Yonamine’s legacy in Japan started with a bunt single
THE fans had never seen anything like it, that day the American first dug in at the plate.
That story starts with a bunt. But his story begins long before that. On Maui. Getting up at 4 in the morning in the summer, working in the cane fields, making 25 cents a day.
"That really taught me how to be hungry," Wally Yonamine said.
Yes, Yonamine, again. The great one. They're making a book about him (out in 2008!), and he and its author, Robert Fitts, were part of a panel presentation yesterday at the Honolulu Festival -- The fourth U.S.-Japan Cultural Exchange Seminar Program, "Building Friendships by Playing Hardball."
Of course, the hall of famer already has a book out in Japan, but, "Naturally, I can't read Japanese."
"At least I can read the book now," he said.
Should be a good one. Born on Maui, came to Honolulu to win a championship for the Farrington Govs. The Army. Barnstorming. Talked out of college by the 49ers, who then cut him after one season when he showed up to training camp in a cast. He was in the minors for a while, then came home. He was getting older. He'd even taken a real job by the time the Yomiuri Giants decided he was the right American to break back into Japanese baseball, the first new one since World War II.
Oh, yeah, the bunt. Japanese baseball was slow and staid in 1951, Fitts said. Players jogged instead of sprinting, every count meandered its way to 3-2. They'd never seen anything like Yonamine, who, in his first at-bat, didn't just move the man over, but then beat the ball to the bag. Then first chance he got he went hard into second, spikes up.
They hadn't seen anything like it. Some called him dirty, but he was just being the football player he was.
"That's baseball," Yonamine said.
"When I went to Japan," Yonamine said, "I had to feed my family."
He hit .354 that first season, he dove, he slid, he stole home. Fitts said Yonamine single-handedly changed the Japanese game.
Off the field was tougher. He didn't like Japanese food. He figured he had time to either learn the language or practice, not both, so he worked on his hitting and sliding instead. "We had a lotta stars on the team," he said, "which I didn't know."
Some of the train trips lasted 15 to 20 hours, he said. The manager knew Americans weren't that tough, told him to spend a little extra, get the second-class seat. Yonamine refused. He slept on the floor. He knew he had to earn the Japanese players' respect.
At the end of that first season he knew he was going to make it. There was a party, and the assistant manager pulled him aside. "You one good Nisei," he said.