- Hardcover: 368 pages
- Publisher: University of Nebraska Press; First Edition edition (September 1, 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0803213816
- ISBN-13: 978-0803213814
- Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,388,825 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball Hardcover – September 1, 2008
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The full title of the book is "Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Change Japanese Baseball."
There have already been a few things about this book put on the web. Starting off with the official home page of the biography [[...] you can read some blurbs from others about the book, get the table of contents, and read a short excerpt. Cards and photo galleries are also available there, so you should be able to get a taste of what's in store for you there.Then there was Wayne Graczyk's promotion for the book [[...] While I don't doubt the sincerity of his write up, it just reads like a PR piece, like he had to write something up about it before he was able to actually finish reading it. What he says is all true! But there's something intangible that bothered me about his review.
But this isn't about what other people said. And I'm most likely doomed to repeat others as well. But I'd like to really give you a feel for the book, and the emotion that a book like this can draw out of you. And I think that that's what's lacking in some of these other blurbs - that this biography is capable of stirring emotion.
First of all, there's the subtitle - "the man who changed Japanese baseball." I showed this book to a friend of mine and he said, "Yeah, right. Some gaijin really had that big an impact. It's just an empty statement to sell the book." My friend could not have been more wrong. I take to to pages 244 and 245:
"The fans wanted to see the league's new stars. In 1958 and 1959, an incredibly talented crop of exciting rookies entered Japanese professional baseball. These players did not play the slow, passive game of the 1940s. They had grown up watching Yonamine and his Giants while playing high school and college ball during the 1950s. They were faster, stronger, and more aggressive than their predecessors -- and the fans loved them. [...]"
Wally joined the Giants in 1951, and less than a decade later, Yonamine's style of play had gone from being the exception to the norm as the next generation of players came up. You could argue that other foreigners had brought over similar dynamics, sure. But none had the national exposure that Yonamine had with Yomiuri's vast media empire.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The first three chapters deal mostly with Wally growing up a football star. What I found most fascinating was how different Japanese nisei were treated in Hawaii than on "lower 48." There have been a number of books and movies about how the internment camps during World War II were run, but this was the first I'd read about how things were in Hawaii. Take this excerpt from pages 26 and 27 for instance:
"Yonamine's success came at an important time for the Nisei community. With World War II raging, anti-Japanese sentiment was high. Japanese Hawaiians were not treated as poorly as mainland Japanese Americans, as their sheer numbers made them vital to the economy, but they still faced discrimination and hostility. Over three thousand people, mostly community leaders, were incarcerated and many Japanese Hawaiians faced hiring discrimination as well as racial slurs. There were not many Japanese American football players -- many Japanese parents, not wanting their boys to get hurt, discouraged football and pushed them toward baseball. Wally's triumphs made him a celebrity in the Nisei community and a source of pride in that troubled time. [...]"
One of the truly interesting thing about this biography is how Fitts-san will tie in what is going on in Wally's life within the social and historical context of the time. I can't say that I really learned much about history growing up. At least, it doesn't seem like it when I feel that I've learned more about history from watching The Discovery Channel than in middle and high school. This biography brings even more history to light, and makes it relevant as one watches Wally grow up in the midst of these social changes.
I think that at this point it's important to say that I'm not a passive reader, who just reads the words and notes them as facts to be pulled out as trivia at a later date. I like books that say something about society, give insight into how others think - be they real or fictional characters.
Following Yonamine from his sugar cane plantation roots, through his maturing as an athletic star in Hawaii during WWII, to his role in bringing nisei back into American society by playing football and later baseball in the minor leagues after The War, until his move to Japan, there is a constant undertow of social change going on.
Those who have read the Interview with author Rob Fitts at East Windup Chronicle [[...] may recall Rob stating, "I was a professional archaeologist specializing in 19th century New York City [...]." Reading this biography, you really get the feel for Fitts-san's background in history. I can't say that I've ever been much of a history buff (with the usual exception of dinosaurs and mummies as a kid), but the way that Rob brings history alive in this book is gripping.
