Yonamine is considered the greatest leadoff man in Japanese baseball history. Born in Maui to Japanese parents, he was the fifth foreigner, but only the third American (and the first after WWII) to play in Japan. Yonamine starred at halfback for the San Francisco ’49ers in 1950 but was injured and turned to baseball the following spring. The Yomiuri Giants had asked San Francisco Seals manager Lefty O’Doul to recommend any star Japanese-American players to them. When Yonamine’s average reached .360 for Salt Lake City of the Class C Western League, Yonamine joined the Giants in May 1951, hitting .354 and leading them to the Japan Series despite fan abuse reminiscent of Jackie Robinson‘s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He introduced the Japanese to hard sliding, running out bunts and infield grounders, and diving for fly balls.
Hitting over .300 his first seven years, Yonamine beat out teammate Tetsuharu “The God of Batting” Kawakami for three batting championships. A Japanese nationalist, Kawakami didn’t forgive or forget and released Yonamine upon becoming Giants manager in 1961. At that time, Yonamine’s career average was the best in Japanese baseball despite three consecutive off-seasons. Determined to show up Kawakami, Yonamine signed with the Chunichi Dragons and homered to beat the Giants in their first encounter. It was his last home run, however, and when he finally retired, Yonamine’s average had dropped two points below Kawakami’s. Yonamine remained in Japan as a coach and scout.