"I have loved football as an almost mythic game since I was in the fourth grade. To me, the game wasn't even grounded in reality. The uniform turned you into a warrior. Being on a team, the mythology of physical combat, the struggle against the elements, the narrative of the game..." ~ Steve Sabol (NFL Films)

Monday, February 15, 2021

In The Beginning There Was Wally


Wally Yonamine was first. In so many ways. The Farrington High alum is the first athlete of Hawaii birth, and the first person of Asian ancestry, to play pro football at the highest level. Yes, the man eternally enshrined in the Japan Baseball Hall of Fame, and for whom the Hawaii high school baseball championship tournament is named, first played for the San Francisco 49ers.

Which turns out – as history-changing and dreams-altering as it was for so many people – to be almost the least of Yonamine’s firsts.

While this is much more than a sports story, it does affirm the transformative power of sport, and of boyhood dreams. And it’s a story that set the stage for the many young men who were to follow in his cleat marks. How many? The website database Football.com lists 67 local boys who have played in the NFL. Wally Yonamine led the way.

(A brief aside regarding historical firsts: “Honolulu Johnnie” Williams, of native Hawaiian ancestry, pitched four games for the 1914 Detroit Tigers, making him – it is believed – the first island-born athlete to play in a major U.S. professional league. Walter Achiu did play the 1927-28 seasons for the NFL’s Dayton Triangles after attending the University of Dayton, but the NFL of those days was far from a major league.)

It was 1947, and wars in the Pacific and Europe were barely two years ended. In San Francisco, emotions were still raw as thousands of Japanese – most of them American citizens – who had been rounded up and forced from their homes and businesses in The City’s thriving Japantown returned from desolate internment camps.

In Wally Yonamine, San Francisco 49ers rookie running back, they found a dashing young hero on whom they could hang their new hopes.

“He made us proud that we were Japanese,” Hats Aizawa remembered nearly 50 years later. Quoted in the English-language Bay Area newspaper Nichi Bei Times in 2005, Aizawa, 77, who had attended Yonamine’s games at Kezar Stadium with other young nisei (second generation), continued: “He had this burst of speed … he was fast. He left me with a lot of pleasant memories.”

The paper also quoted Warren Eijima, 81: “To see another Japanese-American play made me feel good.”

So Wally was a powerful symbol for Japanese rebuilding lives and businesses – many having found strangers of other ethnicity now living in homes and running stores and restaurants they’d been forced to abandon. In that, he was also first.

Wally Yonamine's plaque in the Japan Baseball Hall of Fame at the Tokyo Dome. Don Chapman photoWally Yonamine’s plaque in the Japan Baseball Hall of Fame at the Tokyo Dome. Don Chapman photo“Wally always said he had to do well because of all those from the internment camps coming back to San Francisco who were rooting for him to do well,” his widow Jane recalls.

At the same time, for many San Franciscans who served in the war or lost a loved one in it, and referred to Japanese people by the J-word, he was also a symbol that the war was over. Here was a Japanese man for whom they could stand and cheer. They were now on the same side. That too was a first.

For both groups, Yonamine’s presence in a 49er uniform was a turning point of sorts.

As a 49ers reserve running back in the autumn of ’47 (the team’s second year of existence), he started three games and averaged 3.8 yards per carry and 11 yards per pass reception for Coach Buck Shaw. As a defensive back in those days of ironman two-way players, Yonamine had one interception.

“Football, that was Wally’s first love,” Jane says. “That was the only sport he ever really loved. Years later, when people asked about the old days, the first thing he mentioned was football.”

Looking ahead, he and the 49ers had every reason to be optimistic about the 1948 season.

(In those years, the 49ers – wearing snazzy red-and-white uniforms and leather helmets – played in the eight-team All-American Football Conference, which stretched from New York to Los Angeles. In 1950, the Niners along with franchises in Cleveland and Baltimore joined the NFL, breathing new life into the league, much as the NFL-AFL merger would do a generation later.)

It started on the sugar plantation at Olowalu, Maui. Born Kaname Yonamine on June 25, 1925, the boy who would become “Wally” was the third of seven children born to Okinawa-born Matsusai Yonamine and Maui-born Kikue Nishimura, whose parents had emigrated from Hiroshima. (In Japanese, kaname is the single nail that holds a fold-out fan together. “And that’s who he was,” Jane says.)

Despite his father working hard from dawn to dark on the plantation, and being promoted to a variety of better jobs, life remained hard, and putting food on the table for a growing family a challenge. The family was so hard up, Wally recalled later, “my parents couldn’t afford to buy us a stick of candy.”

Likewise, there were no toys. So he and his brother Akira ran around, literally. Akira, two years older, was the fastest kid on the plantation, and Wally was right behind. Akira’s Maui record for the 40-yard dash stood for decades.

