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Book Review: Banzai Babe Ruth

Posted on April 20, 2012 at 10:46 PM
Filed Under: General Baseball
I've mentioned before that the great people at University of Nebraska Press will, from time to time, send along a book for me to read and hopefully review.  Every once in a while, though, they do a foolish thing and send along their whole catalog and let me pick.  That means I go through there and basically pick out every possible baseball book they have, providing me hours of enjoyment.

Which is how I came into possession of a copy of Banzai Babe Ruth.  While I don't know anything about Japanese baseball, a chance to read about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and others of that time period seemed to be something I should take advantage of.  I'm very glad that I did.

We all have a general idea of Japanese baseball, whether it is from the number of times that Major League Baseball has started a season over there or the former big leaguers that go over there to continue their career or even those players, like Ichiro Suzuki, who come over here after playing in their native land first.  Most all of this was unfathomable back in 1934, when an All-Star squad of players went over to play against the Japanese in an extended series of games.

This book is great on the baseball, there's no doubt.  We hear about earlier tours of the islands by professionals.  We find out that Ruth was dead set against going to Japan, only to eventually be talked into it and then having a superb time while he was there.  Author Robert Fitts does an incredible job of setting the stage, bringing you the action, and getting you into the mindset and motivations of not only the Americans involved, but the Japanese as well.

What I wasn't expecting was the political background to this book.  Fitts colors in the time and place that these players were walking into, with tensions starting to escalate between the United States and Japan.  Less than a decade later, these two powers would be pitted against each other, but at the time it was thought that some "baseball diplomacy" might ease the current tension and, for a while, it seemed to do so.

Fitts writes these characters so well that, at times, you think you are reading historical fiction rather than what actually happened.  You are left on the edge of your seat wondering if the Japanese team can really pull off an upset in a couple of the games.  (It helps that this is so far away so as to not be a part of general baseball knowledge, so you don't go into it already knowing the results.)  He also talks about Ruth's desire to manage and how Connie Mack was using this trip as a dry run for hiring Ruth to replace him.  While that never happened, it does seem that Ruth acquitted himself pretty well over in the land of the rising sun.

The only flaw in the book had nothing to do with the writing, but my own limited abilities.  With the number of Japanese names (and the fact that I've never done much of a study of the language or the people), it was sometimes hard to keep everyone separated and know who was who.  That's a minor detail, though, and it should not keep you from reading the book.  In fact, Fitts was kind enough to give a list of recurring Japanese characters in the front of the book so as to be available for easy reference (something I should have done more of).

Like another book I read recently, I wasn't sure exactly how excited I would be about this book (beyond it being about baseball and I'll read anything related to the sport) but I'm very glad I picked this one out.  If you are any sort of baseball history buff, I suggest picking this one up.  I don't think you'll be disappointed.

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