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Saturday, June 16, 2012
Legendary tour by 'Banzai Babe' chronicled
NEW YORK — When Babe Ruth barnstormed across Japan in November 1934 with a team of American All-Stars, he was welcomed not just as a baseball hero but also as a broker of friendship between two nations amid growing animosity.
The 18-game tour, hailed by both Japanese and American politicians as a chance to promote bilateral goodwill, is the subject of "Banzai Babe Ruth," Robert Fitts' third book about Japan's baseball history that was published in March.
"Ruth understood the importance of the tour for Japanese-American relations," Fitts, 46, said in a recent interview. "He rose to the occasion and became an ambassador for the United States for the month he was in Japan."
Although the public flocked to watch the Bambino, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and the other American stars, who repeatedly crushed a team of Japan's leading players during their fall visit, the tour was unable to reverse the increasing bilateral chill.
Fitts even details a plot by extremists to murder its organizer and schemes to stage a bloody military coup while Ruth and his teammates were still in Japan.
" 'Banzai Babe Ruth" focuses on a month with a lot of back story," Fitts said. "I did two years' worth of research before I started writing. I wanted to take the facts and present them as a story."
Fitts first took an interest in Japanese baseball while living in Tokyo with his wife in the early 1990s, writing up an American archaeology dissertation. In his free time, he collected local baseball memorabilia and also played as an infielder for a company team.
"Baseball really became my way to get into Japan and introduce myself to the culture, pick up a little bit of the language — enough to carry on a baseball conversation," he said.
A few years after the pair returned to New York, Fitts started a website about Japanese baseball cards. What originally started out as a side project to his work as an archaeological consultant turned into a full-time job following Ichiro Suzuki's sensational rookie year with the Seattle Mariners in 2001.
Soon after, Fitts began preparing biographies of Japanese ballplayers for visitors to the website and this led to an opportunity in 2003 to meet and interview the late Wally Yonamine, the first American to play in Japan's professional league after the war.
"Wally's stories were so wonderful and he was such a good storyteller," Fitts recalled. "Being in Japan in 1951 was so different from today — I was just enthralled. I remember just forgetting about the article I was planning to write, and saying to myself, 'That's a book.'
"What I wanted to do was get as many of these guys who played in Japan as possible to talk to me and tell me their stories. That became my first book. It was an oral history of Japanese baseball.
"I figured out within a month that this is what I really wanted to do. It was creative, it was fun and I learned things while doing it."
Fitts released his first book, "Remembering Japanese Baseball: An Oral History of the Game," in 2005 and followed it up with a biography of Yonamine three years later — "Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball."
His research for "Banzai Babe Ruth" started in 2007, and included two trips to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Tokyo to pore over primary source material with bilingual research assistants.
"There are lots of asides I could have gone down, but they went too far off" topic, Fitts said.
Tales that made the final cut include the rumored espionage activities of camera-toting catcher Moe Berg, how Russian Victor Starffin was blackmailed into playing for Japan's national team, and 17-year-old pitcher Eiji Sawamura's legendary performance that kept the all-conquering Americans to a single run in the 1934 tour's closest game.
Sawamura so impressed the touring All-Stars that he was offered a chance to play in the major leagues, but he opted to remain in Japan and died fighting for the Imperial army during the war. Japan's equivalent to the Cy Young Award is named after him, to commemorate his talent.
The book also shows how the tour ultimately led to the founding of the Tokyo Giants and the creation of a pro league in Japan.
The tour remains a memorable early example of Japanese-American baseball friendship during a powder keg era.
The subject of Fitts' next research project is pitcher Masanori Murakami, who in 1964 became the first Japanese player to join the majors after signing for the San Francisco Giants.