Baseball Diplomacy: How Babe Ruth Ended Up in Japan

Baseball Diplomacy: How Babe Ruth Ended Up in Japan

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In 1934, Babe Ruth set off with a team of all-stars to visit faraway Japan. Their goal: hit some homers -- and prevent an all-out-war.

It was the morning of November 2nd, 1934. The RMS Empress of Japan, a massive oceanic liner and pride of the Canadian Pacific Line, slid into Pier 4 in Yokohama Harbor to great aplomb. Standing by the pier in rapt attention were five thousand Japanese citizens, many with Japanese and American flags in hand which they waved with great vigor. Banners were held aloft towards the approaching ship, emblazoned with words of welcome.

Once the assembled group of Americans standing on the Empress’ deck came into view, the crowd went wild. As the Americans waved out at the masses below, startled by the fervor of their welcome, one from amongst them stepped forward.

Babe Ruth, clad in a black suit, leaned over the deck’s railing and called out in one of the few Japanese words he knew. “Banzai!”

“Banzai, banzai!” yelled back the thousands assembled below.

Behind the Babe stood his teammates on the All-American baseball team, many of which would be future baseball hall-of-famers. (Seven future members, to be precise, consisting of Earl Averill, Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez, Connie Mack, Jimmie Foxx, and Babe Ruth.) They were arriving in the faraway country at the edge of the Pacific with the purpose of doing a 12-city, 18-game barnstorming tour at the beck and call of a powerful Japanese newspaper, and the overwhelming welcome they were now receiving was just the beginning of what was to be a truly lavish month-long sojourn.

However, baseball, and the attendant ticket sales and newspapers that such games would sell, were not the only goal of this tour. In a sense, the All-Americans had come to Japan to partake in some alternative international diplomacy. Sports diplomacy, to be exact.

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Diplomatic Strike-Out

By the early 1930s, tensions between Japan and America were already on the rise. The two countries have shared a unique relationship ever since American Commodore Matthew Perry, acting under the orders of President Fillmore, had used his fleet of advanced “Black Ships” to forcibly “open” to American trade the semi-closed nation of Japan in 1853.

Now, eighty years on from those momentous events, Japan had emerged as a burgeoning world power, defeating China, Russia, and Germany in various wars and engagements in quick succession and joining the ranks of the colonial powers.

Japan fought alongside the victorious Allies in the First World War. However, criticism of Japan’s expansionism in Asia — especially the September 18th, 1931 Manchuria Incident and subsequent invasion and conquering of that northern Chinese region — led to various diplomatic clashes between Japan and other leading nations of the day, including the US. That led directly to Japan’s stunning departure from the League of Nations in 1933. (I.e., the very year before the All-Stars would arrive in Japan for their tour).

Japan announces their departure from the League of Nations.

The Manchurian Incident created rising tensions. But there were still many in both Japan and the USA who hoped to mend the Pacific relationship.

In the US in particular, some believed that Japanese expansionism and bellicosity came from a certain subsection of militarists from within Japanese society. Japan had, this thinking went, an equally large (or perhaps even larger) subset of westernized, diplomatically-minded moderates. If only these moderates could be reached out to, and if only the make-up of the Japanese government would swing in their favor, surely Japan could be made to return to its position as a great ally of the West.

Interestingly enough, one oft-mentioned proof of the innate cultural affinity that existed between westernized Japanese and America was the Japanese love of America’s pastime: baseball.

Intercultural Recreational Affairs

This love affair blossomed some sixty years previous. Historians credit one Horace Wilson with the initial importation of baseball to Japan. Wilson was a young American from Maine who had come to Japan to teach at the Kaisei Gakko school in Tokyo. He brought the implements for the sport with him, introducing his young charges to the game when team sports in Japan were still rare.

A year later, another American teacher, this one a lecturer at Kaitaku University in the same city, organized the first formal baseball game. In 1878 came the first organized baseball team. The Shimbashi Athletic Club Athletics was put together by a Japanese locomotive engineer named Hiroshi Hiraoka who had come to love the Boston Red Socks while studying in America

The fact that baseball arrived in Japan in the 1870s via American teachers coincides with the major shifts in Japanese society then occurring; this was two decades following the arrival of Perry’s black ships, and only a little more than a decade following the tumultuous Meiji Restoration that had completely reorganized Japanese governmental and class structure and ushered in an era of unprecedented westernization.

During this time, the new Meiji government was importing a wide variety of foreign experts, known as oyatoi gaikokujin (hired foreigners) to assist in modernization. The government brought in Americans and placed in educational positions across the Japanese archipelago. Horace Wilson was part of this wave of American educators.

