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A man who changed Japanese baseball

Church memorial service remembers sporting great Wally Kaname Yonamine

Sadaharu Oh, the world home run champion addresses the gathering. He said Yonamine was the first ball player to ever give him an autograph. Sadaharu Oh, the world home run champion addresses the gathering. He said Yonamine was the first ball player to ever give him an autograph.
  • ucanews.com special correspondent, Tokyo
  • Japan
  • May 28, 2011
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More than 500 people gathered yesterday at a church in Tokyo to commemorate the first foreigner to play professional baseball in Japan after World War II.

Wally Kaname Yonamine, the son of a Japanese immigrant to Hawaii, became the first Asian-American to play with a professional football team in the United States, the San Francisco 49ers, in 1947.

After a sports injury caused him to switch to baseball, he came to Japan and began a career as a successful player and coach from 1951 to 1988 with the Yomiuri Giants, Chunichi Dragons and other teams. He is the only American player to be inducted into Japan’s baseball Hall of Fame.

The memorial service was held at the Franciscan Chapel Center in Tokyo, the archdiocese’s parish for English-speaking Catholics. Yonamine was a member of the parish, attending daily Mass there. He was baptized in Tokyo in 1953.

He died in Honolulu on February 28, aged 85. The Tokyo memorial was originally planned for March 22, but was postponed in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11.

In his homily, Father Ryotaro Yamamoto, pastor of Tokyo’s Sekiguchi Cathedral, said, "I heard from one of Yonamine-san’s friends that he prayed for his family and his teammates every morning, but he never prayed for his team’s victory."

The service was attended by many famous Japanese baseball figures, among them Sadaharu Oh, who holds the world record for the most home runs. He spoke during the service, saying, "Yonamine’s play was full of fighting spirit, but he was a real gentleman out of uniform."

Yonamine introduced an aggressive American style of baseball to Japan and became know as "The Man who Changed Japanese Baseball."

He once told an interviewer that when he came to Japan, he had three dreams. One was to win a championship as a manager. The second was to be enshrined in Japan’s Hall of Fame. The last was to shake hands with the Emperor of Japan. Yonamine achieved all those dreams.

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