In Search of Babe Ruth’s Statue in a Japanese Zoo

This article was written by Steven Wisensale

This article was published in the Spring 2021 Baseball Research Journal


Though war clouds were gathering, it dropped peacefully out of the sky of Japan, seven years before bombs fell on Pearl Harbor and eleven years before atomic blasts destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It landed softly on the other side of the fence in right center field at a ballpark in Sendai, a city on the northeast coast of Japan, 187 miles from Tokyo. It was November 9, 1934, and Babe Ruth had just connected for the first of his 13 home runs during an eighteen-game, 12-city goodwill tour of Japan.1

The team of all-stars came by ship, the Empress of Japan, that departed Vancouver, British Columbia, on October 20 and arrived in Yokohama 10 days later.2 The All-Americans represented the best of the best. Managed by the legendary Connie Mack, the team included future Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez, and Earl Averill. Also on the tour was Moe Berg, a mediocre journeyman catcher who secretly filmed Tokyo Bay. According to some accounts, Jimmy Doolittle later used Berg’s film, among others, to plan his famous attack on Tokyo in 1942.3

After receiving a warm welcome in Yokohama, the team journeyed by train to Tokyo where hundreds of thousands lined the streets to greet the All-Americans as they rode in a caravan of open-air cars. Babe Ruth was in the lead car, perched atop the back seat and smiling broadly while he waved an American flag in one hand and a Japanese flag in the other. Parades and banquets would follow in other cities, including Osaka, Nagoya, Kokura, Kyoto, Omiya, Sendai, and Yokohama.4

For Ruth, it was the beginning of the end. Mere weeks before he and his teammates departed for Japan, he had played his final game for his beloved New York Yankees. Rotund at age 39 and uncertain about his future, he would retire from baseball as a Boston Brave only two months into the 1935 season. But in Japan he had one grand hurrah. Adored by millions of Japanese, he often posed for photos with dignitaries, ordinary citizens, and children. He wore a kimono while posing with schoolgirls and he borrowed a fan’s umbrella while playing the outfield during a downpour.5 He was truly loved by the Japanese.

During the tour in which the team went 18-0 against Japanese All-Stars, Ambassador Joseph Grew proudly stated that “Babe Ruth is a more effective Ambassador than I could ever be.”6 After returning to the United States and during a celebratory banquet, manager Connie Mack concluded that the tour was one of the greatest peace measures in the history of nations and “there will be no war between the United States and Japan.”7 Simultaneously, The New York Times reported that “The Babe’s big bulk blotted out such unimportant things as international squabbles over oil and navies.”8

The now famous tour also benefitted the Japanese. Wealthy newspaper owner Matsutaro Shoriki, who sponsored the tour and was greatly disappointed in his team’s performance, elected to keep his squad together and create Japan’s first professional baseball team, the Greater Japan Tokyo Baseball Club, in December 1934. It was the beginning of professional baseball in Japan. A year later Shoriki’s club completed its own goodwill tour in the US, playing 90 games, mostly against minor league, college, and amateur teams. That team consisted of 11 future Japanese Hall of Famers and would later become the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, as the team is known today.9

 The outline of the ballpark as it existed in 1934, shown overlaid on a photo of the zoo. The small circle is where Babe Ruth’s first home run in Japan landed and where his statue stands today. (COURTESY OF YOICHI NAGATA AND TOKYO SABR)

The outline of the ballpark as it existed in 1934, shown overlaid on a photo of the zoo. The small circle is where Babe Ruth’s first home run in Japan landed and where his statue stands today. (COURTESY OF YOICHI NAGATA AND TOKYO SABR)

 

But the goodwill tours of 1934 and 1935 could not stave off war. Learning that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, Ruth reportedly tossed many of his Japanese gifts out the window of his New York City apartment.10 Japanese soldiers would shout “Go to hell Babe Ruth” while engaged in battle with Americans.11 The war was particularly devastating for professional baseball in Japan. They lost 69 Japanese Baseball League players in combat, five of whom had competed against Ruth and his teammates during the 1934 tour. The US, on the other hand, lost two former major league players in combat and another to illness during the war.12

