Murder, Espionage, and Baseball: The 1934 All American Tour of Japan

By Fitts, Robert K. | Nine, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Murder, Espionage, and Baseball: The 1934 All American Tour of Japan


Fitts, Robert K., Nine


Keynote Speech to the Nineteenth Annual NINE Spring Training Conference, March 10, 2012

Katsusuke Nagasaki's breath billowed as he loitered outside the Yomiuri newspaper's Tokyo offices. The morning of February 22, 1935, was chilly. But that was good, nobody would look twice at his bulky overcoat. Matsutaro Shoriki, the owner of the Yomiuri newspaper, was late. Nagasaki strolled up and down the block, trying to remain inconspicuous.

Finally, at 8:40 a.m. a black sedan cruised down the street. Nagasaki halted in front of a bulletin board by the building's entrance. He studied the announcements as a short, balding man with thick-framed glasses emerged from the car. As Shoriki began to climb the stairs into the building, Nagasaki strode forward, pulling a short samurai sword from beneath his coat. The blade flashed through the air, striking Shoriki's head. The bloodied newspaper owner stumbled forward, as Nagasaki fled. (1)

Later that day, Nagasaki walked into a local police station and gave a detailed confession. The primary reason for the assassination attempt: Shoriki had defiled the memory of the Meiji Emperor by allowing Babe Ruth and his team of American all-stars to play in the stadium named in honor of the ruler.

Three months earlier, nearly a half million Japanese had lined the streets of Tokyo to welcome the ballplayers to Japan. The players' motorcade was led by Ruth in an open limousine. At thirty-nine, he had grown rotund and just weeks before had agreed to part ways with the New York Yankees. But to the Japanese, he still represented the pinnacle of the baseball world. Sharing the car was his former teammate Lou Gehrig. The rest of the All American baseball team, distributed three or four per car, followed: Connie Mack, Jimmie Foxx, Earl Averill, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez, Lefty O'Doul, and a gaggle of lesser-known stars.

Only one player didn't seem to belong--a journeyman catcher with a .238 career batting average named Moe Berg. Although he was not an all-star caliber player, his off-the-field skills would explain his inclusion on the team. Berg was a Princeton University and Columbia Law School graduate who had already visited Japan in 1932. He was multilingual, causing a teammate to joke that Berg could speak a dozen languages but couldn't hit in any of them. Berg would eventually become an operative for the Office of Strategic Services (oss), the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and many believe that the 1934 trip to Japan was his first mission as a spy.

The pressing crowd reduced the broad streets to narrow paths just wide enough for the limousines to pass. Confetti and streamers fluttered down from multistoried office buildings, as thousands waved Japanese and American flags and cheered wildly. "Banzai! Banzai, Babe Ruth!" echoed through the neighborhood. Reveling in the attention, the Bambino plucked flags from the crowd and stood in the back of the car waving a Japanese flag in his left hand and an American in his right. Finally, the crowd couldn't contain itself and rushed into the street to be closer to the Babe. Traffic stood still for hours as Ruth shook hands with the multitude. (2)

Ruth and his teammates stayed in Japan for a month, playing eighteen games in twelve cities. But there was more at stake than sport: Japan and the United States were slipping toward war as the two nations vied for control over China and naval supremacy in the Pacific. Politically Japan was in turmoil. From the 188os through 1920s, Japan had enjoyed a form of democracy. This period saw great strides in modernization, a flourishing of the arts, and close ties to the United States. Yet, as Japan's power grew, so did its nationalism. A growing minority of Japanese citizens felt that the country should take its place among the world powers by expanding its military and colonizing its neighbors. Ultranationalist societies began assassinating liberal politicians and members of the free press.

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