Japan in the 1950s was not a hospitable place for an American playing America's game. Especially a Japanese American. And for Wally Yonamine, who died Feb. 28 at 85, it was hell. Just six years removed from the devastating attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Yonamine became the first U.S. professional baseballer to play in Japan. Often considered Japan's equivalent of Jackie Robinson, he was reviled in the beginning.
Yonamine brought with him a style of play not seen before in that country. He hit sacrifice bunts. He slid hard into second base to break up double plays. He yelled at umpires. As a consequence, Yonamine had to dodge rocks, insults and even the Japanese mafia. But eventually, his in-your-face play won the Japanese over. It didn't hurt that he was named MVP in 1957, led the Yomiuri Giants to eight pennants and became a three-time batting champion. At his peak, he was wildly popular. Later, he became a coach and manager for several Japanese teams and was even honored by the Emperor. But he dismissed the comparisons to Robinson, saying the African-American ballplayer had it much rougher: "You see, my skin is yellow just like the Japanese." Eventually, the only color the Japanese saw was brown--the dirt on the hard-charging player's uniform.