Following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that brought an end to the war, the healing process began. Lefty O’Doul and his San Francisco Seals arrived in Japan in 1949 for a national tour, the first in 15 years. Other tours would follow and so would the exchange of players between nations. By 2020, more than 600 Americans had gone to Japan to play professionally. Fifty-eight Japanese players have been on the rosters of MLB teams. And, not to be overlooked, eight Americans have managed Japanese teams, most notably Don Blasingame, Bobby Valentine, Trey Hillman, Marty Brown, and Terry Collins.13

Although the old ballpark in Sendai where Ruth hit his first home run of the 1934 tour was dismantled and replaced with the city’s first zoo, the very spot where Ruth’s home run ball landed was permanently marked and recognized as sacred ground. In 2002, a statue of Babe Ruth was erected on the very spot in Yagiyama Zoological Park in Sendai City, formerly the Miyagi Prefecture Yagiyama Baseball Stadium. The statue was funded by donations from local citizens who had formed the “Let’s Build a Babe Ruth Statue in Former Yagiyama Field” committee.14

In the Summer of 2006, and on the eve of the first World Baseball Classic, Japanese Ambassador to the US, Ryozo Kato, spoke about the Babe’s continued popularity in Japan today: “Concerning the sport of baseball, most knowledgeable Japanese fans are familiar with Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays among others. Many of the current MLB stars are also popular in Japan. In other sports, some boxing champions are popular along with golfers such as Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Tiger Woods, and sumo wrestlers, Akebono, Musashimaru, and Konishiki (all of Hawaiian descent) can be mentioned. However, over the last century, baseball remains the most popular game in Japan and Babe Ruth is still considered the ‘King.’ That fact alone is an amazing feat.”15 (Kato later became the Commissioner of Nippon Professional Baseball, serving from 2008 to 2013. However, he resigned after it was disclosed that the baseballs were secretly juiced during the 2013 season, although Kato claimed he had no knowledge of it.16)

But finding the Babe’s statue is not easy. In the summer of 2017, as I was completing a Fulbright Fellowship in Japan where I taught a course titled “Baseball Diplomacy in Japan-US Relations” at two universities, I began my quest to visit each of Nippon Professional Baseball’s stadiums. Riding the shinkansen (bullet trains) from north to south, east to west, I not only took in lots of ballgames and absorbed and observed Japanese culture in its various regional forms, I often imagined myself as a member of that 1934 tour. I deliberately stayed in several hotels where the ’34 team stayed, including the Hotel New Grand in Yokohama and the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. I walked the streets of Ginza, the shopping district of Tokyo where the caravan of the American All-Stars maneuvered its way through thousands of adoring fans, and I visited Hibiya Park where the team was formally welcomed by Japanese officials. And I also sat in two stadiums where the Babe played in 1934: Hanshin Koshein Stadium (built in 1924) and home to the Hanshin Tigers, and Meiji Jingu Stadium (built in 1926), home of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.

The trip from Tokyo to Sendai to the north can be completed in less than two hours by bullet train. My room at the Mitsui Garden Hotel was a welcome refuge from a hot and humid August night. The next morning I arose early and took a 25-minute subway ride from my hotel to the Yagiyama Zoological Park. According to its website, the zoo opened in 1965 and 144 different species of animals are housed there, including monkeys, elephants, penguins, and tigers.17 After paying a small admission fee, I entered the zoo and immediately got lost somewhere between the monkey and penguin exhibits. Backtracking to the entrance as best I could, I found a very kind guide who assisted me with my quest to find Babe Ruth’s statue. Confronted with a language barrier, I imitated a batter’s swing. The guide smiled and then laughed as she motioned for me to follow her. We moved through a winding maze of animal exhibits and finally, as we emerged from a blind curve, there was the Babe, completing his powerful swing that produced his first home run in Japan. No more than twenty feet away was his roommate, a powerful rhinoceros. How appropriate!

