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

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Transpacific Field of Dreams: How Baseball Linked the United States and Japan in Peace and War
Transpacific Field of Dreams: How Baseball Linked the United States and Japan in Peace and War
Sayuri Guthrie-Shimizu
The University of North Carolina Press, 2012
344 pp., 68.43

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Michael R. Stevens


Banzai Babe Ruth

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The Americans were not free of duplicity—embodied, at least in nascent form on this trip, in the person of Moe Berg. His story, that of an Ivy League-educated multi-lingual back-up catcher with a penchant for filming and photographing interesting and sometimes off-limits locales throughout Japan, is one of the highlights of the narrative, though Fitts is careful to downplay claims that Berg was already a secret agent for the U.S. government in 1934. But Berg did travel to Japan with a peculiar letter of introduction to the U.S. Consul. Most intriguingly, the panoramic movie footage he took after entering the tower of a Tokyo hospital in Japanese garb and under false pretenses was used by the U.S. military to determine targets for air strikes against the Japanese capital a decade later. But at the time of the tour, the cloak-and-dagger life was likely just a dream for the him, along with mastering Japanese written script, finishing at Columbia Law School, and maybe returning to the solid defensive form that had made him the White Sox number-one catcher in 1928 and '29. If not yet a spy on this trip, Berg was certainly a cultural snoop, longing to know and perhaps to be known in Washington (he had played for the Senators and was a regular at embassy parties) in ways no ordinary ballplayer would have coveted.

And Berg is only one colorful figure among many in Fitts' narrative whose backstories (and forward stories) make them more than simply incidental figures. Fitts has an eye for the quirky details that make historical writing vivid. There is the story of Jimmy Horio, for example, born in Japan but raised in Hawaii (a longtime hotbed of ethnically rich baseball culture), who appeared on the All Nippon squad as a tacit "tryout" to see if the American big leagues would recognize his talent. Alas, he had a bad few weeks at the plate and missed this opprtunity, but he eventually made it to the high-level minors in the Pacific Coast League, playing against the DiMaggio brothers, and even playing in the Japanese professional league that Shoriki started in 1936. Eventually he moved back to Hawaii, and was living a mile or so from Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. His brother, meantime, had moved back to the family city of origin, Hiroshima, where he lived until the atomic bomb drop in August of 1945 killed him and so many others.

In a similar tangle of possibility and tragedy, the life of Eiji Sawamura is cast by Fitts in a trajectory out from those few weeks in November 1934, when this 17-year-old pitcher, only a few months removed from his secondary school championships, and in forfeiture of the amateur status that would have landed him at one of the Tokyo Big Six universities to pitch at the height of glory, chose to face down the All Americans. In keeping with the code of Japanese baseball that matched the old Bushido vision of discipline and honor, Sawamura approached the American batters "as samurai dueling to the death with glittering swords. It was a spiritual battle, to see who could outlast the other, will the other to submit." This outlook was prevalent in Japanese baseball, which had evolved during the late 19th century in "an approach to the game called Seishin Yakyu (Spirit Baseball) that emphasized unquestioning loyalty to the coach-manager and team as well as long hours of grueling practice to improve both players' skills and mental endurance …. Difficult workouts were known as 'Bloody Urine Practice,' as players would pass blood later in the evening. Despite the challenges, players were forbidden to speak of the pain but could only proclaim, 'It itches!' " Not the image of the blithe, pastoral game, nor even the hard-drinking, hard-driving big league life, that American baseball promulgated.

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