrington High School team, winning the championship in 1944. At the time, he legally adopted the name “Wallace” (from the first name of a former territorial governor of Hawaii, Wallace Farrington). Wally was then drafted into the U. S. Army, where he played football, baseball and basketball.
Lefty O'doul was elected to the Japanese Hall of Fame for his contributions to Japanese baseball. He played 11 years in the major leagues and was a manager in the Pacific Coast League for 23 years. O'Doul made more than 20 trips to Japan as a player, coach, adviser and ambassador.
Upon his release from the Army, Wally was faced with a choice–go to Ohio State on a football scholarship, or sign with the San Francisco 49’ers as a running back. He signed with the 49’ers, and played the 1947 season with them. He promptly broke his wrist playing baseball in the off-season, and did not rejoin the 49’ers. When his wrist healed, he tried out for pro baseball. His baseball talents were immediately noticed by the legendary Lefty O’Doul, a former National League batting champion, who had been instrumental in promoting the professional game in Japan. In the 1930s, he guided teams of American Major League Stars to Japan on barnstorming tours. O’Doul was now the manager of the San Francisco Seals. He signed Yonamine and sent him to the Salt Lake City Bees, where Wally did well. One of O’Doul’s contacts was Matsutaro Shoriki, owner of the Yomiuri Giants, the premier professional franchise in Japan. A deal was worked out, and, in 1951, Wally Yonamine found himself the starting center fielder of the Giants (or, “Kyojin,” as they are called in Japan).
Wally Yonamine was the first Japanese-American to play for an NFL franchise and the first American to play professional baseball in Japan after World War II.
Yonamine was a gifted athlete. He was a great left-handed contact hitter, reminiscent of the versatile Max Carey and his approach to hitting. Yonamine was also like Carey in that he was a Gold Glove-level defender, and a very aggressive base runner. In fact, Yonamine changed Japanese pro baseball forever, when he started thrilling crowds by stealing third base and home. Before Wally, this was not a part of the Japanese style of play. Yonamine stole home 11 times in his career, a record for Japan’s major leagues.
He played from 1951 to 1962 and propelled the Giants to 4 Japan Series championships, while winning 3 batting titles, and the MVP in 1957. Yonamine was an All-Star for 11 years, and was on the Best Nine (like a post-season All-Star selection) 7 times. He was elected to the Japan Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994, and is still the only American citizen inducted as a player.
Fans who saw him play still talk about how he always hustled, how he would fearlessly break up double plays, how he would induce balks from pitchers when taking base running leads, turn bunts into doubles, doubles into triples, and dive and make impossible catches. And, there was his plate coverage and batting eye–he once fouled off 16 pitches in one at-bat–and got a base hit. His astounding bat control could seemingly place hits on command.
Yonamine is safe at home with a hard slide in Game 1 of the 1951 Japan Series. The Giants went on to win the series (4-1) over the Nankai Hawks. (From the Yonamine Collection, courtesy Robert K. Fitts)
After his playing days, he became the first non-Japanese citizen to manage a Japanese pro team. Throughout his life, he helped promote youth baseball in Japan, Hawaii and California. He was a great ambassador for the sport. Yonamine passed away at age 85, in Honolulu, on February 28th, 2011.
He was an astonishing baseball player, and an even better human being. Wally Yonamine, Hawaii’s greatest athlete!
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