Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan

Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan

by Robert K. Fitts
Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan

Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan

by Robert K. Fitts


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In November 1934 as the United States and Japan drifted toward war, a team of American League all-stars that included Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, future secret agent Moe Berg, and Connie Mack barnstormed across the Land of the Rising Sun. Hundreds of thousands of fans, many waving Japanese and American flags, welcomed the team with shouts of “Banzai! Banzai, Babe Ruth!” The all-stars stayed for a month, playing 18 games, spawning professional baseball in Japan, and spreading goodwill.
Politicians on both sides of the Pacific hoped that the amity generated by the tour—and the two nations’ shared love of the game—could help heal their growing political differences. But the Babe and baseball could not overcome Japan’s growing nationalism, as a bloody coup d’état by young army officers and an assassination attempt by the ultranationalist War Gods Society jeopardized the tour’s success. A tale of international intrigue, espionage, attempted murder, and, of course, baseball, Banzai Babe Ruth is the first detailed account of the doomed attempt to reconcile the United States and Japan through the 1934 All American baseball tour. Robert K. Fitts provides a wonderful story about baseball, nationalism, and American and Japanese cultural history.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496210005
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 08/01/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 368
File size: 12 MB
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About the Author

Robert K. Fitts graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and received a PhD from Brown University. Originally trained as an archeologist of colonial America, Fitts left that field to focus on his passion, Japanese baseball. He is also the author of Remembering Japanese Baseball: An Oral History of the Game and Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball (Nebraska, 2008).

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Matsutaro Shoriki sorted through the papers on his desk, trying to finish his work before his next appointment. The third-largest newspaper in Japan generated a lot of paperwork, but that was a blessing in disguise. It had not always been that way. There were fewer papers five years earlier when Shoriki bought the struggling Yomiuri Shimbun in 1924. Even though he had no previous experience in the news or publishing industry, Shoriki was confident he could turn the company around. Once he focused on a task, he rarely failed. For example, he had become a judo master, Third Dan, by the time he had graduated Tokyo Imperial University — an accomplishment that required many years of dedication for most men. That particular skill had been useful in his previous career as a police inspector; it may have saved his life during the suffrage riots. In February 1920 nearly one hundred thousand protesters had snaked through Tokyo to the home of Prime Minister Kei Hara to demand his resignation. As they reached the minister's compound, a stocky figure blocked the small gate. Shoriki spread his arms wide, demanding that the crowd disperse. An agitator rushed forward. Seconds later, Shoriki had the attacker immobilized and arrested. The police inspector then scanned the crowd, spotted its organizer, plunged into the mob, and emerged with his target in an arm hold. After the arrest, the leaderless mob melted away.

Shoriki had enjoyed his time as a policeman. His daring was celebrated within the department, but he usually relied on guile rather than physical force. Twice he quelled riots by withdrawing his officers and appealing to the crowds' leaders to respect decency. Shoriki rose through the ranks and, at thirty-six years old, became the director of the Secretariat of the Metropolitan Police Board — the chief of staff for Tokyo's police force. But his career had collapsed in just one day.

On December 27, 1923, Prince Regent (and future emperor) Hirohito along with his chief chamberlain, Viscount Tamemori Iriye, traveled by car from the Akasaka Palace to the Japanese parliament. At the Toranomon intersection, twenty-seven-year-old Daisuke Namba stepped out of the crowd, drew a pistol, and fired into the prince regent's car. The window shattered as the bullet narrowly missed Hirohito's head. The crowd detained Namba, who was later executed for the assassination attempt. That evening Prime Minister Gonbei Yamamoto and his cabinet submitted their resignations. Shoriki along with the patrolmen assigned to the Toranomon area were dismissed.

Only two months later Shoriki borrowed one hundred thousand yen (about fifty thousand dollars at the time) and purchased Yomiuri. The paper had a circulation of just forty thousand and was losing money through poor management. Shoriki reduced expenses by cutting waste, instituting rigid employee work hours, and collecting outstanding bills. He pushed himself hard, putting in long hours, and expected his employees to do likewise. He habitually told his staff, "I'm going to work five times as hard as the presidents of the other Tokyo newspapers. Therefore, the least you can do is work twice as hard as the other editors." He increased circulation by focusing on sensational crime and by adding household and entertainment sections, a religious column, and comics. By 1929 Yomiuri's circulation had jumped nearly fivefold, but Shoriki still searched for ways to surpass rival papers.

