No matter how popular the NFL or NBA becomes, baseball still holds the title of America’s pastime. For over a century it has been seen as a way to connect Americans with fellow countrymen and those from abroad, but is that a true representation? Baseball has also served as a backdrop to larger diplomatic and political issues, but what role if any has it played? Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, & Assassination During the 1934 Tour of Japan, the most recent work of Robert K. Fitts, explores these questions while detailing the infamous All-Star tour that took place on the eve of world war.
Fitts stuffs many different aspects of the 1934 tour into his story, sharing multiple perspectives of how everything played into the politics and on the baseball diamond. The more fascinating include Matsutaro Shokiri, the Japanese newspaperman determined to make the tour happen to improve his business standing; Moe Berg, the multilingual light hitting catcher who engaged in acts of unsanctioned espionage when not playing; and Babe Ruth, the iconic slugger at the end of his career but still reveling in his status as the most famous athlete in the world. Their stories are made all the more interesting when told in the context of the crumbling American/Japanese diplomatic relations and the political ferment of some Japanese wishing to restore the honor of the Meiji Dynasty.
There is a multitude of other intriguing characters and plot lines, which are positives and also a hindrance. The diversity of perspective creates a three hundred and sixty degree view, allowing the reader to see how events unfolded from all sides. Fitts is careful to let the story unfold, giving equal shrift to as many characters and sub-plots as possible. While this is a comprehensive approach, it ultimately is a little distracting in trying to keep track of them all.
The powerful role of baseball in American and Japanese cultures is also explored in some depth. The tour itself came at the height of America’s love affair with the game. American policy makers had previously believed that the game could possibly bridge any gap between nations. No matter how insistent Americans were that baseball was their national game, the Japanese proved that it could be easily adapted to fit their own cultural needs and it had gained immense popularity in their country by 1934. Regardless, there was hope that stars like Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx could tap into Japan’s new love of baseball to help repair diplomacy that had reached tenuous levels, but Fitts shows the two things turned out to be apples and oranges.
Japan’s burgeoning love affair with baseball at the time of the tour is also explored by Fitts. In addition to enormous crowds who often slept outside the stadium to obtain tickets to see the Americans, the tour coincided with Japan exploring its own professional leagues. Previously, Japanese baseball had been relegated mainly to universities and school boys, with an emphasis on modeling the game on samurai principles. This is driven home by the wildly entertaining but intense description of manager Suishu Tobita’s “hi no renshu” (death training); his expectation that his players practice until “they were half dead, motionless, and froth was coming out of their mouths.”
Despite the greatest hopes for a far reaching impact by the tour, Fitts’ findings show results ranging from the disappointing to the tragic. Its greatest American achievement was in bringing baseball star power to a country that had become obsessed with the game. Many Japanese enjoyed the spectacle, but another segment of their society saw it as a representation of how their country was straying from a principled past- feelings that helped forge a course towards the devastation of World War II. Banzai Babe Ruth is a fascinating read that proves to even the most hardcore fan that baseball is not infallible, particularly when it comes to international diplomatic relations.
*Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of the book being reviewed by the publisher, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.*