Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan, written by Robert K. Fitts and published by University of Nebraska Press, is the winner of the 2013 Dr. Harold and Dorothy Seymour Medal, which honors the best book of baseball history or biography published during the preceding calendar year.
Fitts, author of the award-winning Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball and Remembering Japanese Baseball: An Oral History of the Game, will receive his award at the banquet of the 20th annual NINE Spring Training conference, 6:15 p.m. on Saturday, March 16, 2013, at the Fiesta Resort Conference Center in Tempe, Arizona. Banquet tickets are $40.
The banquet includes the Seymour Medal ceremony with Dorothy Seymour Mills, dinner and the NINE Keynote address by SABR member Chris Lamb, author of Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Campaign to Desegregate Baseball and Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training. To register for the NINE conference, visit http://nineregistration.com.
The Seymour Medal Selection Committee released the following statement about Fitts’ Banzai Babe Ruth:
The winner of the 2013 Seymour Medal is Banzai Babe Ruth by Robert K. Fitts. It is the story of the famous trip of an American League all-star team, featuring Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Grove, which barnstormed Japan in November 1934. While the focus of the book is on the details of the trip and the reception the American stars received in Japan, an underlying story of the political climate in the land of the Rising Sun provides some answers to the question “How did the United States and Japan go to war seven years later when they had this mutual love of the game?” Fitts gives the reader an amazing detail of the trip, which has been merely a footnote in baseball history until now. It is a well-written story of baseball, politics and American and Japanese culture. There are many photographs of the events of the trip as well as a number of Japanese players.
In 2012, Fitts won the Doug Pappas Award for top SABR 42 presentation based on the same subject, “Murderers, Spies, and Ballplayers: The Untold Story of the 1934 All American Tour of Asia.” You can listen to audio of his presentation from SABR’s Minneapolis convention here.
“I’m just kind of blown away by it,” Fitts said of winning the Seymour Medal. “I’m at a loss for words.”
Fitts said his goal in writing Banzai was “just to tell a story.”
“I lived in Japan in 1993 and 1994, and used baseball as a way to acclimate myself to Japan,” he said. “When I came back to the U.S., I was surprised at how little was known about Japanese baseball and all the misconceptions that were out there. But their baseball history is as rich as American baseball history.”
He noted that Japanese primary sources, while difficult to find and translate, were crucial to telling the full story of the 1934 baseball tour.
“The military documents, an early biography of (legendary pitcher) Eiji Sawamura, those were extremely important,” he said.
Sawamura was just 17 years old when he pitched for Japan’s all-star team against the mighty major leaguers. He became a national hero after striking out Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Charlie Gehringer in a November 1934 game at Kusanagi Stadium, losing 1-0 on a seventh-inning home run by Gehrig. But, as Fitts writes, “as years passed, the duel between Sawamura and Ruth took on greater meaning as the nations battled in the Pacific.” Sawamura served in Japan’s 33rd Infantry Regiment during World War II and saw combat in the Phillipines and Bataan. He was killed in December 1944 when an American submarine sank his transport ship off the coast of Taiwan. Today, the Sawamura Award, like the Cy Young Award in the U.S., honors the best pitcher in Nippon professional baseball.
“I tried to paint him in a more realistic light,” Fitts said. “He’s so often portrayed as a hero, but when you read those articles, they’re so slanted. It was hard for me to remain sympathetic to him. But you have to remember what he had been through. He is at war, of course he’s going to have feelings like that.”
The other finalists for the 2013 Seymour Medal were:
- One Last Strike: Fifty Years in Baseball, Ten and a Half Games Back, and One Final Championship Season, by Tony La Russa and Rick Hummel (William Morrow)
- Connie Mack: The Turbulent and Triumphant Years, 1915-1931, by Norman Macht (University of Nebraska Press)
The Seymour Medal Selection Committee also released the following statements about the other finalists:
- On La Russa’s One Last Strike: “It is the story of the unlikely World Champion St. Louis Cardinals of 2011. The reader is given a detailed account of how La Russa put together this team which was 10.5 games out of the playoffs in August but rallied to get into the playoffs on the last day of the season and then went on to unlikely play off wins against Philadelphia and Milwaukee before what was considered a vastly superior Texas Rangers team. The reader learns how La Russa thinks — what he considered the necessary elements of a championship team — and how the Cardinals were successful in putting them together.”
- On Macht’s Connie Mack: “This book covers Mack’s life from the end of the 1914 season, when he began to dismantle a team that had won three pennants in four years through the rebuilding of the A’s and their champion years of 1929-31. This volume contains much original research and attempts to answer why Mack tore his team apart and how he skillfully rebuilt an entirely different type of club than he had been successful with two decades earlier. It’s an extremely well-written book.”
The Seymour Medal, named in honor of Dr. Harold Seymour and Mrs. Dorothy (Seymour) Mills, was first awarded by SABR in 1996. To be considered for the medal, a work must be the product of original research or analysis. The winning book shall significantly advance our knowledge of baseball and shall be characterized by understanding, factual accuracy, profound insight and distinguished writing.
To see a list of previous Seymour Medal winners, click here.
Hosted by NINE: A Journal of Baseball History & Culture, the NINE Spring Training conference promotes the study of all historical aspects of baseball and centers on the cultural implications of the game wherever in the world baseball is played. The NINE conference will take place March 13-16, 2013, at the Fiesta Resort Conference Center, 2100 South Priest Drive in Tempe, Arizona. Conference registration is $205.
Correction: The original article did not include the full name of the award. It is the Dr. Harold and Dorothy Seymour Medal.
Originally published: February 4, 2013. Last Updated: February 4, 2013.