I handed the guide my iPhone and politely motioned for her to take my photo as I climbed up to assume a position next to the Babe. Wrapping my arm around his broad back, I thanked him for his contribution to baseball and I thanked Japan for acknowledging the important role he has played in cultivating wholesome Japanese-American relations.

That evening I saw the Tohoku Rakuten Eagles win a home game at Rakuten Seimei Park Miyagi. Two days later and further north I saw Shohei Ohtani and his Nippon Ham Fighters win in Sapporo, and two days after that I was in Osaka for the opening ceremonies of the famous Koshien high school baseball tournament.18 My journey through Japanese baseball was complete. I circled the bases with the Babe by my side.

A few months after my return to the United States I found time to reflect on my many wonderful experiences in Japan, not the least of which was my special side trip to visit Babe Ruth’s statue in Sendai’s Yagiyama Zoo. I compared my journey to Japan to the journey of the 1934 All-Stars. They came by ship; I came by plane. They came during peacetime and so had I. They came to teach and learn as baseball players, and I came to teach and learn as a Fulbright Scholar. They were Americans who played baseball in Japan; I was an American who taught a course about baseball in Japan. They traveled to 12 cities to play baseball; I traveled to 12 cities to see baseball. And they practiced the art of soft power diplomacy and so did I. We played the same game on the same field 83 years apart. We were all teammates acting as goodwill ambassadors doing our best to make the world a better place. The Babe was our captain.

STEVEN K. WISENSALE, PhD, is a long-time SABR member and Professor Emeritus of Public Policy in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Connecticut where he taught a course, “Baseball and Society: Politics, Economics, Race and Gender.” He went to Japan as a Fulbright Scholar in 2017 where he taught a course, “Baseball Diplomacy in Japan-US Relations,” at two universities. During his stay he also made a presentation on his research at a meeting of the Tokyo SABR chapter. He can be reached via e-mail at steven.wisensale@uconn.edu.

 

Babe Ruth's statue, with the author (COURTESY OF STEVEN WISENSALE)

Babe Ruth’s statue, with the author. (COURTESY OF STEVEN WISENSALE)

 

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Yoichi Nagata, Satomi Mitani, and the members of Tokyo SABR for their assistance in conducting his research.

 

Notes

1. Robert Fitts, Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage & Assassination During the 1934 Tour of Japan (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), 130. Also refer to the game’s line score on page 277. Ruth hit two home runs that day.

2. From 1930 to 1939 the Empress of Japan served as the luxurious flagship of the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company. Capable of accommodating 1,260 passengers, it made the roundtrip journey between Vancouver and Yokohama 58 times in nine years before being converted to a troop transport ship at the beginning of World War II. More information about the Empress of Japan, including photos, can be accessed at the CruiseLine-History.com site: https://www.cruiselinehistory.com/cruise-line-history-the-empress-of-japan-10-days-from-Vancouver-to-japan.

3. Fitts, 254. If Doolittle used Berg’s 22-second film at all, its overall contribution to planning the raid was probably very minor. Doolittle relied heavily on Captain Steve Jurika who lived in Tokyo between 1939 and 1941 where he identified and mapped potential bombing targets for future raids if there was a war. According to Amazon.com, there have been sixteen books written about Berg’s espionage exploits and two films have been produced: The Hollywood version, The Catcher Was a Spy, starring Paul Rudd, was released in 2018. Aviva Kempner’s documentary, The Spy Behind Home Plate, was released in 2019. (Kempner also did a documentary on Hank Greenberg.)

4. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, along with its library, offers many resources for researchers interested in studying the 1934 tour in more detail. The six-minute video, “The 1934 Japan Tour Footage” (filmed by Jimmie Foxx) and the accompanying article, provide an excellent summary of the tour. (See https://baseballhall.org/discover-more/stories/baseball-history/1934-japan-tour-footage-uncovered) Still photos from the tour, including one of Ruth waving an American flag in one hand and a Japanese flag in the other during the welcoming parade in Tokyo, along with another picture of him using an umbrella while playing the outfield during a game in rainy Kokura in late November, can be found in Fitts’ Banzai Babe Ruth photo gallery between pages 146 and 147.