The authoritative 2008 book Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball by Robert K. Fitts (University of Nebraska Press) includes an anecdote about the hungry, adventurous Yonamine boys stealing a watermelon, despite getting fired at by a shotgun-toting farmer. They soon gravitated to sports, whatever the season was.

“He was a rascal,” Jane says. “Nothing really bad. Mostly, Wally was so busy with sports, he didn’t want to do school-work.”

That is how, out of seven siblings, he was the only non-Buddhist.

“His uncle took him to the Catholic church to straighten him out,” Jane says.

His faith stayed with him, which is one reason he and Jane bought a unit at Kahala Nui retirement center, so he could walk to morning mass every day at adjacent Star of the Sea church.

In his book, Fitts writes “the Yonamine brothers played softball, volleyball, soccer and Wally’s particular favorite, football. Since they didn’t have enough money to buy a football, they took an (empty) can of Carnation creamed corn, wrapped it in newspapers, and used that instead.” And because there were few teen boys in the area, the Yonamine brothers joined men’s games.

A radio was Wally’s first window into a world beyond plantation life, and he especially enjoyed listening to games of the semi-pro Hawaii Baseball League and ILH football games from Honolulu Stadium. Listening to games, often with his grandmother, he began to dream of playing in the big city.

As a teen he worked summer days on the plantation, cutting sugar cane.

“I used to really hate that job,” Wally told Fitts. “I got paid only 25 cents a day, but it was the only job I could find. I told myself I never wanted to work in the cane fields again. That’s where my drive to always try my best and never give up came from.”

Wally boarded at Lahainaluna High School for his freshman year, and with other boarders worked three hours on the school farm before classes. His job was to personally bring in 100 pounds of grass a day for the farm’s cows. He went out for the football team in that autumn of 1941 and was named to the second team. But in the first game – against Roosevelt of Honolulu – a Lunas running back broke his thumb, and the coach put in Wally. On his first play, after taking a lateral pitch, Wally threw a 35-yard touchdown pass. He later ran 11 yards for another TD and scored again on a 70-yard interception return.

The Lunas went 6-0 on Maui and hosted Oahu champions Saint Louis in the Haleakala Bowl, which drew 4,000 spectators to the Kahului Fairgrounds. The star for Saint Louis was “Squirmin’ Herman” Wedemeyer – as it happens another inaugural inductee into the Hawaii NFL Legends. The city boys prevailed with two late scores, 13-0.

Wally again worked the sugar fields the following summer and returned for his sophomore season at Lahainaluna. With him running and passing out of the single-wing formation, and kicking, punting and returning kicks, the Lunas again won the Maui title, going 5-0-1. In the deciding final game, Wally scored all 19 points in a 19-6 win over St. Anthony.

On Maui, he was the best player on any field stepped, but he couldn’t get the dream of playing in Honolulu Stadium out of his head. So he asked his father if he could move to Oahu. Having himself left Okinawa at 17, Matsusai said, “If you want to go, you go.”

He went, moving in with an older sporting friend from Olowalu, Mac Flores, now a stevedore.

Wally could have attended Saint Louis – just picture him in the same backfield with Squirmin’ Herman – but instead enrolled at Farrington in the fall of 1943. It was there Kaname adopted the name Wally – after the school’s namesake, Gov. Wallace Rider Farrington. It was frustrating having to sit out his junior year after transferring, and he was never sure where his next meal would come from, but he worked out regularly with Farrington equipment manager Arthur Arnold (who’d also suggested the name change as a way of fitting in) and was ready for his senior season.

Imagine his thoughts and emotions as he ran onto the field for his first game at Honolulu Stadium, which at capacity held 26,000 spectators, his boyhood dream about to come true. Kamehameha was the foe, and wearing a white No. 37 Govs jersey Wally kicked a field goal to open the scoring, later prevented a Kamehameha score with an interception, scored on a run early in the third quarter and added the extra-point kick, giving Farrington a 10-7 win. As in his final game on Maui, in Wally’s first game on Oahu he tallied all the winning points. He would repeat that feat several times during the season, and was named the Honolulu Advertiser‘s league MVP.

Wally turned 20 the following summer and was drafted into the U.S. Army. But the war in Europe was over and Japan would surrender six weeks after he started basic training at Schofield Barracks. It was there he caught the eye of Pittsburgh Steelers coach Jock Sutherland, who had played college ball at Pitt under the legendary Pop Warner. Sutherland offered Wally a contract with the Steelers, but he declined, saying he wanted to attend college – he had scholarship offers from USC, Ohio State and St. Mary’s (where Wedemeyer was starring).

