In the summer of 2000, at an airport in Honolulu, Kaname “Wally” Yonamine was explaining an exhibit that outlined his legacy of playing baseball in Japan in the 1950s to his granddaughter and a curious bystander. The bystander was fascinated, so much so that he wanted to take a picture of the display. But unaware he was in Mr. Yonamine’s presence, he asked him to step aside so he wouldn’t be in the picture.
Wally Yonamine said nothing.
It’s this humility, along with his extraordinary achievements in baseball and football, that made Yonamine—who died five years ago, on February 28, 2011—one of the most remarkable figures in 20th-century sports. Born in Hawaii to Japanese parents, he was the first Asian player to play professional football in the U.S, spending a season with the 49ers in 1947. He is also considered the first American to play professional baseball in Japan after World War II, making him one of the most significant and underappreciated figures in Japanese American diplomacy.
After the devastating atomic bombs in the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima brought World War II to a swift end, Allied forces occupied Japan until 1952. Yonamine was considered a natural ambassador to help repair the relationship between the two countries, but the unique suspicion toward Americans in Japan at the time didn’t preclude those with Japanese heritage. The wounds of the war were fresh, and anyone intimately engaged in Japanese society and culture from the United States (particularly if they were of Japanese descent) had to work to be trusted.