5. Many images of Ruth in Japan, including one of him wearing a kimono, can be accessed via online image search. See https://www.bing.com/im-ages/search?q=Images+of+Babe+Ruth+in+Japan&qs=n&form=QBIDMH&sp=-1&pq=images+of+babe+ruth+in+japan&c=0-28&cvid=F8169EE6DC68468CB3AB3862F7BBF328&first-&scenario=ImageBasicHover&cw=1349&ch=751.

6. Fitts, 83.

7. Fitts, 193.

8. The New York Times, November 3, 1934.

9. Sayuri Guthrie-Shimizu, Transpacific Field of Dreams: How Baseball Linked the United States and Japan in Peace and War (University of North Carolina Press, 2012). Refer to chapter 5 for more details about the 1935 goodwill tour in the United States.

10. Patrick Parr, “The Sultan of Swat Babe Ruth Visits Japan.” Japan Today, November 8, 2018, https://japantoday.com/category/features/lifestyle/babe-ruth-the-sultan-of-swat-visits-japan. The incident of Ruth destroying his Japanese gifts after hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor has been confirmed in several interviews with his daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens, who witnessed the event. See Banzai Babe Ruth, page 255, where Fitts references his interview with Stevens on November 7, 2007. She died at age 102 in March 2019.

11. Jeremiah A. O’Leary, “To Hell with Babe Ruth, Yell Charging Japanese.” The New York Times, March 3, 1944. Staff Sergeant O’Leary, a Marine Corps combat correspondent filed his story from Cape Gloucester in New Guinea in March 1944. However, in May 2011, Bonnie Taylor Blake, a freelance writer and blogger challenged this story and other similar war stories. See her blog entry “To Hell with Babe Ruth,” at https://btaylorblake.com/2011/05/29/to-hell-with-babe-ruth.

12. Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice: World War II Deaths is part of Gary Bedingfield’s “Baseball in Wartime” network. https://www.baseballsgreatestsacrifice.com/world_war_ii.html; See also Robert Weintrob, “Two Who Did Not Return,” The New York Times, May 25, 2013. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/26/sports/baseball/remembering-the-major-leaguers-who-died-in-world-war-ii.html?.

13. Brad Lefton, “Japan Shifting Views on Managers,” The New York Times, August 24, 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/25/sports/baseball/25managers.html.

14. Babe Ruth Central, “Babe’s 1934 Barnstorming Trip to Japan.” This site is devoted to cultivating and preserving the legacy of Babe Ruth. This story can be accessed at http://www.baberuthcentral.com/babesimpact/babe-ruths-legacy/babes-1934-barnstorming-trip-to-japan.

15. Babe Ruth Central, 2.

16. ESPN.com News Services, “Ryozo Kato Resigns as Commish.” September 19, 2013. Kato resigned just days after former major leaguer Wladimir Balentien, a gaikokujin (foreigner), hit home runs 56 and 57, breaking the Japanese season record held by legendary slugger Sadaharu Oh for 49 years. https://www.espn.com/mlb/story_/id/9692461/japanese-commissioner-ryozo-kato-resigns-juiced-ball.

17. Interested readers can visit the Zoo’s website at http://www.city.sendai.jp/zoo/index.html where a translator option will provide the information in English. Babe Ruth’s next-door neighbor is a very large rhinoceros.

18. The Koshien high school tournament is 100 years old. Each year 49 teams from 47 prefectures compete over a two-week period in August in legendary Koshien Stadium, home of the Hanshin Tigers. Each day 50,000 fans pack the stadium to watch teams compete in the single elimination tournament. A major TV network provides national coverage for those who cannot get tickets to the games. More information about a recent documentary on Koshien can be accessed at https://www.mlb.com/news/japan-s-koshien-tournament-featured-in-documentary.

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