Meanwhile, Hiraoka, founder of the first baseball team and builder of the first Japanese baseball field, was himself part of a wave of Japanese sent abroad in order to bring back western expertise. The Japanese government had sent him to Boston in order to gain experience in locomotive engineering.

Whether imported via hired foreigners or returning Japanese, Western-style team sport soon became another symbol of westernization, and thus one associated with the act of Japan taking its rightful place amongst the nations.

Oyatoi-gaikokujin, responsible for the importation of many Western ideas into Japan.

For Love of the Ge-mu

As to why baseball in particular so captured the fancies of the Japanese people, Robert Whiting, frequent commenter on Japanese baseball and author of the seminal You Gotta Have Wa, has some intriguing thoughts. While baseball did indeed represent forward-thinking modernization, it also contained within it some features that seem to mirror the basic appeal of traditional Japanese competition, as seen in martial arts and sports like kendo and sumo wrestling.

“The Japanese found the one-on-one battle between pitcher and batter similar in psychology to sumo and the martial arts. It involved split-second timing and a special harmony of mental and physical strength. As such, the Ministry of Education deemed it good for national character.”

Robert Whiting, from You Gotta Have Wa.

Soon, baseball – at the time known variously by the loanword ベースボール (besuboru) or the Japanese word 野球 (yakyuu, literally “field ball”), was all the rage. High schools and colleges formed teams around the country, and the top teams began drawing major crowds to their matches.

A unique Japanese philosophy also emerged around the game, treating it more like a martial art than a sport, and seeing baseball as a path towards spiritual and physical refinement. The baseball diamond became a sanctified space, like a dojo or the dohyo sumo ring. There even emerged culture rifts within the world of baseball, where the especially Japan-ified and martially-minded ideology of baseball represented by the military prep school, the First Higher School of Tokyo, would face off against the highly Americanized Meiji Gakuin school in dramatic and sometimes violent grudge matches.

The first transpacific baseball tour came in 1905, when Waseda University’s celebrated baseball team headed to America to improve their game. Soon, American university teams were heading to Japan to test their skills in turn, touching off what has become a long tradition of baseball exchange between Japan and the US.

The 1905 Waseda University baseball team.

By the early 20th century, the shared love of baseball between the US and Japan was already seeing teams made up of American major league players make the journey across the Pacific. The first such tour came in 1908. Directly before the onset of WWI, Japan hosted the Chicago White Sox and the New York Giants for four fays during the 1913-1914 Major League World Tour. The goals included “transplant(ing) America’s game in athletic and sport-loving countries,” already referencing the idea of sports diplomacy.

Next came a minor league/major league tour in 1920. The indiscretion of the players from the tour would encourage future tours to send player’s wives with them.

All-Star Start-Out

It was in this tradition that, in 1931, Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper owner Matsutaro Shoriki funded a Major League tour to Japan. He did so in tandem with former Major-Leaguer and noted Japanophile Herb Hunter, who enlisted fourteen pro ballplayers, including the likes of future Hall-of-Famers Lou Gehrig, Lefty Grove, Walter “Rabbit” Maranville, and more.

The tour, which saw the Major Leaguers face off against Japanese university teams, was a major success. The incredible reception given the American ballplayers by the Japanese public stunned the players and the American press, who – in the same year as the Manchurian Incident – exulted in the love of baseball (and thus, it was thought, America) displayed by the Japanese.

The games of the 1931 tour received little press back in the US as they occurred. But retrospective pieces appearing some months later introduced mass American audiences to a Japanese public even more devoted to the most American of games than the Americans were themselves.

This happened concurrently with the US taking an increasingly firm stance against Japanese aggression in Manchuria. (US Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson had by this point intoned that the Japanese government was “…in the hands of virtually mad dogs.”). The result was a deepening of the portrayal of a Manichean Japan, pitting Americanized baseball lovers against war-crazed militarists.

A Trans-Lux newsreel theater program in 1931 underscored this portrayal, directly following images of Japanese troops in Manchuria with those of American ballplayers being celebrated in Japan proper. Hugh Byas, prolific New York Times Japan correspondent and friend and ideological ally to American Ambassador Grew, would some months later state that baseball was America’s most significant cultural export to Japan, “bigger even than Hollywood movies or the YMCA.”

Ambassadorial Acumen

It was in this atmosphere, where the idea of Manichean Japan had been calcified by some few years of portrayal of “good” Japan and “bad” Japan, that the 1934 All-Star tour was organized. 

