Wally Yonamine, who became the first Asian American to play professional football when he debuted with the 49ers in 1947, died of prostate cancer on Monday night. Yonamine was 85.
Yonamine played just one season, but his signing was significant in the Bay Area where many Japanese residents had recently returned after being placed in an internment camp in Utah during World War II. In 12 games with the 49ers, Yonamine, a running back and defensive back, rushed for 74 yards on 19 carries, caught three passes for 40 yards and had an interception.
“One day, I was surprised by an unknown caller on the telephone,” said 49ers owner and co-chairman Dr. John York in a statement. “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.”
After his season with San Francisco, Yonamine turned to baseball and enjoyed a legendary career. He went abroad and played for the Yomiuri Giants in Japan, becoming the first American in Japanese baseball in the post-World War II era. In 11 seasons, Yonamine was a seven-time all-star who won three batting titles and three Japan Series titles. After his retirement, he coached or managed in Japan for 26 years and was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994.
In 2002, the 49ers recognized Yonamine during an exhibition game at the Osaka Dome in Japan. Yonamine was an honorary team captain and received a standing ovation following a video tribute.