The book’s full title is Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, & Assassination During the 1934 Tour of Japan. Prior to buying this book, I had heard of Robert K. Fitts and had even read parts of one of his other books, “Remembering Japanese Baseball: An Oral History of the Game.”
This title came highly recommended to me by several people, and the review for it on Amazon.com by Michael Westbay (probably in the top 5 most knowledgeable Americans in Japan about the game) was the final nudge I needed.
So how did the book read? Was it all it was cracked up to be?
The quick answer is an emphatic “yes.” This book takes the reader through the entire motivation behind the 1934 tour, the troubles the organizers had in convincing Babe Ruth to join, how the players made their way out west to hop on a ship, and all sorts of other details before they finally reached Japan. That’s where the fun begins. Actually, in the opening chapters, I was excited to hear that some of the players took part in an exhibition game in my home city (Winnipeg), but also saddened that Jimmie Foxx got beaned in the head during that game, and experience difficulty overcoming the injury and fear.
After reading a lot of reviews, some of the common complaints I heard were:
- Stick to baseball. No need to add in espionage or anything about Japanese history! To which I say, without that subplot, it would have been a pretty one-dimensional story. While Fitts did not go into excessive detail, he did fill in a lot of gaps for the reader. He assumed his audience had solid knowledge of baseball, but minimal knowledge of Japanese history, the bushido code, and so on. Some readers were also bugged by that assumption. But it was bang on for me… so I felt like the degree of detail about both baseball and history were just right.
- There was just too much detail about the baseball games. Lots of repetitive stuff about which players hit home runs in which innings of which games. But for true baseball fans (especially historical tours like this), the amount of detail that went into the game recaps was perfect. One player downed a whole bottle of sake before running to his position in center field. It resulted in poor defensive play. One fan got hit square in the face by a home run ball. The game had to be interrupted for an ambulance to come onto the field. Such details add a lot of color to the scoring, which makes for a fun read through the games.
- What was up with the side story of Jimmy Horio? The Hawaiian native with Japanese parents never figured into the plot in a major way, nor did all the build-up about him get resolved by a triumphant ending. So why include him at all? I think the author included this character because he was, in a lot of ways, trapped between the two sides. He was not included on the American team, and despite having dreams of playing in the bigs someday, he played for the Japanese team. His blood, his culture are Japanese. His heart was maybe more American. His side story, while never really taking flight, was an intriguing one in my opinion.
- Why include the word “espionage” in the title when in fact, Moe Berg was not a spy? The author did, after all, spend a solid chapter disproving the myth. Well, Moe Berg is another very fascinating character in this story. Of all the Americans (except perhaps Lefty O’Doul), Berg made the best connections with the Japanese culture and people. His persistent desire to take photos and video of all the places he wasn’t supposed to film was another interesting part of the tour.
Alright. So those were some of the objections. What was good about this book? First of all, the intertwining of baseball games, off-the-field events, political turmoil, side characters. While Babe Ruth is the story’s centerpiece, everything around him was just as interesting as the anecdotes that centered around him. I was particularly moved by the story of Eiji Sawamura, after whom the prestigious NPB pitching award is named. (And did you know that the Sawamura Award has been around for longer than the Cy Young?) He did not have the successful career that people imagine. Nor was he a particularly likable man. He certainly despised the Americans. But his story was, nonetheless, a powerful one.
I could go on and on about different aspects of the story that were outstanding… but you’ll just have to read it for yourself. Trust me, it will be one of the better baseball books you pick up. Just one more thing… the quote from Babe Ruth about Koshien Stadium is a good one: “Whoever built this ballpark is an idiot!”