San Francisco 49ers pioneer, Wally Yonamine, passed away Monday night of prostate cancer at the age of 85. Despite playing just one season for the 49ers, Yonamine's impact in professional sports was far-reaching.
"One day, I was surprised by an unknown caller on the telephone," recalled 49ers Owner and Co-Chairman Dr. John York. "Wally Yonamine reached out to me and asked that I present him into the Japanese American Sports Hall of Fame, in 2002. That phone call introduced me to a wonderful new friend and a man that is very important in 49ers history, the 49ers first Asian American player. Wally will be sadly missed by me and those with a love of 49ers history."
Yonamine became the first Asian American athlete to play professional football when he lined up as a running back for the 49ers during the 1947 season. At that time in history, many San Francisco Bay Area residents of Japanese descent were just returning to their homes after spending time in an internment camp in Utah during World War II. Therefore, Yonamine's signing with the 49ers took on special significance in the Asian American community. In 12 games (three starts), he rushed for 74 yards on 19 carries, caught three passes for 40 yards and recorded one interception for a 20-yard return.
Yonamine's football career was cut short after fracturing his wrist playing baseball in 1948. He then turned his sole focus to baseball, playing one year for the San Francisco Seals' Salt Lake farm team and one year for the Hawaiian Asahi team, before going abroad to play for the Yomiuri Giants in Japan, where he became the first American player in Japanese pro baseball in the post-World War II era.
With his aggressive style of play, Yonamine revolutionized the game of baseball in Japan. A seven-time all-star in his 11 seasons, he won three batting titles and was part of three Japan Series championship teams (Yomiuri Giants – 1951-53). Yonamine went on to coach or manage various professional teams in Japan for 26 years. He was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994.
In 2002, the San Francisco 49ers honored Yonamine's football legacy during an exhibition game on August 3 at Japan's Osaka Dome. Serving as an honorary team captain, Yonamine was greeted with a standing ovation following a video tribute.
The 49ers established the Perry/Yonamine Unity Award in 2007, to celebrate the team's 65-year history of exemplifying the power of teamwork to accomplish goals. The 49ers honor an exceptional non-profit agency, youth football coach and a current 49ers player who has demonstrated a commitment to promoting unity and giving back to the local community. The award is named after Yonamine and fellow former 49er Joe Perry – two individuals who demonstrated the power of unity to make a difference on the field and in the community. The winner in each category receives a $10,000 grant award that will be donated to their represented organization.