The History Thread Visits Japan

In yesterday’s OT we discussed the popularity of baseball outside the United States, which is more widespread (and long-lasting) than a casual observer might think. Japan, in particular, has been enamored of the sport since its introduction there in 1872. Whatever the political and racial tensions between their governments, American and Japanese cultures have held a mutual fascination ever since Admiral Perry, with baseball being perhaps the crowning example.

Baseball’s introduction to Japan is attributed to an American professor named Horace Wilson, although its popularity owes immensely to Hiraoka Hiroshi. A railway engineer and businessman, Hiroshi fell in love with the sport while studying in the United States (he was a particular fan of the Boston Red Sox) and organized Japan’s first team in 1877, the Shimbashi Athletic Club. One Japanese baseball historian, Masaru Ikei, says that Hiroshi explained the game to his countrymen as an American version of Japanese martial sports like kendo, with a bat and ball substituting for swords. Within a few years, amateur and college teams sprouted throughout Japan, playing year-round across the country.

Hiraoka Hiroshi

In 1908 the first American team visited Japan. Funded by Philadelphia sports magnate A.J. Reach, the team included Jack Graney, Jim Delahanty, Bill Burns, Pat Flaherty, Jack Bliss, Bill Heitmiller, Babe Danzig and Nick Williams. The Americans played 19 exhibition games against Japanese university and amateur teams, winning every match. Visits from American stars became a regular occurrence, enhancing the sport’s popularity in Japan enough that by the 1920s, the country’s first professional leagues were formed.

The most famous visit, however, came in 1934. The United States and Japan’s relationship was growing increasingly strained due to Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, and many Japanese nationalists had soured the idea of an American team visiting the country. But people on both sides of the Pacific viewed their mutual love of baseball as a way to build diplomatic bridges between the two countries. Matsutaro Shoriki, publisher of the newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, agreed to sponsor an extravagant American exhibition team including heavyweights like Lou Gehrig, Lefty Gomez, Frank Hayes and Jimmie Foxx, overseen by manager Connie Mack.

But the delegation was dominated by George Herman “Babe” Ruth. Ruth was already hugely popular in Japan, although at age 40 he was nearing the twilight of his career and his drinking and carousing caused concerns about how he’d be received. Ruth was at his gregarious best during most of the trip: he signed autographs and met with Japanese fans on and off the field, being photographed with a parasol and kimono. At one match, the crowd cheered his name: “Banzai, Babe Ruth!” Ruth, swept up in the moment, gratefully returned the cheer.

Babe Ruth and friends

Ruth’s visit wasn’t entirely without incident, though. On one occasion he and a teammate were served by a geisha, whom Ruth apparently became enamored of and, while drunk, made some crude passes towards her. A teammate passed the geisha a message reading “Fuku u Babe Rusu” (roughly, “Fuck you, Babe Ruth”). The startled geisha read the profane warning out loud, ensuring that Ruth understood his treatment wasn’t welcome. This unfortunately wasn’t uncharacteristic of the Babe, whose heavy drinking often led him to crude behavior towards women. It particularly offended Ruth’s teammate that his wife was in the hotel at the time this incident occurred.

From a sporting perspective, the tour was anticlimactic: the Americans won every game against their Japanese hosts, though one match was a 1-0 pitcher’s duel with a brilliant performance by 17 year old Eiji Sawamura, who struck out Ruth and Gehrig in succession (he later became one of the legends of Japanese baseball before his death in World War II). But the tour was a rousing success from both a PR perspective (the popularity of Japan’s major leagues multiplied exponentially after the visit) and diplomatically, as Ruth and his teammates were embraced by the Japanese public in a swell of goodwill. Well, most of the public: an ultranationalist stabbed Matsutaro Shoriki several months later, citing his invitation of the American team to Japan as his motivation.

Needless to say, events overtook baseball’s ability to bridge the gap. During World War II, Ruth learned that Japanese soldiers (unconsciously echoing that scared geisha) were fond of shouting “To Hell with Babe Ruth” and “Babe Ruth eat shit!” to American soldiers. Ruth, too old to serve but deeply patriotic, donated massive amounts of money to the Red Cross and military charities. After the war, he was philosophical about the Japanese: “I cannot help but feel that the reception which millions of Japanese gave us [during the tour] was genuine… No doubt there were plenty of stinkers among them; but looking back at the visit I feel it is another example of how a crackpot government can lead a friendly people to war.”

Japan’s fascination with baseball continues to this day, with many Japanese stars making their way to the United States in recent years. Babe Ruth and friends’ visit to Japan confirmed that, whatever other differences come between the two countries, they’ll always have a shared love of sport in common.