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Hawaiian Catholic broke sports barriers

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WASHINGTON -- Wally Yonamine was a trailblazer in the world of sports, much like Jackie Robinson.

Yonamine, a Hawaiian-born Catholic of Japanese descent, became the first Japanese-American to play professional football, spending the 1947 season -- the year Robinson broke U.S. baseball's color barrier -- playing running back and defensive back for the San Francisco 49ers of the old All American Football Conference until the 49ers and some other AAFC teams were absorbed into the National Football League.

But when a broken wrist derailed a career in football -- his first love -- Yonamine picked up a bat and became, in 1951, the first American to play in Japan's professional baseball leagues after World War II.

In fact, Yonamine said, he was quizzed by leaders of the U.S. post-World War II occupation about his suitability to play ball in Japan, much like Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey examined Robinson's ability to be the first African-American in 60 years to play in the U.S. major leagues.

Yonamine, now 84, spent 11 seasons playing ball in Japan, winning three batting titles. But when you add his coaching and managing career, he spent 38 years in uniform in Japan. His service won him a spot in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.

Early in his playing career in Tokyo, a U.S. military chaplain, seeing Yonamine attend Mass regularly, asked him if he wanted to be baptized. Yonamine agreed and has continued to be a frequent Massgoer.

But, like Robinson, it wasn't easy for Yonamine in the sports world. It took, by his estimation, six or seven years before he was accepted.

"One of those Japanese fans, he said, 'We don't like you, go back to Hawaii.' I used to break up double plays sliding into second base. The Japan players didn't do that at the time. The fans were throwing rocks at me, and the pitchers would throw at my head. But I had to take it," Yonamine said.

He spoke to Catholic News Service in a telephone interview from Honolulu, where he spends much of the year. He also spends time in Tokyo, where his wife has a business, and Los Angeles, where his son lives.

"My manager told me, 'Whatever you learned in the United States, I want you to do it in Japan.' I did exactly what I learned in the United States."

One possible reason for those hard slides into second base? "I played football before I played baseball," Yonamine said. "The experience I had playing football helped me playing baseball."

Yonamine got the tip to try Japan from Lefty O'Doul, who starred with the Philadelphia Phillies, Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants in the 1920s and '30s, but was managing the minor-league San Francisco Seals at the time. "He took a lot of guys like Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth over to Japan to play baseball. He knew baseball in Japan better than I did, He said, 'Why don't you go over to Japan?'"

Robert K. Fitts, who wrote the biography "Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball," said Yonamine was "the perfect person to play in Japan after the war. It wouldn't have been as easy for somebody else. He made it possible for other Americans to play there."

Yonamine's journey to Catholicism was a long one. He was raised in a Buddhist household and toiled as a youngster in sugar-cane fields on the island of Maui.

"Every time something was wrong, I used to go to this Catholic lady who told me what to do and she healed me," he recalled. "I believe in the Catholic religion, because this Portuguese lady, every time something was wrong with my body, she would heal me. She was a very dedicated Catholic lady."

From that experience, Yonamine started going to church. But decades passed before he became a Catholic.

"I had a good friend, and his wife used to take me to the church" in Hawaii, Yonamine told CNS. "I used to sit down and just listen for five or six years before I went to Japan. That's how I learned about the Catholic religion."

After Yonamine replied affirmatively to the chaplain's inquiry about becoming Catholic, he said the chaplain told him: "When you have time, five to 10 minutes, I'll come teach you" about the faith. He said his family lodged no objections to him joining the Catholic Church, and Yonamine's wife and children all became Catholics.

Yonamine doesn't begrudge today's Japan League players pulling in upward of $2 million a season. In his day, he said, "we rode on trains 20, 24 hours. I had to sleep on the floor because it would hurt my back sitting in the seat all that time. We'd eat third-rate food. It would make you sick. We'd stay in third-class hotels."

He also thinks it's a good thing to see Japan-born players such as Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui do well in the American major leagues. "It gives the kids something to aspire to, that they can come over to America and succeed," he said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2010