Baseball America

Book Review: Banzai Babe Ruth

Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, & Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan

By Robert K. Fitts

University of Nebraska Press, 2012

List Price: $34.95

On December 7, 1941, when news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor reached New York, Babe Ruth took it personally. The Bambino rampaged through his 15th-floor apartment grabbing vases and other souvenirs and hurling them out the window onto Riverside Drive far below as his wife rushed around the room trying to save things.

Seven years earlier, Ruth had been overwhelmed by adoring crowds as he led a team of American all-stars on a goodwill tour of Japan. Despite smoldering tensions between the two nations, Ruth, like most of the other players, came away convinced Japan would never strike the United States.

Japanese baseball fans turned out by the tens of thousands in November 1934 when Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, and Lefty Grove led a squad through the Pacific. Upon their arrival, the Americans found themselves unable to move when throngs of admirers filled the streets, creating a mass of bodies that halted traffic for hours. The opening game of the tour, in Tokyo’s Meiju Jingu Stadium, attracted 60,000 fans, selling out every ticket, with most eyes drawn to Ruth’s every move.

The tour, which lasted a month and included 18 games against Japanese opponents, was a huge success, lauded by leaders on both sides of the ocean. But even as the games were being played, nationalistic groups throughout Japan were plotting to overthrow their own government and lash out at America and several other nations. The turmoil makes for a fascinating story of international intrigue as detailed in Robert K. Fitts’ “Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, & Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan.”

Ruth, who piloted the American team while Philadelphia A’s manager Connie Mack filled more of a figurehead role, was well on the downside of his career by that point. His interest in managing was genuine, though he never convinced a big league owner to take a chance on him. He still had enough left in his hefty bat to thrill the crowds, and he led the tour with 13 homers and 33 RBIs in the 18 games he played.

For as much as Ruth enjoyed the trip—and the adulation—he nearly backed out of the commitment, which he was originally reluctant to make. He was the linchpin, the man the Japanese organizers insisted must participate to make the trip a success. Under the mistaken impression the Yankees were set to turn their managerial reins over to him, Ruth was upset when team owner Col. Jacob Ruppert insisted he was happy with Joe McCarthy at the helm. When tour organizer Sotaro Suzuki showed up in New York in October to finalize the planning, a grouchy Sultan of Swat told him he wouldn’t be making the journey, signed contract or no. Only a last-minute change of mind salvaged the project.

Backup catcher Moe Berg, whose inclusion on a roster laden with Hall of Famers looks out of place at first glance, was much more enthusiastic to visit the Far East. Years later, when Berg was revealed to have been an undercover operative for the United States during World War II, speculation bubbled up that he was selected for the 1934 trip in order to spy on the Japanese. While he did more than his share of clandestine sleuthing that fall, Fitts concludes that Berg did so on his own initiative, most likely for the thrill factor.

The Ivy League-educated backstop, who was fluent in a number of languages and gained enough Japanese to converse at least on a rudimentary level with his hosts, snuck away from the American party one afternoon to film off-limits areas with a movie camera. He later shared the footage with the U.S. government, and his spy career took off from there.

Fitts goes well beyond the American players, fleshing out a number of their Japanese counterparts, including young Eiji Sawamura, who was pitching for his high school team just months before facing off against the likes of Ruth, Gehrig, and Foxx. Though his final numbers were nothing special, for one magical afternoon he was every bit as good as the major leaguers he faced, holding them hitless into the fourth inning and scoreless until the Iron Horse lined a solo shot in the seventh. It was the closest the Americans would come to losing on the trip, as they eked out a 1-0 win over Sawamura, who convinced many of them he could succeed in the big leagues.

Sawamura became a national hero that fall. He would never again face the Americans on the diamond, though he squared off on a much bigger battlefield, serving three tours of duty before being killed in December 1944 when his ship was sunk by an American submarine. Like so many of his countrymen, Sawamura resented the United States and its allies, which had interfered with Japan’s goals of expanding into other parts of Asia.

On the day of Sawamura’s masterpiece, Japan’s military police arrested a number of conspirators at the Imperial Japanese Army Academy, foiling a coup that could very well have disrupted the goodwill tour. It was hardly the first such plot exposed. A number of nationalistic groups, bent on restoring power to the emperor, sought opportunities to overthrow the more moderate voices in charge of the country and were quite willing to employ violence to such end.

Fitts ranges back centuries to explain how these groups came to gain so much favor in the early 20th century. Many of them modeled their actions off the old-time samurai and felt their actions were necessary to save Japan. Most of them were not pleased with the affection showered upon the American ball players.

The history lessons in “Banzai Babe Ruth” go well beyond merely chronicling the games and the players. This is a well-researched, fascinatingly told tale of two super powers whose shared passion for baseball wasn’t enough to maintain the peace, though it did help to restore it in the years following World War II.

James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. His novel, The Greatest Show on Dirt, is now available. He can be contacted at jamesbailey@baseballamerica.com.

Majors | #2012 #Book Guide

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