On This Date in Sports November 2, 1934: The Babe Takes Japan

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

Some of the biggest stars in baseball begin an 18-game tour of Japan. The biggest attraction of the tour is Babe Ruth, who was in the sunset of his career but struck an imposing presence that left Japan in awe. The slugger, who had just finished his final season with the New York Yankees, would hit 13 home runs and would help launch professional baseball in Japan.

The 1934 Major League tour of Japan was not the first, but it was the first to see an appearance by Babe Ruth. The sport was first introduced to Japan in the 1870’s by an American educator name Horace Wilson. As the 20th Century began, there were a number of goodwill tours, with professionals going to Japan in 1908, 1913, 1920, 1922 and 1931. The 1934 tour came at a time of rising tensions between the Empire of Japan and the West. The tensions would lead to an assassination attempt on Matsutaro Shoriki, from hardliners who were against Western influence. Shoriki the owner of Yomiuri Shimbun the largest newspaper in Japan, who was looking to give a boost to baseball.

Even though Babe Ruth was a shell of his former self at the age of 39, he was still the biggest star in baseball. Joining Ruth on the tour were his Yankees teammates Lou Gehrig and Lefty Gomez. The team was managed by Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics, who brought along Jimmie Foxx, Eric McNair, Frankie Hayes, Joe Cascarella, Bing Miller and Harold “Rabbit” Warstler from the A’s. The team also had Charlie Gehringer from the Detroit Tigers, Earl Averill and Clint Brown from the Cleveland Indians. While Earl Whitehill of the Washington Senators was joined by Moe Berg a journeyman catcher who had a separate mission on the voyage.

Moe Berg was a curious member of the team as he was hardly considered a big name in the game. Born in Harlem on March 2, 1902, and raised in the Roseville section of Newark as the son of a pharmacist, Moe Berg chose a career in baseball despite an Ivy League education at Princeton, where he learned to speak seven languages; Latin, Greek, Italian, German, French, Spanish and Sanskrit. Berg was hardly a star in the game but seemed to have friends in high places as was once seen engaging in a long conversation with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He had been part of a barnstorming tour in 1931 and later toured Northern Africa and the Middle. On a day off, Moe Berg went to a local hospital and filmed the Tokyo skyline. The footage he used, was later used by American pilots in the Doolittle Raids following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Japan. After his career was over, Moe Berg joined the OSS a forerunner of the CIA and worked as a spy, once going undercover in Nazi-occupied countries to determine what was known about nuclear physics and if they were close to developing the atomic bomb.

The games were all big draws in Japan, despite the domination of the American All-Stars as over 500,000 fans came to watch the 18 games. Babe Ruth who at one event wore a traditional Japanese kimono won the fans over and was the biggest star with his 13 home runs. However, one star emerged for Japan and that was Eiji Sawamura, a 17-year-old who tied the America stars in knots in a game on November 20th. Sawamura struck out Charlie Gehringer, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx upon entering the game in the fourth inning. The high school pitcher would allow just one run, on a home run by Gehrig in the seventh and got the loss. So impressed by his pitching, Connie Mack invited Sawamura a contract with the Athletics and the opportunity and a spot on the trip home. However, giving into the growing hostility, Eiji Sawamura refused, citing his hatred for the United States.

The series was a success for Japan, as the team Matsutaro Shoriki formed became the first professional team in Japan, earning the name the Yomiuri Giants. An official league would begin to play a few years later, but all development of baseball in Japan was put on hold, with the start of World War II, which happened despite to optimism expressed by Connie Mack, who was quoted, as saying thanks to baseball there would never be a war between the U.S. and Japan. The pitcher who he offered to come to America, would be among the many killed in the war, as Eiji Sawamura was aboard a warship that was sunk by an American submarine late in 1944. After the war, baseball did become a bridge to repairing relations between the USA and Japan, as Japan named its version of the Cy Young in favor of Sawamura.