In November 1934, the U.S. Major League Baseball All-Stars were on a noteworthy tour to Japan. The story of that tour is engagingly told in Robert K. Fitts’ new book, “Banzai Babe Ruth.”
Actually, Fitts’ book is about much more than baseball: the subtitle is “Baseball, Espionage, & Assassination During the 1934 Tour of Japan.” There is a lot about intercultural relationships and politics, as well as baseball, in the book. I found it a most interesting read.
The manager of the American team was the venerable Cornelius McGillicuddy (1862-1956), better known as Connie Mack.
(Incidentally, Connie Mack’s grandson, Connie Mack III, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1983 to 1989 and the U.S. Senate from 1989 to 2001, and his great-grandson, Connie Mack IV, currently serves in the House, although he lost his seat in this month’s election.)
The All-Stars were headed by Babe Ruth, who was extremely popular in Japan, and included other notable players, such as Lou Gehrig and “Lefty” Gomez.
On Nov. 2, the U.S. team arrived on the Empress of Japan, and 5,000 Japanese fans greeted them with shouts of “Banzai!”
Fifteen games were played between the U.S. and Japanese All-Stars – and the U.S. team won them all, with Ruth hitting 11 home runs.
The closest game was played in Shizuoka on Nov. 20, and the Americans won by a score of 1-0 on Gehrig’s home run in the sixth inning. The Japanese pitcher was the 17-year-old Eiji Sawamura.
(Japan’s equivalent to the Cy Young Award is the Sawamura Award, which has been given to the best professional pitchers in Japan since 1947. It was named, of course, in honor of Eiji Sawamura. The award was given to Yu Darvish in 2007 and Hisashi Iwakuma in 2008; they were both starting pitchers in U.S. Major League Baseball this year.)
Connie Mack was so impressed by Sawamura’s performance that he tried to sign him to a Major League contract. Sawamura declined, saying, “My problem is I hate America, and I can’t make myself like Americans.”
At the time, though, according to Fitts’ book, the Americans were very positive about baseball diplomacy. During the 1934 tour, U.S. Ambassador Joseph Grew said, “Babe Ruth … is a great deal more effective Ambassador than I could ever be.”
Connie Mack said that the trip did “more for the better understanding between Japanese and Americans than all the diplomatic exchanges ever accomplished.”
Mack also declared that “there would be no war between the United States and Japan, pointing out that war talk died out after the All-Star team reached Nippon.”
But such sentiment did not hold. Seven years later, Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered the bloody Pacific War.
In the ensuring conflict, some in the Japanese infantry screamed “To hell with Babe Ruth!” as “they charged to their deaths across the mangrove swamps of the South Pacific.”
After seven stellar years as a pitcher for the Yomiuri Giants, Sawamura, who hated America even as a teenager, enlisted in the service for the Emperor. He died in battle in 1943.
As for Ruth, he was “absolutely furious” when he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. “For him,” wrote Fitts, “Pearl Harbor was a personal betrayal.”
But just before his death from cancer in 1948, Ruth reflected: “Despite the treacherous attack the Japanese made on us only seven years later, I cannot help but feel that the reception which millions of Japanese gave us was genuine. … No doubt there were plenty of stinkers among them; but looking back at the visit I feel it is another example of how a crackpot government can lead a friendly people to war.”
The latter statement, perhaps, also describes the United States in 2003.
Leroy Seat was a missionary to Japan from 1966-2004 and is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church. This column appeared previously on his blog.