- Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, & Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan by Robert K Fitts
In Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, & Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan, author Robert K. Fitts recounts the events surrounding a goodwill tour of Japan by some of Major League Baseball’s top talent. The book is an extremely narrative account that pays considerable attention to events on the field while at the same time making important connections to those event’s influences on national affairs within Japan and international relations between the host country and the United States.
What started as a ploy by a Japanese newspaperman to increase subscriptions to his paper became over time, according to Fitts, one of the most important attempts to normalize relations between the two countries. Previous goodwill tours of Japan had been less than successful, to say the least, because American players consistently engaged in inappropriate actions on and off the field. Only upon the deepest assurances that the 1934 tour would not involve such embarrassing antics did Commissioner of Major League Baseball Kennesaw Mountain Landis agree to the trip. The marquee player for the American team was none other than Babe Ruth himself. The “Sultan of Swat’s” fame preceded him, and hundreds of thousands of Japanese fans packed the stadiums to see the Great Bambino. Accompanying Ruth on this tour were other high profile names like Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and manager Connie Mack.
The fanfare of the tour also provided opportunities for activities that were less friendly or athletic. On the American side was the shadowy figure of Moe Berg who would later join the Office of Strategic Services after World War II began and, Fitts hints, may have actually already been a spy taking film of Japanese military assets. For some Japanese, especially in the military, the goodwill tour was an intrusion of American decadence into a society they hoped to rein in and make more conservative. The organizer of the tour, Matsutaro Shoriki, even had an attempt made on his life for bringing the Americans to Japan.
The book also includes the reactions of some of Japan’s most famous baseball players, such as Eiji Sawamura. It was Sawamura who nearly beat the All-American team in a 1–0 nail biter that spiked Japanese nationalism and the idea that the World Series might actually one day have an international component if Japan could get a professional league up and running. Stories like Sawamura though highlight the ultimate failure of the tour in preserving goodwill between the United States and Japan. By 1944, Sawamura was in a Japanese military uniform and relished the opportunity to face the Americans on the battlefield rather than the baseball field. Fitts argues that the ultimate failure of the tour was the result of Japanese militarism through certain elements of the Japanese Army and hints that, had these groups not existed, baseball might have proved an adequately unifying activity of Japanese-American relations.
Banzai Babe Ruth’s greatest weakness is its lack of a clear thesis. While Fitts presents an interesting narrative, the connections between correlating events lacks the clear causality [End Page 172] of their incorporation into the book. While the Young Officers did plan to launch a coup against the Japanese government during the goodwill tour, its foiling at the hands of the Japanese Army and the subsequent cover-up of the coup’s existence until 1946 suggest that the event had a limited impact on Japanese-American relations. The book also focuses heavily on the specific games played during the tour sometimes at the exclusion of examining if and how the results of those games influenced the ability for the tour to accomplish its goal.
The book is based on extensive use of the papers of Moe Berg and Sotaro Suzuki as well as numerous periodicals of the period. Fitts’s use of a wealth of materials from both sides of the Pacific is impressive, though...