Long before there were collective bargaining agreements and threats of lockouts, pro football was a simple game – leather helmets, pigskins and a pure love of the sport. Salaries, like stadiums, were small or nonexistent.
That was the era of Wally Yonamine, who died Monday night of prostate cancer at age 85. If you don’t know the name, it’s understandable. Yonamine played just one season for the San Francisco 49ers, but he still holds a special distinction: He was the first Asian-American to play professional football.
A broken wrist ended Yonamine’s career, but in 12 games in the 1947 season, including three starts, he rushed for 74 yards on 19 carries, caught three passes for 40 yards and had one interception.
The 49ers’ signing of Yonamine had extra significance. At the time, many Bay Area residents of Japanese ancestry were returning to their homes after forced internments during World War II. That made Yonamine’s addition to the team’s roster special for the San Francisco Japanese-American community.
After his injury, Yonamine played baseball for the San Francisco Seals’ farm team in Utah and later was signed by the Japanese League Yomiuri Giants, becoming the first American player in Japan’s pro baseball league in the post-WWII era. He was a seven-time all-star in 11 seasons and won three batting titles.
Niners owner John York had not been aware of Yonamine’s impact until 2002 when he was asked to present him into the Japanese American Sports Hall of Fame.
“One day, I was surprised by an unknown caller on the telephone,” York said in a statement released by the team. “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.”
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