Hawaii sports pioneer Wally Yonamine passes away

Wally Yonamine
Wally Yonamine

By Jim Mendoza - bio | email

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Long before Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders became two-sport stars on a mega scale there was Wally Yonamine.

"Wally really was the first guy. He played professional football and he played professional baseball at the highest level," close friend Duane Kurisu said.

He calls Yonamine the "ultimate athlete."

Born on Maui, Yonamine starred for Lahainaluna High School then Farrington. In 1947 he made the leap to pro football's San Francisco 49ers, the first Asian-American to play in the league.

But Yonamine gave up the gridiron for professional baseball and excelled in Japan, the first American to play there after World War II.

In an old interview he summed up his success.

"I really worked hard. That's how I became a good baseball player," he said.

Baseball enthusiasts say Yonamine was more than good, he was great. He changed the face of the game in the land of the rising sun.

"What he did is he started playing the game aggressively, diving in the outfield for balls, sliding headfirst or sliding at bases, taking out people for the double play," friend Pal Eldridge said.

After his playing days, Yonamine managed Japanese teams to titles, was selected to Japan's Pro Baseball Hall of Fame and inducted into Hawaii's Sports Hall of Fame.

Up until his health failed, he invested his time in Hawaii's kids.

"I wanted to always give back something to Hawaii," he said several years ago.

Yonamine funded youth baseball clinics, paid for all-star teams to go to the mainland, and underwrote the Hawaii High School Athletic Association's state tournament that bears his name.

"He viewed sports as essential for one's overall well-being in that it promoted not only physical fitness but it also taught life lessons and life skills," former HHSAA executive director Keith Amemiya said.

On a personal scale, those who knew him say Yonamine exemplified integrity and humility.

"Honest, trustworthy, an extremely genuine person who always spoke from his heart," Kurisu said.

"We lost a gentleman, not only a baseball guy but a guy who was really one of the nicest men that you'd ever want to meet," Eldridge said.

After a twelve-year fight with prostate cancer, Wally Yonamine succumbed to the illness Monday night, surrounded by his wife, his son and his two daughters.

He was 85 years old.

A memorial service is set for Saturday at Nuuanu Memorial Park and Mortuary. Visitation begins at 10 a.m. with a service to follow. The family has asked that in lieu of flowers donations be made to the Wally Yonamine Foundation.

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