Thursday, January 26, 2012

102. Beibu Rusu: The Babe In Japan

When my buddy Charlie Vascellaro and I were taking the Babe Ruth Museum Traveling Exhibit around the country back in '02, one of the best things about the job was the personal stories people were constantly telling us about their own, or someone they knew, had with The Babe. Most of the stories culminated in getting the cherished autograph of the big man. I don't think anyone else in the history of the world signed their own name as much as The Babe. In a day and age where guys like Barry Bond will deliberately ignore young children politely asking for a signature (I witnessed it myself, it was an episode that still turns my stomach), the stories of The Babe delaying the departure of the Yankees' team bus on a humid summer afternoon because he couldn't bring himself to leave until every scrap of paper handed to him by little children and blushing adults had his signature on it. I often wondered what went through The Babe's mind as he signed ball after ball, had his meals interrupted by a request to sign a cocktail napkin or confronted a typical day's mail delivery that held countless requests for that most famous of autographs.

I think The Babe looked on it as his obligation to the people who made him famous, a small price to pay for the love, money and adulation he now received and that his childhood so tragically lacked. We've all seen the newsreel footage of him standing on a ledge in New York, tossing brand-new baseballs with his signature to hundreds of screaming fans in the street. He's laughing so hard at the joy his autograph gave the people below. After re-watching this footage once, I realized how many hours he must have sat in a room and signed ball after ball.

Earlier this week, as I was devouring Rob Fitts' new book "Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball Espionage & Assassination During the 1934 Tour of Japan", I read a great passage about how The Babe was relaxing one night in his suite at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo when there was a knock at the door. An old Japanese man in a kimono bowed and handed a ball to The Babe: "sign please". The old man didn't have a pen so The Babe went back into his suite and got his own which he used to sign the ball and returned it to the old man. The old man bowed in thanks and out from his kimono sleeve rolled another ball. "Sign please" said the old man and The Babe signed the second ball. The old man bowed again and out rolled a third ball: "sign please" and The Babe did again. As Ruth's wife and daughter watched laughing, The Babe and the old man repeated the same drill more than a dozen times until there were no more balls to sign and the old man bowed and left. As Fitts writes "the amused Ruth took it in stride."

So this week I just wanted to pay tribute to Babe Ruth and how something so simple and free as his signature could bring so much happiness to so many people, as well as introduce you to a really spectacular book, the aforementioned "Banzai Babe Ruth." I've written about the 1934 Tour of Japan in my stories on Moe Berg, Eiji Sawamura and Victor Starffin and Fitt's book brings them all together in a great tale of baseball, spying and murder. I haven't read a baseball book this good in a very long time I can't recommend it enough. Here is what Rob has to say about his new book:

Nearly 500,000 screaming fans lined the streets of Tokyo on November 2, 1934, to welcome Babe Ruth and his team of American all stars to Japan. The line of open limousines held one of the greatest baseball teams ever assembled. Joining the Bambino were future Hall of Famer members Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Earl Averill, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez, and Connie Mack as well as stars Lefty O’Doul, Bing Miller, and Earl Whitehill. Only one player didn’t seem to belong—a journeyman catcher with a .238 career batting average named Moe Berg. Berg would eventually become an operative for the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, and many believe that this trip was his first mission as a spy.

As the motorcade paraded through Ginza rows of fans, often ten to twenty deep, crowded into the road to catch a glimpse of the Americans. The pressing crowd reduced the broad streets to narrow paths just wide enough for the limousines to pass. Confetti and streamers fluttered down from well-wishers leaning out of windows of the avenues’ multi-storied office buildings. Thousands waived Japanese and American flags and cheered wildly. Cries of “Banzai! Banzai, Babe Ruth!” echoed through the neighborhood. Reveling in the attention, the Bambino plucked flags from the crowd and stood in the back of the car waving a Japanese flag in his left hand and an American in his right. Finally, the crowd couldn’t contain itself and rushed into the street to be closer to the Babe. Downtown traffic stood still for hours as he shook hands with the multitude.

Ruth and his teammates stayed in Japan for a month, playing 18 exhibition games against Japanese opponents in 12 cities. But there was more at stake than sport. Japan and the United States were slipping towards war as the two nations vied for control over China and naval supremacy in the Pacific. Politicians on both sides of the Pacific hoped that the goodwill generated by the tour and the two nations’ shared love of the game could help heal their growing political differences. Many observers, therefore, considered the all stars’ joyous reception significant. The New York Times, for example, wrote: “The Babe’s big bulk today blotted out such unimportant things as international squabbles over oil and navies.” Connie Mack added that the tour was “one of the greatest peace measures in the history of nations.”
But the shared love for a sport would not be enough to overcome Japan’s growing nationalism. Just two miles to the northwest of the parade at the Imperial Japanese Army Academy in Ichigaya, a group known as the Young Officers was planning a coup d’etat against the government, an upheaval that would jeopardize the tour’s success and put the players’ lives at risk. In another section of Tokyo, the ultra-nationalist War Gods Society met at their dojo. Their actions would tarnish the tour with bloodshed.

Banzai Babe Ruth! is the story of the doomed attempt to reconcile the United States and Japan through the tour of Major League all stars in 1934. It will reveal how two groups of men from different cultures, temporarily united by their love for baseball, became tragically divided as their countries rushed towards war. It is a tale of international intrigue, espionage, attempted murder and, of course, baseball.

We shall see how Babe Ruth, the jovial demigod of baseball, brought the two nations together and forestalled talks of war, before becoming a symbol in Japan of American decadence, cursed by imperial troops charging to their certain deaths. We shall also see how a 17-year-old pitcher named Eiji Sawamura became a national hero by playing against the Americans in friendship but died in the South Pacific as their bitter enemy. We will follow Moe Berg’s forays into espionage; the Young Officers attempt to overthrow the Japanese government; the ultra-nationalist War Gods Society attempt to murder tour organizer Matsutaro Shoriki; and the birth of Japanese professional baseball. It will introduce the lesser-known tales of Victor Starffin, the Russian immigrant and player for Japan whose father was a convicted murderer; and Jimmy Horio, a Japanese-American who played for the All Nippon team in an effort to gain a Major League contract. The 1934 All American tour of Japan was more than just a series of exhibition baseball games. It was an event that changed lives and influenced Japanese-American relations, for better and worse, for decades.

Robert K. Fitts is the author of three books and a number of articles on Japanese baseball and baseball cards. A former historical archaeologist, Rob left academics to write about baseball in 2000. His articles have appeared in The National Pastime, Baseball Research Journal, Journal of American Culture, Tuff Stuff and on His first book, Remembering Japanese Baseball won the 2005 Society of American Baseball Research & The Sporting News Award for Best Baseball Research. His second book, Wally Yonamine: The Man who Changed Japanese Baseball tells the story of the "Jackie Robinson of Japan." Learn more about his projects at

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