Review: “Banzai Babe Ruth” by Robert K. Fitts
Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan is a new book by Robert. K. Fitts released earlier this month. I was fortunate enough to receive a copy for review from the publisher.
This book was tough to put down, mainly because of the subtitle: unlike most other baseball books, this one is a narrative that provides a detailed account of the complex political situation in the years before and after the tour of a major-league All-Star team in Japan in 1934. As tensions between Japan and western powers had grown in the 1920s and 30s, many hoped this series of exhibition games would serve to lower the barrier between Japan and the U.S. While many felt after the fact this goal had been achieved, by the 1940s it was clear that peace had not been achieved. We now know that the bombing of Pearl Harbor nevertheless occurred in 1941, leading to a prolonged world war and the devastation of Japan.
Amid the political scene of Japan, the book includes a detailed account of how the 1934 tour came to pass, as well as a day-by-day diary of the touring party’s activities and each of the 22 games they played while abroad. But don’t be fooled–Fitts was not able to include a lot of baseball stories. Keep in mind that the tour was 75 years old when he researched the book, and the only surviving American from the group was Babe Ruth’s step-daughter, Julia. As sources of the actual game action, then, Fitts was limited to published accounts of the day, meaning that there is simply little inside detail to relay.
Nevertheless, the book is tremendously revealing about the forces at play in Japan, the meaning of the All American tour to people from both countries, and the evolution of baseball in Japan to the Nippon Professional Baseball Association, which started immediately after the 1934 tour.
Despite the fact that All Americans contained numerous superstar players (Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Fox, Charlie Gehringer, Earl Averill, and Lefty Gomez), it is Lefty O’Doul who reads as the hero of the account. It was he who was able to overcome the unprofessionalism of earlier American touring teams and who returned as manager of the San Francisco Seals after World War II to re-establish baseball in Japan.
The other player of particular interest is Moe Berg, who brought a video camera with him on the trip and apparently photographed many areas of military strategic interest. Near the conclusion of his book, Fitts does a wonderful job of teasing apart the various accounts of Berg’s career as a spy, separating what is known fact from conjecture and untruths.
Fitts’ book is limited by the amount of time that has passed since the events he describes. While much is made of how Matsutaro Shoriki came to own the Yomiuri Shimbun, the newspaper that sponsored the 1934 tour, he quickly fades into the background of the story, save for a brief mention of an assassination attempt against him occurring after the tour. One must presume that little information was available on how the tour affected the newspaper’s finances or how Shoriki spent the remainder of his life.
Similarly, there are frequent mentions of Jimmie Foxx’s struggles to recover from a beaning and Connie Mack’s intention to switch him to catcher, but following the series of games Foxx isn’t mentioned a single time despite having 8 more spectacular seasons in the majors after the tour.
These shortcomings, however, are a product of what material is available, and there’s no doubt that Fitts mined every resource available for this book, as he has unearthed hundreds of relevant facts and published accounts.
Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with the author and a chance to win a copy of his book.
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