The story about becoming a San Francisco 49er is interesting. As mentioned above, this adventure helps to heal a lot of wounds in the nisei communities in America. An injury sidelines that career, and Wally goes into baseball. After just missing the cut with the San Francisco Seals, Wally opts for the Salt Lake Bees where he does more good in integrating back the nisei to their communities.
One thing leads to another and Wally finds himself a Yomiuri Giant. And this is where all of the Jackie Robinson comparisons start coming in. Like the title that seems to be hyperbole, the Jackie Robinson comparisons seem to be another point where those who do not read the book find contention.
Have you ever thought about what kind of person it took to break the color barrier to MLB? I know that I never did before reading this book. I figured it just needed to be somebody really good at playing baseball. But reading how careful the planning was to choose Wally as the first post-war foreigner, I realize that the selection of Jackie Robinson was most likely similarly scrutinized. Both men had to bear the responsibility that if the "experiment" of their employment didn't work out, that there probably wouldn't be another for a long time. Both had to endure a great deal of taunting from the crowds. And in Yonamine's case, there were actual riots erupting on the field on numerous occasions.
Anyway, chapters 7 through 16 chronicle the Giants year by year while Wally played for them. If you like to watch a pennant race unfold, the pennants in the 1950s were absolutely incredible! The detail of various games, as important as the Emperor's game, to as little as one where Wally went 0 for 4 or broke out of a slump. Each game has its point. Each game makes you feel as though you were there in the stands. Even the most anti-Giants of fans will be swept away in the excitement and start rooting for Yomiuri to prevail. And, no, knowing the ending (how the seasons ended in the 1950s) already doesn't ruin the excitement of reading about those incredible past seasons.
Once Wally becomes a coach, then manager, the pace of the book picks up until it reaches its conclusion of Wally being inducted in the Japanese Hall of Fame. In stark contrast to the beginning of the book where any and every minor detail is included to reveal Yonamine's development into the person he became, the last few chapters just kind of skim over the rest of his career in a bit of a blur.
Of course, it's probably much like life. One develops and works hard to become defined by ones job, just to fall into a routine as the years go by. In that respect, I suppose that the final chapters did a good job in reflecting what eventually comes to us all - appreciation from the ones we care about (family) while leading rather anti-climatic lives.
Rather than ending on that note, I'd like to take you to perhaps my favorite passage in the book (page 107):
"One day, perhaps on this home stand, an eleven-year-old boy stood in the crowd. He had tried many times to get players to sign, but, as he remembered later, 'The players would walk past me as though I didn't exist. My brother would tease me because I always wound up feeling so hurt that I wanted to cry.' On that day, too, the players walked by him. Then the last player, Yonamine, stopped, looked directly at the boy and smiled. 'He took my board, asked my name -- which I could barely get from my lips -- and signed his autograph.'
"Sadaharu Oh still treasures that shikishi. [...] Oh commented, 'When I became a player it was always remarked how readily I gave autographs -- which is true -- but I did so for the best of reasons: because of the joy Wally Yonamine brought into my life one afternoon in my boyhood.'"
Excuse me while I blow my nose. I was on the train when I read that passage, and had to do my best to restrain my swelling eyes. With this one selfless act, it seems to me that Wally did much more than just change Japanese baseball.
Growing up we all knew the legends of Wally Yonamine, but here is an indepth look at the man, sports pioneer, husband, and father. Truly A man of firsts.
I highly recommend this well researched and written book by Robert Fitts.
I'm currently reading his latest book about Former San Francisco Giant, Masanori Murakami, who I was lucky enough to see at Candlestick Park when I was a boy.
Such is the case for Wally Yonamine, a Hawaiian-born American who became not just a perennial batting champion contender and All-Star, but a coach, manager, and ambassador of the Japanese game and champion of baseball in both his native Hawaii and his adopted Tokyo.
Author Robert K. Fitts, who sat in the stands in 1994 when Yonamine was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, takes the reader on a 368-page biography of the life of Yonamine, from his early days in the sugarcane fields of Hawaii, to a budding professional football career cut short by injury, to an attempt to break into the Pacific Coast League that ended up routing him to Japan and the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants.