Of course, the diplomatic aspects of baseball were not the end-all-be-all motivations of the organizers of the tour. Rather, Shoriki wanted to continue to increase sales of his newspaper following the success of the 1931 tour by adding the most famous man in baseball, Babe Ruth, to the roster of visiting All-Stars.

And yet, governments had been directly involved in that tour as wel. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs actively pushed for the tour for diplomatic reasons. The governments of Japan and the USA, aided by the news media, would use the 1934 tour to even greater effect, taking every opportunity granted them by the unprecedented buzz surrounding the arrival of Ruth, Gehrig, and the rest.

The Honolulu Press summarized the great expectations surrounding the tour. Referencing the organizers of the 1931 tour, Herb Hunter, they wrote in January 1934 that:

“Hunter doesn’t have a title or a uniform, or a lot of aides, but he has done more, probably, than a dozen ambassadors, brass hats, or dignitaries to create goodwill and understanding between Japan and the United States… a couple of clouts by Babe Ruth over the fence in a Tokyo ballpark will do more to cement goodwill between our nations than all the bowing and scraping of all the diplomats who ever wore silk hats.”


Doc Adams of the Honolulu Press. Janurary 1934

It wasn’t merely the news media who, looking for a dramatic story, would make such grandiose claims. After all, as Ambassador Grew himself would note in his diary on November 6th, 1934, “Babe Ruth…is a great deal more effective Ambassador than I could ever be.”

From left: tour organizer Matsutaro Shoriki, US Ambassador Grew, Connie Mack, (unidentified), and Babe Ruth himself.

Babe Ruth’s Whirlwind Tour

Those ambassadorial feats went as follows.

The five thousand fans assembled in welcome at Pier 4 in Yokohama were merely the tip of a massive iceberg of public support. The Herald Tribune of New York announcemed that on the same day, “100,000 Acclaim Ruth at Tokio, Halting Traffic to Pay Tribute,”; this may actually have actually underestimated those who assembled to grab a glimpse of the arriving American All-Stars.

After an arrival ceremony on the Empress of Japan featuring the Governor of Kanagawa Prefecture and the Mayor of Yokohama, the ballplayers and their entourage headed to Tokyo by train. There, the sheer number of well-wishers that gathered to meet then at Tokyo Station prevented the All-Stars from being able to exit their train until police cleared the platform. When they were finally able to get through the masses of people there to see them, the All-Stars boarded open limousines, and proceeded on a wild motor parade through Tokyo, stopping near the imperial palace for a brief symbolic greeting towards the home of Emperor Hirohito. (The Emperor did not in fact appear to greet them, despite what some histories have erroneously stated).

The Babe amongst fans.

The Waiting Masses

As they moved on towards the opulent shopping district of Ginza, hundreds of thousands did indeed line the streets, waving their Japanese and American flags and calling out to the players, chief among them Babe Ruth. The scene was remarkable, as all sectors of the Japanese public were represented in the crowd, from military men in khaki uniforms to young children and middle-aged businessmen.

The scene that followed inspired the name of Robert K. Fitts book, Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination During the 1934 Tour of Japan.

“’Banzai! Banzai, Babe Ruth!’ they screamed. Reveling in the attention, the Bambino grabbed American and Japanese flags from the crowd and waved one in each hand as he stood in the rear of the limousine. Confetti and streamers, thrown from the office buildings lining the avenue, showered the procession.”


Fitts, p. 93

As the hundreds of thousands of fans mobbed the procession, the onward motion of the limousines came to a standstill. Ruth and the other players shook the hands of innumerable fans, smiling all the while as their cars attempted to inch toward the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Imperial Hotel. In the end, the car journey took nearly two hours, all of which amounted to what Cleveland Press sports editor Stuart Bell called “the wildest motor parade in history.” Connie Mack, legendary coach for the Philadelphia Athletics, told the Sporting News that, “Man, you can’t sit here and form a real picture of that day. I’ll bet there were a million people on the streets to welcome us, and when I say a million I mean a million. I never saw a crowd like it anywhere in all my life.”

Broadcasting Bambino

Soon thereafter, during a welcoming ceremony at nearby Hibiya Park, then-foreign minister (and future prime minister) Hirota Koki spoke of how the games would bring Americans and Japanese together and help mend diplomatic differences. (Koki himself was an expansionist and had been a member of a far-right secret society, and would eventually be executed for war crimes.)

Immediately following the ceremony, Ruth and the aging Connie Mack were whisked away to a radio station, where they spoke to a audience of millions in Japan of their excitement to be in Japan and their hope of fostering a strengthened international baseball relationship between Japan and the US.

