Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan
Robert K. Fitts
University of Nebraska Press, 2012
368 pp., 34.95
Transpacific Field of Dreams: How Baseball Linked the United States and Japan in Peace and War
The University of North Carolina Press, 2012
344 pp., 68.43
Michael R. Stevens
Banzai Babe Ruth
Fitts weaves his strands craftily. The Babe at first refused to go, until New York-based Japanese sportswriter Sotaro Suzuki showed him the posters, in English and Japanese, featuring Ruth's familiar visage, looking slightly Oriental, which had already been created in Tokyo by Judo master, former policeman, and Yomiuri newspaper editor Matsutaro Shoriki (who would later barely survive an attack by ultranationalists for his part in bringing the decadent Ruth to Nippon). When Babe relented, a powerful team was quickly assembled, with power-hitters Jimmy Foxx (who suffered a brutal beaning on the trip) and Lou Gehrig (whom Ruth was no longer speaking to) among others. Three Hall of Famers with about 1500 homers between them, heading to a nation obsessed with a brand of baseball still strongly influenced by the small-ball ways unveiled in Japan during John McGraw's legendary visit with his Giants (including Jim Thorpe) on their 1913 World Baseball Tour. The results of the games, despite Japanese hopes in their more or less collegiate heroes, were a foregone conclusion (the All Americans won all 16 games against the All Nippons), but nothing else on this tour, Fitts points out, was quite as it seemed.
For one thing, despite having been cut loose by the Yankees, despite the toll taken by age and high living, the Babe wasn't quite done as a player. Though he took his role as manager of the squad seriously, both to prove wrong the Yankee brass who had just overlooked him, and to sway his potential employer, Connie Mack, the Babe knew the whole point of the tour was for the Japanese fans to see him play. Fitts points out that the Babe worked out diligently on the cruise across the Pacific, curbing his legendary appetites somewhat (the presence of his second wife, Claire, and adult step-daughter, Julia, may have helped, at least for a time). The initial motorcade through Tokyo found the Babe picking up in Japan what he'd lost in America, or at least New York—adoration: " 'Banzai! Banzai! Babe Ruth!' they screamed. Reveling in the attention, the Bambino grabbed American and Japanese flags from the crowd and waved one in each hand as he stood in the rear of the limousine." Likewise, at the plate Ruth found what had eluded him in his waning days with the Yankees—his power stroke. The Babe led the All Americans with 13 home runs and 33 RBIs on the trip, despite foul weather and wearisome travel schedules. Indeed, during one rain-soaked game, the Babe reprised his 1932 World Series "called shot" against the Cubs, but this time in galoshes: "Ruth stepped to the plate and dug in his big rubber boots. The crowd laughed and began chanting, 'Home run! Home run!' Hamazaki's pitch came right down the middle, belt high, and the Sultan of Swat connected with a mighty swing. The ball rose in a majestic arc and sailed over the right-field seating area and into the mist beyond." Apparently ready for the pasture back in his own country and league and city, The Bambino found in Japan the energy and spirit for one more go-around.
Likewise, the diplomatic beneficence of this 1934 tour, lauded on all sides and underscored by the massive crowds and glowing press reports, was in some respects deeply misleading. The All Americans arrived just as the U.S.-England-Japan Pacific naval treaty talks had fallen apart, and with Japanese troops firmly lodged in Manchuria. The time for a friendly bit of discourse seemed to be at hand, with the mutual love for baseball the perfect foil for the failures of government and policymakers. Alas, true reconciliation was already out of reach.
In Japan, militant nationalism was on the rise. One can easily get lost as Fitts traces the web of different groups, many centered around younger military officers and martial arts dojos, with names like the War Gods Society, the Cherry Society, and the Young Officers, all intent on the Showa Restoration, whereby the Emperor would be re-installed in full power to lead Japan to world dominance. Fitts relates several foiled coup plots, some actually overlapping with the All Americans tour. Sotaro Suzuki, who served as the tour secretary, "wrote that members of the ultranationalist groups visited him during his stay at the Imperial Hotel to complain about the All Americans' presence and warn him that the visit could have serious consequences." Furthermore, the unanimous favor with which the Americans celebrated modern Japan was misplaced: "The players' itinerary had been carefully arranged. They saw nothing of Japan's rural poverty … and had little inkling of the social and military unrest." Connie Mack, among others, was led to make inflated claims that no war would ever occur between America and Japan, and one American journalist went so far as to assert that " 'Plainly, the ball players' tour of Japan accomplished more toward engendering regard and respect for America than any notes our politicians might send across the cable." But the line of reasoning that baseball had "almost supernatural abilities … to initiate harmony and world peace," a bromide which had been in circulation since the 1880s, turned out to be wrong, as World War II brutally revealed.