'Nisei Jackie Robinson' dies at age 85

The Associated Press
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 11:07 PM

HONOLULU -- Wally Kaname Yonamine, the first American to play professional baseball in Japan after World War II and a former running back with the San Francisco 49ers, has died. He was 85.

His son, Paul Yonamine, told The Associated Press that two-sport standout died Monday night at a Honolulu retirement home after a bout with prostate cancer.

"Most people remember him for his accomplishments on the diamond, but our family, we have a great deal of respect for him for what he's done off the diamond," Paul Yonamine said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "One hell of a guy."

The outfielder was known as the "Nisei Jackie Robinson" for breaking into Japanese baseball and building ties between the countries in a highly sensitive period after World War II. Facing a language barrier, he was sometimes met with hostility, including rock throwing, for being an American and his aggressive style of play.

The Maui-born Yonamine is considered one of the greatest athletes to come out of Hawaii.

"He was in Japan for a really long time, but he always stayed Hawaii," Paul Yonamine said. "He was always a local boy. Along with it, a lot of great values of Hawaii that he was able to share in Japan."

He played pro football for the 49ers in their second season in 1947, three years before the team joined the NFL. It was a time when many Bay Area residents of Japanese descent were returning to their homes after spending time in an internment camp in Utah during World War II.

Yonamine, who inked a two-year deal worth $14,000, is believed to be the first player of Japanese ancestry to play pro football. But he was released after one season after hurting his wrist while playing baseball in the offseason.

Despite playing just one season, the 49ers said Yonamine's impact in pro sports was far-reaching. The team established the Perry/Yonamine Unity Award in 2007.

"Wally will be sadly missed by me and those with a love of 49ers history," said John York, the 49ers' owner and co-chairman said in a statement.

Yonamine started three of 12 games with the 49ers, rushed 19 times for 74 yards, caught three passes for 40 yards and had intercepted a pass.

"He was an outsider with the 49ers and he moved to Japan and became an outsider for the opposite reason - because he was American as opposed to being Asian," said author Robert K. Fitts, who wrote Yonamine's biography released in 2008 titled "Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball."

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