Editor’s note: Please welcome Japanese baseball expert Paul Gillespie to the site. Today, Paul reviews the book that recently won the prestigious Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research.
As a baseball historian, I looked forward to reading Robert Fitts’ 2012 book, Banzai Babe Ruth.
I was not disappointed.
Fitts carefully reconstructed the socio-political climate in Japan during the 1934 tour by American Major Leaguers to the Land of the Rising Sun. I discussed Fitts’ description of Japan and the Japanese (during that era) with my many friends who, with their families, lived there at that time. Some had actually attended some of the games during the tour. They believe Fitts got it right.
Fitts ties together the beginnings of modern pro baseball in Japan with the Americans’ tour in 1934. It is an accurate tie-in.
Remember, baseball had been introduced into Japan during the 1870s, and had evolved into the most popular team sport in the country. Virtually every high school and college played baseball, and there were already calls for a professional league. Also, by this time, the “shamateurism” of company teams was already evident.
Babe Ruth was the uncontested star of the tour. His baseball exploits, combined with his larger-than-life personality, made him an instant celebrity in Japan. Kids there, like kids everywhere, idolized “The Babe”!
Even with the strong aura of nationalistic fervor in Japan (please recall, Japan was already a strong military and commercial presence in Formosa, Korea and China–particularly Manchuria–during this time), Babe Ruth and his fellow Americans were enthusiastically cheered everywhere in Japan. This, even though the Japanese people were well aware of the United States’ oft-stated displeasure with Japan’s military “adventurism” in the aforementioned areas of Asia.
Fitts covers the games well. Plus, he describes the travel in detail. He also expertly explains the socio-political climate in Japan at the time.
Interestingly, he provides some tangential background on the great pitcher Victor Starffin, including a controversial version of the murder/manslaughter charges brought against his father (known as Constantin). The details of this incident are so covered up in cover-ups, it is unlikely that the real truth will ever be discovered. Yet, Fitts gives a very credible version of the events, so far as the details are known.
While I am a big fan of Fitts’ persistence in research, and an admirer of his manifestation of baseball history in Japan, I do wish he had, among his many fine photographs in the book, published a picture of Violet Linda Whitehill (wife of the Washington Senators’ Earl Whitehill). She was one of the great beauties of the Western World, and her picture would have been a standout in the photograph section.
Also, I read with much interest the author’s take on catcher Moe Berg’s presence on the trip. While it has long been assumed that Berg was directed to spy for the United States while in Japan, Fitts apparently believes, as did my father, that while proximity created some opportunities to spy, it was not directed. Whatever the truth, Berg was one of the most fascinating people to ever play Major League baseball.
I heartily recommend Robert Fitts’ “Banzai Babe Ruth”. It is a great read for a baseball fan. It is also an unusually well-researched book on the history of the prelude to the U.S. entry into WWII.
I consider the book to be especially important to the history of baseball in both countries.