Meanwhile, he joined a local all-star team that scheduled a tour of West Coast universities. He starred in the first game, at Portland’s Multnomah Stadium, impressing a 49ers scout who was actually there to watch Hawaii-born Portland quarterback Charles Kawainui Liu. Three games in California followed, and the number of scouts showing up to watch Wally grew with each. In the spring of 1947, he accepted the offer from Ohio State. Preparing to leave, though, he was invited by 49ers coach Buck Shaw to come to San Francisco for a tryout. Shaw was impressed, and offered a two-year, $14,000 contract. That was big money in 1947, and his parents were still laboring at Olowalu. Deciding, “I ought to help the folks,” he became a 49er.

As Robert Fitts writes: “Wally would never have to work on the plantations again.”

But his football days were numbered.

Returning home after his first promising season in San Francisco, Wally went to work for a trucking company, thinking the lifting and carrying would strengthen him. He also played AJA baseball for the Athletics (later to become Asahi). He fractured a thumb sliding into a base in an exhibition game at Hilo, and reported to the 49ers with a cast on his hand. With him unable to play, and with the 49ers having just signed another speedy running back – future Hall of Famer Joe “The Jet” Perry – the team voided the second year of Wally’s contract, costing him $7,000.

Fitts reports Wally was “disappointed, really sad. Football was the sport I really loved. In the off-season, I just fooled around with baseball.”

Not ready to give up football, he signed with the Hawaiian Warriors of the Pacific Coast Pro Football League for the 1948 season. While Wally again starred on the field, the league was failing at the box office, and it folded before season’s end.

He was invited to the 49ers training camp in 1949, but despite flashes of brilliance was cut. Back in Hawaii, he again joined the Warriors, who were embarking on an East Coast barnstorming tour. Playing against the Patterson (N.J.) Panthers, Wally intercepted a pass and during the runback was crushed from behind by a much larger player, badly dislocating his left (throwing) shoulder. His days of throwing a football 70 yards on the fly were done.

And with that, Wally’s football career was finished too. He turned to baseball, with a huge helping hand from former big-leaguer Lefty O’Doul. His ties to Japanese baseball went back to 1931 when he was part of a touring Major League all-star team, and like so many gaijin fell in love with the country and its people. Following the war, he returned to Japan several times to help reinvigorate the game, including managing the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League during an exhibition tour in 1949. Passing through Honolulu on the way home, he heard about a promising young player. Thus Wally was invited to join O’Doul’s Seals for spring training. “Wally has a perfect swing,” O’Doul told reporters, “and he’s strong.”

He wound up in Salt Lake City, where he starred, and after the ’50 season O’Doul helped arrange for Wally to sign with the Yomiuri Giants in Tokyo.

He joined the Giants for the 1951 season, and succeeded from the start, reminiscent of his debut football games for Lahainaluna and Farrington.

In his first at-bat for the Giants, he bunted for a hit. On the ensuing play, sliding with spikes up to break up a double play, he knocked the shortstop down. This was shocking to fans and players, because the norm for Japanese runners was to veer into right field, politely conceding the out at second base. And when Wally drew a bases-on-balls, he ran to first base, just as he sprinted to his position in the outfield – foreign practices for Japanese players then.

He’s been called the Jackie Robinson of Japanese baseball, and with good reason, though as Wally said later, “the difference is that I was the same color they were, and I couldn’t speak the language.” Wally was initially loathed for his aggressive American-style play. He was cursed because he was American, and as a nisei had not returned to the Motherland to fight – worse, he’d served in the U.S. Army and was “the enemy” for many fans and several teammates who’d served in the Imperial military during the war. Taking his place in centerfield, rocks were thrown and landed at his feet, but he never responded, Robinson-like in his determined calm. Teammates often ignored him. But he persevered, leading the Giants to the Japan title, homering in the clinching game. For the season, he hit .354, stole 26 bases in 30 attempts, and scored 47 runs in 54 games.

That would open the door for other Hawaii boys to play in Japan, including his friends Jyun Hirota and Dick Kitamura, and more than a thousand Americans have since played in Japan. Yonamine would play 12 seasons in Japan with a career .311 batting average, retire as a beloved hero, earn a place in the Japan Hall of Fame as both player and manager, and be honored by the Emperor with the Order of the Sacred Treasure, the first professional athlete to be so cited.

And he did it in an aggressive style he first learned on the football fields of Hawaii.

He also did it in a quiet, local-boy style that seems to have created the model for the humble heroics of Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o this season, among many other Isle athletes at colleges large and small, and in the NFL.

“I’m just a boy from Olowalu,” Wally told Fitts. “I’ve never forgotten my roots and where I started … People tell me I’m a living legend and a big star, but inside I don’t feel I’m any different from anybody else. I’m just one of the guys – the same person I was growing up. I’ve been fortunate, and I’m just happy I can give something back to Hawaii and help others fulfill their dreams.”

Did he ever.

Wally Yonamaine died Feb. 28, 2011, after a long battle with prostate cancer.

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