On this day, his old schoolmate Shigenori Ikeda arrived at the appointed time. The two friends could not have looked less alike. Ikeda, young looking for his thirty-seven years, had a thin, almost feminine face supporting a stylish haircut complete with a flip in front. The dour Shoriki looked older than forty-four. The remaining hair on his balding head was closely cropped, and his heavy-rimmed black glasses with his thick neck gave him an unmistakable turtle-like appearance. Photographs rarely show the uncompromising Shoriki smiling.

Ikeda was the father of the eugenics movement in Japan. He joined the newspaper staff at Hochi Shimbunsoon after college and became their correspondent in Germany from 1919 to 1924. There, he became enthralled by the growing field of eugenics, gaining a doctorate from Jena University before returning to Japan. He founded the Japan Eugenic Exercise/Movement Association in 1926 and the journal Eugenic Exercise/Movement the following year. Unlike later practitioners in the field, who favored sterilizing individuals with genetic disabilities, Ikeda advocated building a stronger gene pool through physical exercise, hygiene, and marriages of compatible couples from distinct geographical and genealogical lines. He crusaded against cousin marriage — a common early-twentieth-century Japanese practice. To help individuals find suitable spouses, Ikeda set up eugenic marriage counseling and even matchmaking services at high-end department stores.

The two sat in Shoriki's office, discussing the newspaper business while sipping coffee. Shoriki's coffee was notorious. Sold in cheap cups for five sen (about two cents) in the newspaper's cafeteria, it was as bitter as coffee could get. But Shoriki seemed to love it and had it brought to his office for guests. Eventually, the August heat and humidity became unbearable, and they climbed to the roof of the blocklike concrete building to cool off. The Yomiuri building was just three stories, but the high ceilings of its top two floors made it tower above the surrounding old-fashioned wooden shops.

Soon after the friends settled on the roof, Ikeda shifted the conversation to baseball — in particular Babe Ruth, the star of the New York Yankees. Shoriki had founded a baseball team while in middle school, but had abandoned the sport and now had little interest in the game. He barely listened.

"How about it, Shoriki-san? If we brought Babe Ruth to Japan, he'd be a big hit."

"What? Babe Ruth ... ?" Shoriki refocused his attention on Ikeda as his friend repeated the idea. Shoriki could promote his newspaper and attract new subscribers by bringing Babe Ruth and a team of American ballplayers to Japan. The newspaper owner remained quiet, then asked, "Why don't you do it over at your company?"

"It's no good," Ikeda said.

"You brought it up with them, Ikeda-kun?"

"Not just Hochi, but Mainichi, Asahi, Jiji. ... None of them wants to take the risk."

"And why not?" asked Shoriki.

"The money."

"How much would such a thing take?"

"Two hundred and fifty thousand yen."

"I see," said Shoriki with a short intake of breath. "That's not cheap." In 1929 250,000 yen was equivalent to $115,000.

Shoriki considered the idea. Below, small wooden barges, laden with dry goods, glided down the rock-lined canal that had once formed the outer moat of medieval Edo castle. Men with long poles stood in the sterns, punting the boats along. Baseball was Japan's most popular spectator sport, with thousands attending top collegiate games. Perhaps there was money to be made there.

Although not a fan, Shoriki knew a little about baseball from publishing the newspaper. He probably knew that soon after Horace Wilson introduced the game to his students at Kaisei Gakko in 1872, Hiroshi Hiraoka created Japan's first adult team. In 1871 the Japanese government had sent the fifteen-year-old Hiraoka to the United States to study locomotive engineering. Hiraoka returned with a thorough understanding of railroads and helped set up Japan's extensive rail system, but the young man also brought back a ball, a wooden bat, and a love for baseball. In 1878 he created the Shimbashi Athletic Club and built Japan's first field in 1882. The game spread throughout the country, and by the late 1880s amateur leagues played in Tokyo.

Shoriki certainly knew about the Ichiko high school team and their celebrated victory over the adult American players from the Yokohama Country Club in 1896 — he was a baseball-playing eleven-year-old at the time, and the game was big news. He would have also watched the game spread to Tokyo's colleges at the turn of the century. By 1903 Waseda and Keio university teams had become the pinnacle of Japanese baseball, with games between the rival universities attracting thousands of fans and sometimes igniting riots.