Welcoming festivities continued unabated until the first game of the tour the following day. Attendance for almost all the games of the tour came to staggering numbers, often well over the capacity of the stadiums they took place in. The American news media covered this all in the forms such coverage took in the day; newspapers, magazines, radio, and news reels all repeated time-and-again the tale of thousands of Japanese cheering on the Bambino and the All-Stars during games; listeners reveled in tales of the lavising of the team with extensive banquets. Japanese hosts proffered the ballplayers with lavish gifts at all turns.

The 1934 team.

Good Feelings, but How Effective?

As the tour came to close, the American press labeled it a great success and indeed a “diplomatic coup.” The Sporting News would even go so far as to write that:

“We believe that the recent trip to the Orient of baseball’s finest has served to delay, if not prevent, any possible conflict. We like to believe that countries having such a common interest in a great sport world rather fight it out on the diamond than on the battlefield.”


Sporting News, quoted in Fitts, p228.

We can question whether the average person in either country really felt differently about each other following this tour. However, those involved with the tour personally certainly came away with changed perceptions.

Connie Mack was so moved by the reception he and the All-Stars were being given that a week into the tour he told a Yomiuri Shimbun interviewer that he had begun to consider Japanese motivations vis a vis the departure from the League of Nations; he was even reconsidering his opinion on the invasion of Manchuria and setting up of the Manchukuo puppet state. Shortly following the tour, he would state with famously misplaced optimism that “there will be no war between the United States and Japan.”

Babe Ruth was also taken with Japan, having been completely won over by the unbelievable reception he had been given by hundreds of thousands of Japanese. He even bought into the hype expressed by so much of his nation’s news media and the dignitaries, both Japanese and American, he had met with. The tour, which the Bambino had done so much to popularize, had helped guarantee peace and goodwill between Japan and the US — or so the narrative went. Eight years later, a single day would be all it would take for all that to come crashing down for the Babe.

Amidst all these exaggerated claims of baseball healing the world’s ills, Time, at least, wrote of the tour with a degree of more measured optimism. “It would be naïve to suppose that Japanese baseball frenzy for baseball’s Babe will sway public opinion, but last week it did ease tension.”

The Traitors of Baseball

So, did the baseball diplomacy of the 1934 tour really have an effect on the future of American-Japanese relations? Did it help forestall war or bring about feelings of comradery between Japanese and Americans? Such is hard to say with any real certainty; there were so many elements at play in those complex and eventful years leading up to the Pacific War.

Certainly, the words of the press and of dignitaries from both sides stressed perceptions of real diplomatic importance regarding the tour. The private diaries of people like Ambassador Grew reveal that these were more than mere platitudes. What’s more, real political action did result from the tour (although not of the peaceful sort).

On February 22nd, 1935, only weeks after the tour, a member of a far-right nationalist group struck Yomiuri Shimbun publisher Matsutaro Shoriki with a short sword, cutting a large gash across the back of the man’s head in an attempted assassination.

Once apprehended, the assailant’s rational for the attack was revealed: Shoriki deserved to be punished for the unpatriotic act of sponsoring the All-Star tour and allowing Americans to play on the sanctified fields of Meiji Jingu Stadium.

The ultimate message this story gave to readers back in America was that Japanese lovers of baseball were a breed apart. Those who loved baseball were civilized. Those who did not were violent beasts.

The Birth of Japanese Pro Ball

The 1934 tour did lead immediately to another major development: the creation of Japan’s first professional baseball team, which would eventually go by the name of the Yomiuri Giants. Shoriki, unfazed by his near-assassination, went ahead with the creation of the team, which evolved directed out of the All-Nippon team he had put together to play the All-Americans; in fact, the Japanese team’s creation was one of the original motivations for putting the tour together in the first place.

The team immediately set sail for North America, where they played numerous games across the US against minor league teams to a good degree of fanfare and very positive press reactions. By the next year, when the Giants returned to Japan, six other companies had formed their own pro baseball teams, and modern Japanese pro ball had been born. It remains a huge force in Japan, and the Yomiuri Giants remain far and away the most popular team in Japan, comparable in many ways to the New York Yankees.

(An example of the vast popularity of the Giants: In 2018, Yomiuri games hosted 3,002,347 attendees. Only their eternal rivals, the Osaka-based Hanshin Tigers, posted similar numbers at 2,898,976 attendees. Most of the other ten pro teams saw attendance of around 2,000,000 people or less.)

