The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan



Batting for Baseball’s Future

By Vicki L. Beyer

Book I cannot watch a baseball game at Meiji Jingu Stadium without thinking about Babe Ruth. After all, it is one of the few stadiums still standing in which the great icon played.

In November 1934, Babe Ruth and 14 other American Major League Baseball players toured Japan, playing 22 games in 12 cities from Hakodate, Hokkaido, to Kokura, Kyushu. Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan is the story of that time.

It stands to reason that the tale of a group of American athletes touring Japan in the mid-1930s is more than just a sports story.

Author Robert K. Fitts peels back layers to show the rise of baseball in Japan and its infancy as a professional sport.

He also describes the impressions Japan made on the American tourists, and the cultural and political assumptions of key individuals on both sides of the ocean, as well as the widening rift between Japan and the United States that was briefly narrowed by this tour.

Fitts provides details of the games themselves that are, at times, so lively that one can almost hear a radio announcer. These descriptions are supplemented by appendices containing batting and pitching stats as well as tour game line scores.

The book begins with a brief but excellent overview of the history of baseball in Japan, documenting the sport’s growing popularity.

Between 1905 and 1929 there were nearly annual trips by Japanese college teams to America and vice versa. There were also half a dozen tours by professional players between 1913 and 1931.

Notwithstanding the political challenges relating to Japan’s military expansion, particularly in China, by the mid-1930s the time was ripe for the establishment of professional baseball in Japan.

As part of that effort, the Yomiuri Shimbun sponsored the 1934 tour of American major leaguers to play against a team of Japan’s best college players (and a couple of promising high school talents).

The assembly of the American squad is an interesting tale. Some players who had visited Japan before, like Lefty O’Doul and Lou Gehrig, were not too hard to convince, but Babe Ruth’s first response was, “Why would I want to go there?”

The team that ultimately made the journey was one of the strongest in baseball history, nearly all of them future Hall of Famers.

One of the most pleasing aspects of this book is the way in which Fitts introduces various individuals and their stories.

Whether it is the scrappy but determined publisher of The Yomiuri Shimbun, the Japanese high school star pitcher who gave up his chance at college to play against the American major leaguers, the Japanese-American hopeful who played on the Japanese squad in the hope of being invited back to the major league, the Japanese military officer who hoped to lead a successful coup d’etat, or the American athletes and members of their entourage, Fitts stitches their tales together to produce a sweeping overview of time and place.

One particularly interesting American player was Moe Berg, catcher for the Cleveland Indians.

Some of Berg’s behavior during the tour and his subsequent wartime work for the United States Office of Strategic Services—a wartime intelligence unit—has led to speculation that he was, in fact, spying on behalf of his government during the tour.

Fitts provides some interesting facts and analysis—but I won’t spoil the surprise.

The tour was successful on many levels, generating substantial goodwill on both sides. But alas, not enough goodwill to prevent war.

The last section of the book reveals the wartime and postwar experiences of many of the Japanese and Americans involved in the 1934 tour, as well as a taste of early postwar professional baseball in Japan.



Vicki L. Beyer is a vice president of the ACCJ.