To improve their game, Waseda's team traveled to the United States in 1905, beginning a long tradition of transpacific baseball tours. After stopping in Hawaii, Waseda traveled to the West Coast, playing college and amateur teams. They returned with up-to-date equipment and tactics. Two years later the St. Louis School of Hon-olulu became the first American team to tour Japan. American and Japanese universities soon began regular baseball exchanges. Between 1905 and 1929 sixteen American college teams came to the Land of the Rising Sun, while seventeen Japanese squads traveled to the U.S. mainland.

But these amateur exchanges did not interest Shoriki. Although Japanese fans had flocked to watch American collegians at the beginning of the century, the fans would no longer pay much to watch amateurs. Visiting professional and especially Major League teams, however, could fill the stadiums and help sell newspapers. The first pro team came to Japan in 1908, only a year after the St. Louis School tour. Hoping to gain an overseas market, the Reach Sporting Goods Company organized a team of Major and Minor Leaguers for seventeen games in Japan. The Reach All Americans contained no stars (the most recognizable names were Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty's little brother Jim of the Washington Senators and his teammate Bill Burns), but they won all of their games comfortably. Fans jammed the stadiums to watch the professionals. Against Keio University, the six-thousand-seat capacity stadium sold out, and fans had to be turned away.

The Chicago Tribune reported so favorably on the All Americans' reception that Japan was included on the 1913–14 Major League World Tour. The Chicago White Sox and New York Giants (both reinforced with players from other teams) traveled thirty thousand miles through thirteen countries over four and a half months to "transplant America's game in athletic and sport-loving countries." The Major Leaguers stayed in Japan for four days, playing two games against each other and a third against Keio University. Once again, the rabid fans surprised the visiting ballplayers. The dock at the port of Yokohama was draped with banners and packed with supporters and sportswriters to welcome the teams. Crowds followed the players' cars as they traveled through Tokyo, while eighteen thousand attended the three games. World War I, however, precluded further international baseball tours for the remainder of the decade.

In 1920 a Californian promoter named Gene Doyle formed a team of Minor Leaguers sprinkled with journeyman Major Leaguers to barnstorm in Japan. The squad included an outfielder from the San Francisco Seals named Herbert Hunter, who would become known as the "Baseball Ambassador to the Orient." Hunter had been a rookie with great promise when he joined the New York Giants in 1916, but in four big league seasons hit just .163 in thirty-nine games. During his brief time in the Majors and several subsequent seasons in the Pacific Coast League (PCL), Hunter became known as an eccentric who was the butt of almost every clubhouse joke. Although friendly, with a charming smile, the young man was so absentminded that his manager would escort him to the railroad station to ensure that he would not miss the team's road trips. Once in a tie game with bases loaded and one out, Hunter caught a fly ball in center field, stuffed it into his back pocket, and jogged to the dugout.

Doyle's team played six games in Japan, winning five comfortably and one against Keio University by a 1–0 score. The players, however, managed to embarrass their hosts. The exact nature of their indiscretions is lost to time, as contemporary articles refer to them only as "regrettable features" and note that the inclusion of wives in future tours would curtail further undesirable behavior. Hunter, alone, was exonerated. He adored Japan and returned the following winter to coach teams from Waseda and Keio universities and arrange a true Major League tour for the fall of 1922.

Embarrassed by the problems of the 1920 tour, Major League Baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis seized control of the 1922 affair. He first instructed Hunter to select players known "not only for playing skill but for good deportment" and then appointed umpire George Moriarty "with instructions to keep a sharp eye on the deportment of the tourists; and to report to the [Advisory] Council any infractions of the accepted rules of good behavior." Hunter put together the first all-star team to visit Japan. The team included future Hall of Famers Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, George Kelly, and Casey Stengel as well as lesser stars. Before the team departed from Vancouver, Landis sent the team an open letter. "The institution of baseball will be advanced by your individual and collective performances" and "is keenly interested in having the tour reflect credit upon our national game and its professional players. Of course the players appreciate the necessity and importance of maintaining the high standards of play and sportsmanship and of personal conduct on and off the field which they observe during the regular championship season."Considering the after-hours pastimes of many ballplayers during "the regular championship season," the behavior of Doyle's 1920 squad must have been particularly depraved.