From Baseball to Blood Sports

In the lead up to the Pacific War, many things changed for Japanese baseball. In the late 1930s, the Ministry of Education, which in former decades had been pro-baseball because of the sports perceived westernizing effects, announced that all scholastic sports were to be denuded of “liberal influences.” These were to be replaced with traditional, spiritually Japanese elements.

Baseball was already hated by some nationalists for its Western origin. In 1940 the Nippon Professional Baseball board of directors reacted to these cultural currents by officially changing overly foreign-sounding words used in the game to Japanese variants — an attempt make the game sound more “Japanese.” (This process of word tabooing is known as Kotobagari.) 

The word besuboru fell out of favor, replaced with yakyuu. (This remains the word most often used for the sport in Japan). Calls like “strike” became “yoshi” (good), while “ball “became “dame” (bad). English-language team names were changed to more militaristic-sounding Japanese names. (The Giants became the Kyojin Gun, meaning “Giants Troop”). Pro teams, who saw more and more of their stars drafted into the army alongside a corresponding drop in game attendance, began playing in army-standard khaki colors.

“To Hell With Babe Ruth!”

The outbreak of war saw those Americans who had been involved in the tour grapple with the Japan they had experienced, loved, and even defended, and the Japan that had now become the most hated entity in America.

On December 7th, 1941, upon learning of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ruth began throwing many of the expensive souvenirs he had been gifted during his 1934 tour out of his 15th-floor apartment window. Soon he was using all of his charisma and fame to help fundraise for and support the war effort against Japan; he even personally bought $100,000 worth of war bonds. Ruth had become symbolic of America to both Americans and Japanese, and in 1944, a report from the New York Times described a happening of supreme interest to that effect. From the front lines on the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea came word of Japanese soldiers charging to their deaths in the mangrove swamps — who as they did so, had been heard to yell out, in English, “to hell with Babe Ruth!”

The Babe’s response to this incredible story that so intimately involved him was to say that, “I hope every Jap who mentions my name gets shot – and to hell with all Japs anyway!” He then set out the next day to engage in some door-to-door recruitment for war bonds.

Baseball’s Return

Despite his rage and sense of betrayal, the Sultan of Swat would eventually regain a more measured look at the 1934 tour and the Japanese people as a whole. Shortly before his death, he wrote that:

“Despite the treacherous attack the Japanese made on us only seven years later, I cannot help but feel that the reception which millions of Japanese gave us 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.”

After war’s end, another baseball tour by an American team would in fact go on to receive another incredible reception. “Lefty” O’Doul, former All-Star from the 1931 tour, returned to Japan in 1949 with the San Francisco Seals for the first post-war barnstorming tour.

In a country wracked by economic and physical devastation, the tour acted like a lightning rod, exciting large portions of the population in way that had rarely been seen since Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender on August 10th, 1945. General Douglas MacArthur, supreme leader of the occupation forces, went on to call the 1949 Seals tour “the greatest piece of diplomacy ever.” Once again, Americans and Japanese were united over a love of the game, only a few scant years after they had been killing each other in the hundreds of thousands.

Sports Diplomacy

Sports diplomacy, which is becoming more widely recognized for its historical significance, did not start with American-Japanese baseball diplomacy. Nor did it start when Pierre De Cubertin founded the International Olympic Committee back in 1894. It has come in many varied forms, whether those used to bring countries together, like the Olympics are theoretically meant to, or as baseball was used in pre-and-post-war Japan.

Sports can even be utilized for the opposite effect; when sports are used to show domination and power on the international stage, as was so often the case between the rival countries of the capitalist and communist world during the Cold War. Indeed, the US would attempt to use sport many more times during that era as a means to ingratiate and culturally link their country with “third-world” nations they hoped to make into allies.

And yet, there is something special about this sports link between Japan and America. The 1934 tour, had thousands yelling “Banzai, Babe Ruth!” in the streets of Ginza, only to have doomed Japanese soldiers cursing his name and all it represented a mere decade later; it remains an important touchstone in a sporting relationship that has existed between America and Japan for nearly 150 years, and which will likely continue to exist long into the future.


Sources

Fitts, R. K. (2013). Banzai babe ruth: baseball, espionage, and assassination during the 1934 tour of japan. Univ Of Nebraska Press.

Gripentrog, J. (2010). The Transnational Pastime: Baseball and American Perceptions of Japan in the 1930s. Diplomatic History, 34(2).

Whiting, R. (2009). You Gotta Have Wa. New York: Vintage Departures

Rider, T. C. (2018). Defending the American Way of Life: Sport, Culture, and the Cold War. University of Arkansas Press

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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