What happens when goodwill and baseball collide?



By Robert K. Fitts (Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 2012, 368 pp., $34.95, hardcover)

Some 17 years after Nomo opened the door for Japanese players into the Major Leagues, author Robert K. Fitts has written his third book on the subject of Japanese baseball. Fitts’ recent release, “Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage & Assassination During the 1934 Tour of Japan,” is perhaps his most compelling effort yet.

With a doctorate from Brown University, Fitts is an adept researcher, including primary sources such as film footage and scrapbooks to present both an accurate and fascinating account of Babe Ruth’s historic baseball tour of pre-war Japan.

Fitts places Ruth’s 1934 tour within its context of tumultuous 1930s Japan. He weaves together such stories as an ultranationalist assassination attempt on the tour’s Japanese organizer, espionage by a U.S. player, and the efforts of a Nisei ballplayer to attract the attention of Major League scouts. The tour’s organizer, Yomiuri Shimbun owner Matsutaro Shoriki, was able to persuade Ruth to lead a team of all-star players to Japan with the hope of stirring enthusiasm for a Japanese professional league. Ruth, who had just finished his final year as a New York Yankee, was taken with the Japanese people and the incredible reception that he received. He, and many others, believed that his tour greatly alleviated the growing tensions between the U.S. and Japan, perhaps allowing the countries to avoid war.

The Americans would play 18 games against the Japanese, dominating every game, except one. In that game, a recent high school graduate named Eiji Sawamura began striking out the American stars one after another, and he never let up. Sawamura would lose his life in World War II, but remains an inspiration to the Japanese game, with the annual top-pitching award bearing his name.

Along with the excitement of the games, we tour Japan with the players, their wives, and manager, the venerable Connie Mack. From Sendai in the north to Kokura in the south, we visit the Meiji Shrine, Nagoya Castle and the temples of Kyoto. All the while, Fitts provides us with historic background, allowing us to better understand and appreciate the Japanese perspective, whether socially, politically, or on the baseball field.

For those who enjoy history, culture and baseball, this book is a great read. The author’s first effort, “Remembering Japanese Baseball: An Oral History of the Game,” appeared in 2005, followed by “Wally Yonamine, the Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball” in 2008. Following the tradition of baseball historian Robert Whiting (“You Gotta Have Wa” and “The Meaning of Ichiro: The New Wave from Japan and the Transformation of Our National Pastime”), Fitts shares with us entertaining and culture-revealing accounts that permeate the subject of our shared national pastime.

The University of Nebraska’s illustrated, 368-page “Banzai Babe Ruth” is available in hardcover, paperback and eBook formats.

Ralph Pearce is the author of the book “From Asahi to Zebras: Japanese American Baseball in San Jose, Calif. He can be contacted at ralph.m.pearce@gmail.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

See the 2024 CAAMFest