banzai babe ruth

Reviewed by Myles Schrag, M.S., Human Kinetics Publishers

22 july 2013       archive

Despite some early gems of local color, Banzai Babe Ruth runs the risk of dragging into a litany of long chapters on the pomp and circumstance of All-Stars in a foreign land and blowout baseball games. But in chapter 16, attentive readers, as when a pivotal at-bat arrives during a game and everyone in the ballpark knows it, will take notice and realize that Robert Fitts is going to take them on a suspenseful ride to close out the last half of the book.

Fitts tells the legend of the 47 ronin, known as the Chushingura, and agrees with modern scholar Henry D. Smith that, "If you study Chushingura long enough, you will understand everything about the Japanese" (p. 132). The story dates back to 1701-02. After a feudal leader from the country is forced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) for drawing his sword against a shogunate teacher inside Edo castle, his 47 subjects retaliate by plotting a vicious beheading of the teacher, placing the head at the foot of their lord's grave, then calmly surrendering to the shogun. Their murder was deemed honorable by virtue of their undying loyalty to their master. Thus, they were all allowed to commit seppuku and be buried beside their lord at the temple rather than be executed as common criminals.

Thanks to this linchpin chapter, the early, uneven chapters start to come together, and those that follow gain purpose that only a dedicated scholar of both Japan and baseball like Fitts could pull off. It soon becomes evident that this early 18th century cultural touchstone has plenty to do with a 20th century goodwill baseball tour in the specific, and with pre-World War II Japanese society in general. Fitts is more than up to the task of explaining this busy month abroad. The reader too must rise to the occasion, put together the foreshadowed pieces from early in the book, and enjoy the twists and turns. It's as though one starts out reading a baseball history and along the way a fascinating, richly detailed story of political intrigue breaks out.

The teams' travels across the country showcase areas other than Tokyo. Players on both teams, especially the All Nippon squad that many Western readers (such as this one) will be unfamiliar with, begin to acquire depth through Fitts' careful characterization. Meanwhile, the ongoing political events in Tokyo, where players' wives and 71-year-old Connie Mack usually stay behind during the month-long tour, continue to take shape, including the violent actions of the War Gods Society, the Black Dragon Society, and other ultranationalist groups of the period.

From page one, Fitts weaves in and out of essentially four plotlines:

  1. A goodwill baseball tour, featuring Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Connie Mack, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez, and Lefty O'Doul, among other all-time American greats.
  2. A period piece on an increasingly militaristic Japanese society.
  3. A thoughtful historical understanding of Japan, including the Chushingura, the spreading of the samurai code and the fin de si├Ęcle philosophy of wakon yosai (the blending of Japanese spirit and Western technology) that the emerging international power tried to infuse in its people.
  4. A newspaper war, of all things.

These storylines cross in mostly subtle ways, and often unbeknownst to the feted and sheltered American visitors. But we 21st century readers know full well the rest of the story. No matter how joyful the crowds were in warmly welcoming the attention-loving Babe and his teammates, World War II was looming. Depressingly, the attitudes of participants and fans less than a decade after the tour is a reminder of how sport's capacity to build cultural bridges is inherently limited amid the reality of propaganda, international politics, and military might.

The tour received a cameo in Nicholas Dawidoff's acclaimed biography of catcher Moe Berg, The Catcher Was a Spy. Fitts mines Dawidoff's work and other myths about Berg in Banzai to confirm that Berg's famous clandestine photographs of the Tokyo skyline were not part of some official scheme on behalf of the U.S. government. The future spy is an engaging figure, but if North American baseball fans are being honest, they must admit that even with the indomitable Babe and mercurial Berg in tow, the All Americans squad struggles to rate even one of the top five most interesting characters in the book. Take your pick:

The list of recurring Japanese characters in the front matter of the book seems as though it will be a helpful feature in the early going, but the author renders it largely unnecessary. The Japanese figures, including others besides those listed above, are well drawn. By the time Fitts revisits some of these individual lives near the end of the book, post-tour, we are sympathetic to the external forces that shaped their lives as their society goes to war.

We often think of exhibition sporting tours as a waste of time. Indeed, they start to die out after this one, drowned out by a world at war and the subsequent Cold War that made these events harder to coordinate. Because of the monumental influence of the Cold War on sports for some 50 years, it's easy to forget that sport in the role of diplomacy or as an attempted harbinger of peace is no new concept.

Terms like the globalization of sport, and sport for development and peace are very much in vogue now. Sport in the service of diplomacy has gained new currency in a post-9/11 world. There seems to be a greater understanding in academics as well as popular culture that sport is a worthy endeavor to study and take seriously. But that has been an effort that has taken decades to achieve. Fitts reminds us that sport is never isolated from the societies that the games are played in. That is at once what makes them so important and potentially dangerous, but it doesn't mean they can't be fun and a diversion too.

The All American traveling party really didn't see all of what was going on in Japan even as they were plopped down into the middle of it. But many Japanese did – the media kings and the revolutionaries, the diplomats and the ballplayers – and they sought to capitalize on it. As readers, we are left to sort out the meaning of the shouts of banzai during the tour and under vastly different circumstances a decade later. We are privy to the Babe's angry remarks about Pearl Harbor as well as his post-war reflection of how "a crackpot government can lead a friendly people to war" (p. 257).

A comparison with the 1936 Olympics is not exact, especially since Japan was in turmoil in late 1934 while Hitler had consolidated power by the time he showcased his country at the Summer Games. Still, it is helpful to remember that the world that converged on Berlin less than two years later was similarly distracted by sport. The hosts showed what they wanted to show, and the visitors didn't want to be ungrateful. When we read engaging, impeccably researched, carefully plotted accounts like Fitts', we help to make it possible that we will be more aware of our own worlds, in and out of sport.

Works Cited

Dawidoff, Nicholas. The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, & Assassination During the 1934 Tour of Japan, Robert K. Fitts. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012. Paperback $24.95. 366 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8032-4581-5.

Copyright © 2013 by Myles Schrag

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