Monday, January 3, 2011
61. Wally Yonamine: Japan's Jackie Robinson
This week's story was written by award-winning author Rob Fitts. You'd be hard- pressed to find another American who knows as much about Japanese baseball history and cards. I made Rob's acquaintance while doing research on pre-war baseball in Japan and came across his website that offers a great overview on the 1934 tour of Japan by a group of Major League All-Stars. Besides featuring the American team, he also equally focuses on the Japanese team, something that I have never found in English. Rob has a book about that tour coming out this year which I for one can't wait to get my hands on. After finding his website I became fascinated by early Japanese baseball, especially the 1935 barnstorming tour that the Japanese team took all across North America. After returning to Japan that team became the Tokyo Giants and members of the first professional league in Japan. While researching the 1935 team Rob not only shared his research but translated a few things for me and did a great service in identifying player photographs. He also wrote a well-received biography on Japanese-American trail blazer Wally Yonamine...
Often called the Nisei Jackie Robinson, Wally Yonamine was the first ethnic Japanese to play professional football in the United States and the first American to play professional baseball in Japan after World War II. Yonamine was born in 1925 on a Maui sugar plantation to poor Japanese immigrants. His success on the gridiron allowed him to escape the plantation and eventually sign with the San Francisco 49ers in 1947. After an injury ended his football career, Yonamine turned to baseball. In 1951, the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants chose him to become the first American to play in Japan during the Allied occupation. Yonamine adopted his football skills to baseball and played hard-stealing bases, sliding hard, and knocking down opponents. Opposing fans hurled insults and rocks at him, but he quickly became one of the most dominant players in the league, winning batting titles in 1954, '56 and '57 as well as the 1957 MVP Award. His success changed the way the Japanese played the game and opened the door for other Americans to come to Japan. Yonamine adapted to Japanese culture and stayed in Japan as a player, coach, and manager for 37 years. He was elected to the Japan Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994.
Robert K. Fitts is the author of two books and a number of articles on Japanese baseball and baseball cards. A former historical archaeologist, Rob left academics to write about baseball in 2000. His articles have appeared in The National Pastime, Baseball Research Journal, Journal of American Culture, Tuff Stuff and on MLB.com. His first book, Remembering Japanese Baseball won the 2005 Society of American Baseball Research & The Sporting News Award for Best Baseball Research. His second book, Wally Yonamine: The Man who Changed Japanese Baseball tells the story of the "Jackie Robinson of Japan." His forthcoming book, Banzai Babe Ruth!, which focuses on the 1934 tour of Japan will be available in 2012. Learn more about his projects at www.RobFitts.com