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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Book Review: Wally Yonamine

One last book review from March. Seriously, I read four books and never wrote about them! Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball by Rob Fitts came to me through a Mercari purchase of all things. It's the first book by Fitts I've read, though I also have his book Mashi: Masanori Murakami, which I picked up when both Fitts and Murakami made an appearance in Tokyo a few years ago. He's written a few more books on Japanese baseball, collects Japanese baseball cards, and sells cards on eBay, too. (Not right now, due to stay-at-home orders. But usually.)
Wally Yonamine is a man of firsts: he was the first Japanese American to play in the NFL (for the San Francisco 49ers) and the first American to play baseball in Japan after World War II, for the Yomiuri Giants. He was the first foreign manager in NPB, with the Chunichi Dragons. He brought more-aggressive baseball to Japan, playing for the strongest, most popular team in Japan. He won countless awards and was inducted to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994 - the only American in the Hall as a player.

This book is the definitive record of Wally Yonamine's life. Fitts did his homework, interviewing players, friends, family members, and Yonamine himself. Fitts is most concerned with Wally's baseball career, but he also talks about his upbringing, his football career, Pearl Harbor, and stealing watermelons. We read about his efforts on the diamond and his relationships with his wife and children.

Overall, this book is extremely well-written. It is a passion project, that is obvious. My only minor complaint is the change in style in the last chapter, titled Hall of Fame. For the first 20 chapters of the book, Fitts talks about Yonamine as a third person, telling the story of his life. Chapter 21 continues that story, but this is the point where Yonamine enters Fitts' life, and the book turns first person for a while. And from history to praise. I only wish Fitts had split that chapter in two, talking about Yonamine's post-baseball life (which never really ended; he was involved with the Master League even in 2008, in his 80s) in a chapter, and sharing his personal story and Yonamine's legacy in an epilogue or afterword. It's still a great book.
I have a few Yonamine cards laying around, but no definitive card. As I've been doing with other players I've read about, I'm on the lookout for a good card to represent the book. I've got my eyes on some vintage cards, but until then, here's a card of him sliding in to home.

And with that, I've gotten caught up on books. I haven't been reading these past couple weeks, so I have some catching up to do. My vacation starts tomorrow, so vacation #1 is traveling back in time over 100 years, again.

Until next time...


  1. It doesn't see like Yonamine has a lot of cards out there to collect. I think I only own two: 1979 TCMA and a promo card given to me by Fitts. But I'd also love to add an autographed card of his one day.

  2. Wally's got some vintage cards back from his days playing with the Giants, but those seem kind of tough to find. I see some menko issued by Pepsi back in the 1970s when he was managing, but I'd prefer a playing-days card. He has shown up in some BBM OB sets, both as a player and a manager (the card above is from 1992). Again, something I could collect but not terribly interested in. I do have a foil signature card of him though, numbered /50, which is neat.

    I'm doubtful Wally has any certified auto cards, but he was always happy to sign, so his autograph can be found relatively easily.

  3. He actually didn't show up in BBM's OB sets all that much - only twice in their annual "Historic Collection" sets between 2002-15, a couple Dragons Anniversary sets (the 70th and 75th but not the 80th), the 2006 Nostalgic Baseball set, the Giants 80th Anniversary set (but not the 70th) and the 2014 Professional baseball 80th Anniversary set. And the 20th Century Best 9 set from 2000. I suspect it has something to do with BBM favoring players from the 1960's-80's in their OB sets.

    I like this book a lot but I think my favorite of Rob's books is the one about the 1934 US tour called "Banzai Babe Ruth". I just got his latest book last week (Issei Baseball about a Japanese team that barnstormed the Midwest in the 1910's) but I haven't gotten a chance to read it yet.

    1. Players from the 50s are probably much more difficult to get the rights to, since they're either really old or no longer with us. I wish they would try, though; there are some stars from that era who really need modern cardboard. And they could just toss those players in with the big-name stars everybody already chases. I've found that players with only one or two modern cards tend to be very popular.

      I want to pick up more of Fitts' books. Despite reading a lot of biographies lately, I tend to enjoy regular history more, so both Banzai and Issei are very appealing.

  4. I really enjoyed this book. After getting the whole story behind his time with San Francisco, I couldn't help feeling the whole thing spoiled a huge potential opportunity for both leagues.

    About the only place where it felt like it was bogging down was when Wally learned how to intentionally foul off pitches. While fascinating that someone can be good enough to do that at-will, reading about pitch after pitch quickly got old.

    What really came through was how much he loved the game. I'm surprised more hasn't been made of his football career.