There are three Americans in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. One is Horace Wilson, the professor of English who brought his students outside for a game in 1872, thus introducing baseball to Japan. Another is Wally Yonamine, the Hawaii-born Nisei who played professional baseball in Japan in the 1950s (after one season as a running back in the NFL), winning three batting titles and numerous selections to All-Star teams. And the third is Frank “Lefty” O’Doul. A power-hitting outfielder who won two National League batting titles, O’Doul was a member of two teams of American players who toured Japan in 1931 and 1934. O’Doul fell in love with Japan during these visits. He returned to the country in 1935 to assist in the creation of the Tokyo Giants, a professional team that toured the United States. And he came back again in 1949, this time as the manager of the minor-league San Francisco Seals. With much of the country still in ruins from the war, the Seals’ four-week tour lifted Japanese morale and helped repair Japanese-American relations. Emperor Hirohito invited O’Doul to the palace to offer his personal thanks. General MacArthur called the Seals’ tour “the best piece of diplomacy ever.”
Lefty O’Doul is one of the principal characters of Rob Fitts’ history of the 1934 tour of Japan by Major League players. O’Doul was joined on the team of “All Americans” by future Hall-of-Famers Jimmie Foxx, Charlie Gehringer, and Lou Gehrig, as well as legendary manager Connie Mack. But the marquee attraction was Babe Ruth, at that time coming to the end of his playing career yet still the biggest star in baseball. Rob’s book, Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan (University of Nebraska Press, 2012), shows that Ruth was also an international star. Japanese fans swarmed around him at every stop on the tour, and they cheered for his home runs, even when they were part of another lopsided win by the Americans. Japanese fans’ admiration of Ruth and the other American players, and the overall success of the tour, convinced organizers that there was a place for professional baseball in Japan, alongside the well-established and popular high school and college leagues. Two years after the tour, Japan’s professional league played its inaugural season, featuring the Tokyo Giants and six other clubs.
For his own part, Ruth came away from the tour with a great affection for Japan. He was then bitterly disappointed seven years later by the attack on Pearl Harbor. As Rob explains in his book and the interview, even during the weeks of the tour, when thousands of Japanese were cheering American players in the streets and stadiums, the forces that would lead to war were moving in society and the military. Babe Ruth and baseball were unable to keep that war from coming. But Lefty O’Doul and baseball were at least able to help repair the damage.