Yonamine, often referred to as the "Jackie Robinson of Japanese baseball" due to the prejudice and abuse he took from Japanese fans and players, originally thought of a life playing professional football. Having excelled in high school, he got a shot with the upstart San Francisco 49ers, but nerves got the best of him on the field and limited his playing time before a broken hand sustained while playing summer-league baseball led to his release the following season.
After returning to Hawaii, Yonamine kept playing both football and baseball in various leagues. While on a tour of the East Coast with the football playing Hawaiian Warriors, Yonamine suffered a separated shoulder, an injury that ultimately would cost him a shot at the Major Leagues.
However, all was not lost - while he wasn't able to make it with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League, a successful minor league season in Salt Lake City caught the attention of manager Lefty O'Doul, another pioneer in Japanese baseball. O'Doul thought Yonamine would have a shot by heading to Tokyo, and soon enough the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants came calling with a contract.
Yonamine brought a competitive nature to the Japanese game that hadn't been seen before, and one that would shape the game for years to come. He challeneged certain cultural norms, and shook up the world of Japanese professional baseball to the point where executives first limited the numbers of Nisei, or American-born Japanese players, that a team could have, to wanting to ban their presence outright.
His presence continued to be felt after he retired from playing, as he moved into coaching and managing, including leading the Chunichi Dragons to a Central League pennant before losing to the Lotte Orions in the Japan Series in 1974. Yonamine retired from Japanese baseball in 1988 after 38 years as a player, coach and manager.
It was 2003 when Fitts first met Yonamine, having interviewed him in the Tokyo pearl shop that he owns with his wife, Jane. It was during that interview that Fitts came up with the idea for Remembering Japanese Baseball, a book written in the same vein as Lawrence Ritter's Glory of Their Times. That book went on to win the 2005 Sporting News-SABR Award for best baseball research.
After completion of the first book, Fitts asked permission to write a biography of Yonamine, resulting in this biography.
Fitts does a remarkable job assembling first-hand interviews, newspaper articles, and creates a book in which the life of Wally Yonamine almost jumps off the page.
There is an amazing amount of detail, such as play-by-play accounts of games, so much so that one could argue it too much for the average reader. However, it does provide a tremendous amount of context and history to the book, one that readers with an interest in Japanese baseball history will surely appreciate as it brings them right into the games and big moments of Yonamine's career.
What struck me most after reading the book was Fitts's ability to highlight the cultural aspects of the game and indirectly challenge my notions about the American way of baseball through his profile of the Japanese game. Yonamine was frequently challenged by the traditions and practices of the Japanese game both as player and coach, from having to miss the births of his children to having to wait to be embraced as a successful player due to his Nisei status. It was his ability to mingle his American upbringing with the Japanese culture that led to him becoming such an important figure in baseball.
After reading the book, when one looks at how the American game is structured, particularly with players coming from around the world and becoming stars in the American game, the differences both large and small become more apparent.
For instance, as Fitts explains at the start of Chapter 20, the Japanese often refer to foreign players as gaijin suketto, or "foreign helpers," and that their role is explicit - to help their Japanese teammates, while not being held in high esteem by fans, the media, or the league. Yonamine went from being an unwelcomed foreigner, to embraced star, back to gaijin suketto upon entering the coaching ranks.
In the American game, players from not only Japan but all over Asia and Latin America have risen to tremendous prominence, and have not only dominated on the field but have risen to the coaching, management and executive ranks. Certainly no one would say that Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka or Albert Pujols would merit gaijin suketto status in the Major Leagues.
If you are a fan of works such as Robert Whiting's The Chrysanthemum and the Bat and You Gotta Have Wa, I think you'll get a tremendous amount out of reading Wally Yonamine. It is an expertly researched and crafted book that chronicles the life of Yonamine and shows how his influence shaped Japanese baseball and helped get it where it is today.
This is a must-read and a must-add to the bookshelf for those with an interest in the history of Japanese baseball, and a worthwhile read for any baseball fan looking to broaden their knowledge of this great game that has spread around the globe.