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Diamond Diplomacy

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Diamond Diplomacy

by Robert Whiting (Apr 13, 2012)

Besuboru-or "yakyu" (field ball), as it is also called-is the national sport of Japan, but it is not the game that Americans know and love. Take a trip to a Japanese ballpark such as the Tokyo Dome, home of the Yomiuri Giants, and a completely different baseball culture will reveal itself. It's not just the sake and squid and the beer girls in short shorts carrying draft beer kegs. It is the values of group harmony and discipline that mirror the society at large. Besuboru strategy focuses on tactics like the sacrifice bunt, something most American managers eschew. There is a decided lack of the hard slides and brushback pitches typical of Major League Baseball: A pitcher who accidentally hits a batter will politely tip his cap in apology.

The sport's history in Japan goes back as far as the 1870s, not long after the "opening" of Japan by Commodore Perry. American teachers, brought to Tokyo by the Japanese government, taught their charges how to play the game. By the turn of the century, when an elite prep school known for grueling martial-arts style workouts dubbed "bloody urine practice" won a series of contests against a team of Americans from Yokohama, baseball had become Japan's national sport-a symbol of its efforts to catch up with the industrialized West.

The intense flurry of intercontinental diamond activity that followed is documented in Sayuri Guthrie-Shimizu's exhaustively researched "Transpacific Field of Dreams." This is a well-written book, if an academic one. The author is less interested in probing cultural clashes than in exploring baseball as a "transoceanic pastime." She examines the "cross pollination" of schoolboy leagues, industrial leagues and women's leagues, as well as the "cultural corridors" they created, such as the Inter-Hemispheric Semi-Pro World Series. In the process, she uncovers a wealth of fascinating stories.

The Philadelphia Bobbies, an all-female baseball squad, traveled to Japan in 1925, playing mostly second-tier collegiate and industrial male teams. Advertisements in Japanese played up the players' "beautiful blond hair," and their ace pitcher was a 17-year-old knuckle-balling left-hander from Illinois named Leona Kearns, who stood over 6 feet tall. Kearns's goal was to earn $300 from the tour and buy a Ford coupe. But the local promoters skipped town, stranding the penniless Bobbies until generous expatriates bailed them out. On the trip back Kearns's ship encountered a violent storm. She was swept overboard, tragically ending her life.

The Bobbies were followed by the Philadelphia Royal Giants, a band of 14 African-American ballplayers who crossed the Pacific in 1927, to barnstorm Japan during a time when blacks were banned from major-league ball. Royal Giant Biz Mackey blasted the first three home runs in Meiji Jingu Stadium, the first steel-and-concrete ballpark in Toyko, completed the previous year.

It's fair to say that neither of these tours compare in stature to a 1934 expedition that featured several MLB stars-including Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, manager Connie Mack and an aging Babe Ruth-playing against collegiate and semipro competition. Ms. Guthrie-Shimizu diligently recounts the episode, but Robert Fitts has devoted an entire book, "Banzai Babe Ruth," to one of the greatest road trips in sports history.

The expedition, sponsored by the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, took place amid rising tensions between Japan and the United States. Moderate politicians on both sides hoped it would repair the two countries' worsening relations. For a time, it did. When the Americans arrived in Tokyo, hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic Japanese fans filled the streets to cheer the "All-Americans," as the group was called. Ruth sat atop the open lead car, and the joyous reception made international news. Some 20,000 fans came just to watch a practice in the city of Chiba; 60,000 flocked to Meiji Jingu Stadium for the first match against Japanese amateur stars. "The Babe's big bulk today blotted out such unimportant things as international squabbles over oil and navies," the Associated Press reported.

Ruth did not disappoint. He hit 408 with 13 homers in 18 games, patiently signed thousands of autographs and delighted fans with his antics. He played one rain-soaked game in Kokura in rubber boots, huddling under an umbrella lent by a fan. In the fifth inning of the game, he stepped to the plate, pointed to the outfield fence-"calling his shot" as he had done in the 1932 World Series-and swatted a belt-high fastball over the right-field bleachers, shattering clay tiles off the roof of a nearby building.

The Americans won all their games, mostly by lopsided scores. But young pitcher Eiji Sawamura gave the national ego a boost by striking out, in consecutive at-bats, Charlie Gehringer, Ruth, Gehrig and Foxx. He lost 1-0, then turned down Mack's offer to recruit him. Matsutaro Shoriki, owner of the Yomiuri Shimbun, was so encouraged by fan turnout that he founded the Tokyo Giants, signed Sawamura and helped set up Japan's first pro loop.

Mr. Fitts's narrative sometimes bogs down in detail, but he more than compensates with insights into the Japanese culture of the times and fresh anecdotes about familiar faces. Lefty Gomez, pitching a hitless game, caught an apple thrown at the mound by a frustrated fan and in a single motion whipped it toward home plate-the projectile landing in catcher Jimmy Foxx's glove with a thud and a splat. A geisha warded off Ruth's unwanted advances by reading aloud to him a note written in Japanese by backup catcher and Princeton linguist Moe Berg. The note read: "Fuku u Babe Rusu." Berg himself dressed up in a Japanese kimono and wooden geta sandals, combed his black hair in a Japanese style, and clandestinely slipped away to film the city skyline from the roof of Tokyo's St. Luke's hospital, later turning over the results of his undercover labors to American intelligence.

"Banzai Babe Ruth" recounts a high point of cultural communion that would not be reached again for many years, as Japan's militaristic factions pushed Japan toward war. "To hell with Babe Ruth!" was frequently shouted by Japanese soldiers in the jungles of South Pacific islands. In America, virtually the entire Nikkei population of California, Oregon and Washington state was unjustly ordered to internment camps. They kept spirits up by constructing baseball diamonds and continuing to play the game.

And within two months of the end of hostilities, baseball-reviled by the militarist government as an "enemy sport"-was being played in a bomb-battered Tokyo. Following a 1949 visit to Japan by the San Francisco Seals, baseball became a symbol of American "demokurashi," and an emblem of America's growing influence in the Pacific world.

"Banzai Babe" deserves a spot in any baseball (or Japan) lover's library. "Transpacific Field of Dreams," meanwhile, is authoritative, although it only takes the reader up to the mid-1950s. That leaves lots of material for a sequel.

-Mr. Whiting is the author of "You Gotta Have Wa" and other books.

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