This Reader's Corner interview was originally broadcast in September of 2013.
The power of sports to mend rifts between nations and establish bonds of friendship and understanding was put to the test in 1934, when a group of Major League baseball players – including Babe Ruth – traveled to Japan to play a series of 18 exhibition games in 12 cities.
The Americans squared off against their Japanese rivals in contests that drew thousands of enthusiastic spectators. The crowd’s biggest cheers often went to Ruth, who was revered in Japan as the jovial demigod of baseball.
The tour occurred at a time when Japan and the United States were drifting toward war, as the two nations vied for control over China and naval supremacy in the Pacific.
Baseball – it was hoped – would help ease tensions. And at first that seemed to be the case. Yet even while the tour was in progress, an ultra-nationalist group in Japan was laying plans for a military coup, and other international intrigue bubbled just under the surface.
Robert K. Fitts tells this fascinating and little known slice of baseball history in his book, "Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage & Assassination During the 1934 Tour of Japan." The book won the 2013 Seymour Medal for best baseball book; was a finalist for the 2012 Casey Award; and received a 2012 silver medal from Independent Book Publishers.
Fitts earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from Brown University in 1995. He left the field in 2000 to focus on his passion – Japanese baseball. He is the author of two previous books and his articles about Japanese baseball have been featured in many publications.
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