As baseball historian Robert K. Fitts recounts in his admirable and deeply researched new book, “Banzai Babe Ruth,” in 1934 the world was edging closer to war. A naval treaty among the United States, Britain and Japan was on the brink of failure. The Japanese army was conducting exercises in preparation for combat. Who better to ease tensions than America’s ambassadors of the baseball diamond?
Fitts explains that the introduction of baseball to the Japanese is credited to one Horace Wilson, a Civil War veteran who taught English in Japan in the early 1870s. In the intervening decades, several American players had visited Japan to promote the sport, but no roster was more star-studded than the team that arrived in Tokyo on Nov. 2, 1934.
Led by Cornelius McGillicuddy, the venerable manager of the Philadelphia Athletics known as “Connie Mack,” the team featured nine future Hall of Famers. Besides Ruth — who took 20 pieces of luggage on the trip, including one bag carrying nothing but cans of chewing tobacco — the lineup featured New York Yankees first baseman and slugger Lou Gehrig, and Athletics home run king Jimmie Foxx.
The Americans played 18 games against their rivals, the All-Nippon team, composed of many of Japan’s top players, while tens of thousands of Japanese fans cheered in the stands. But there was more to this trip than baseball, Fitts writes. It’s also a “tale of international intrigue, espionage, attempted murder.”
In particular, one player stood out from the others on the U.S. roster. He was Moe Berg, a journeyman catcher from the Cleveland Indians. Born in Harlem, Berg was a graduate of Princeton University and Columbia University Law School.
He was an odd pick for the team, Fitts writes, because he was not really all-star material. One teammate quipped that Berg could speak a dozen languages but could not hit in any of them. His inclusion seems even more suspicious in retrospect, considering his later role as a spy in the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II forerunner of the CIA. It’s also interesting to note that Berg took along his 16-mm Bell and Howell movie camera and made short films of important Japanese installations. “Many now believe that this trip was his first mission as a spy,” Fitts writes. Berg may not have been the only spy, either. According to Fitts, many of the players were shadowed on the streets of Tokyo while their bags were searched back in their hotel rooms.
But the Americans almost suffered far worse fates than shuffled suitcases. During the tour, ultranationalist Japanese soldiers were planning a coup to return full executive powers to the emperor. Had the plot not been discovered before it started, Fitts believes, the Americans surely would have been caught in the crossfire.
For the most part, Fitts’s breezy style makes the book flip by at the pace of a novel. Occasionally, however, his stop-by-stop retelling of the trip reads like an itinerary. To baseball fans and admirers of rich history books, though, this will be a minor concern.
Mack later called the 1934 tour “one of the greatest peace measures in the history of nations.” But the goodwill eventually wore off. Fitts points out that several All-Nippon players went on to serve in World War II. Among them was Eiji Sawamura, a pitcher whose strong arm aided his grenade-throwing in the Japanese army. His transport ship was destroyed by a U.S. submarine; as Fitts writes, he was “killed by the creators of the game he loved.”
T. Rees Shapiro
is an obituary writer for The Washington Post.