MLB Opener Recalls Japan Tour Of A Different Time

The Mariners and Athletics will begin the MLB season in Japan this week, following a tradition that started in 1999 and has continued intermittently since, with this year marking the fourth such opener.  And while it may be a strain on the competing players — and traveling secretaries — the trips help promote baseball internationally.

At the turn of the 20th century, postseason barnstorming tours were he norm, with major and minor league teams, often composite “All-Star” squads, traveling to places like Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba and, eventually, the Far East, spreading the game and earning extra cash for the players — as well as a chance for them to see the world in a time when travel was less common.

The fabled 1934 “All American” tour of Japan is the subject of a new book, Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, & Assassination During the 1934 Tour of Japan (Univ of Nebraska Press, 319 pps.), which details how the trip was about considerably more than baseball, with relations between the U.S. and Japan tilting towards the conflicting positions that would lead seven years later to the attack on Pearl Harbor and American entry into World War II.

Politics aside, the narrative of the tour itself is detailed and fascinating, starting with the recruitment of players, especially The Babe, without whose appearance the trip might never have happened, through the heralded arrival in Japan (and “Banzai Babe Ruth” calls from thousands) and full schedule while there.

The trip was by all measures deemed a success, so much so that some contemporary thought placed enough diplomatic value on it that the goodwill enacted might even prevent war.  From ambassadors to Connie Mack, 71-yr old manager of the squad, it seemed that the shared pastime of baseball would help pull the nations together.  Or at least keep them from killing each other.

Alas, military faction won out, and to many Americans involved in this and other trips to Japan, Pearl Harbor was the ultimate betrayal. Despite being lauded as almost a god while on the Tour, Ruth immediately felt stung, destroying many of the Japanese souvenirs, some quite expensive, that he had acquired there, and channeling that anger towards a significant campaign in support of the war effort.

Ruth, incidentally, would enjoy his last taste of success on the diamond on the Tour.  Clearly out of shape, past his prime and without a team after the ’34 season, The Bambino was the star among stars, clubbing a team-best 13 home runs in the 18 games and pacing the All Americans with 31 hits, 33 RBI, 27 runs and a robust .408 average.  He would go on to play for the Boston Braves for a mostly miserable two months after no managerial offers came his way.  Author Robert Fitts introduces the idea that Ruth’s stint as skipper of the All Americans also served as a tryout in front of Mack to possibly replace the Tall Tactician at the Athletics’ helm; though this point is never really completed in the book, the inference is that Mack was not impressed. (Of course, Mack would remain at the helm until 1950.)

An important aspect of Banzai Babe Ruth that makes it work so well, particularly beyond the baseball aspects of te tour And the times, is that it is not just told from the U.S. perspective. Significant Japanese figures like the ill-fated Eiji Sawamura, who came to hate all things American, and Matsutaro Shoriki, policeman-turned-owner of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper and major mover in getting the Tour started, are explored.

Despite its success, the Tour would be the last to Japan for big leaguers for almost two decades, first because of a short-sighted Major League barnstorming ban, ostensibly to prevent player injuries, then due to the war and postwar tensions. Lefty O’Doul, though, brought his PCL San Francisco Seals to Japan to thunderous acclaim in 1949, just four years after atomic bombs brought an end to the fighting.

Major league teams returned and the Japanese professional league which in part grew from the 1934 tour paved the way for Japanese players, beginning with Masanori Murakami in 1964 and continuing with Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki and now to Yu Darvish, to play in the Majors.


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