The team played seventeen games, giving the Japanese their first extended look at how baseball was played at its highest level. As in the past, the Japanese reacted with unbridled enthusiasm. Between six and ten thousand fans attended each game, despite tickets priced between $0.50 and $2.50 each (during the same year, the average ticket price for all of Yankee Stadium's seats was just $0.70).

Despite Landis's precautions, the '22 team nonetheless created a controversy. After the Americans won the first six games by a 58–1 combined score, attendance started to dwindle. In the seventh game, the All Stars faced off against a Keio University alumni team, known as the Mita Club. Stacked with the best former Keio players, including a slim left-handed pitcher named Michimaro Ono, Mita could field a stronger nine than their alma mater. To nearly everybody's surprise, Ono held the Americans to just three runs as the Japanese scored nine off Waite Hoyt to win the game. The upset made instant heroes of Ono and his teammates, but not all the local baseball pundits were pleased. Many claimed that the Americans had thrown the game to increase attendance in the remaining contests. In any case, Hoyt became the only Major Leaguer to lose to a Japanese team before World War II.

The loss incensed Landis, and no other Major League team toured Japan during the remainder of the 1920s. Collegiate and semipro teams filled the gap until the Philadelphia Royal Giants, a squad of Negro League players that included Biz Mackey and Rap Dixon, came in 1927. The Royal Giants played twenty-four games, losing just one to Michimaro Ono, who was then pitching for Daimai. The Japanese victory, however, was tainted, as the umpires had mistakenly disallowed the Royal Giants' tying run. Although the umpires had made a clear error, the Royal Giants showed uncommon sportsmanship and accepted the blunder without complaint. Japanese players and scribes noted that the Negro Leaguers conducted themselves far better than their white counterparts. On the field they did not run up the score or employ demeaning plays, such as having the fielders sit down as the pitcher struck out the side. Off the field, the Royal Giants behaved themselves, unlike the sometimes-rowdy big leaguers. Fans swarmed the stadiums to watch the Royal Giants play flawless defense and pound mammoth home runs, but at the same time keep the scores close enough to make the games interesting.

Based on the success of past Major League tours, Shoriki realized that Ikeda's plan had merit. Sponsoring an all-star team and covering the event in his paper would certainly lead to more sales, and if he could bring Ruth ... It would be a gamble, but then all his life Shoriki had taken risks. The newspaper owner often reminisced about a lesson he learned in 1906 — a lesson that colored his approach to life.

During Shoriki's senior year at the Fourth Higher School of Kanazawa, the school's athletic teams traveled to Kyoto for an interscholastic match. The Kyoto school beat Kanazawa at baseball, tennis, and fencing. Only judo remained, but Kyoto's top judo wrestler, Tomojiro Kojima, was a master — Second Dan — although still a schoolboy. Kojima, looking unbeatable, had already defeated four Kanazawa wrestlers when Shoriki stepped into the ring. Rather than opening with the standard move toward the opponent's sleeve and neck band, young Shoriki gambled. With a yell, he threw himself at Kojima and tried a desperate off-balance throw. If Kojima had maintained his composure, he could have pinned Shoriki within seconds. But he didn't. The surprise worked, and Shoriki knocked Kojima to the ground. Wrapping his hands around the Kyoto wrestler's throat, Shoriki held tight until the referee declared Kojima defeated. From that moment on, Shoriki knew he would have to gamble to succeed in life.


Excerpted from "Banzai Babe Ruth"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Robert K. Fitts.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations viii

Recurring Japanese Characters ix

Prologue xiii

Part 1 "When I say I'll do something, I bet my life on it." 1

Part 2 "Babe Ruth … is a great deal more effective Ambassador than I could ever be." 83

Part 3 "The Japanese are equal to the Americans in strength of spirit." 153

Part 4 "There will be no war between the United States" and Japan." 193

Part 5 "To hell with Babe Ruth!" 233

Appendix 1 TheAll American Touring Party 273

Appendix 2 Tour Batting and Pitching Statistics 275

Appendix 3 Tour Game Line Scores 277

Acknowledgments 281

Notes 285

Bibliography 299

Index 309

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