By Glen Sparks
Some of baseball’s greatest players boarded the Empress of Japan ocean liner on Oct. 20, 1934, in Vancouver, British Columbia. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and several others were headed for Honolulu and, ultimately, to Japan to play a series of exhibition games.
Connie Mack, owner-manager of the Philadelphia A’s, had organized the trip. Nearly 72 years old, he was mulling over giving up his dugout duties. Mack decided to give Ruth an audition of sorts. He asked the Babe to skipper this group of barnstorming All-Stars. If the trip went smoothly, baseball’s mightiest slugger might be managing the A’s in 1935.
Japan loved Ruth. Fans yelled “Bonsai!” and asked if they could meet “the God of baseball.” The U.S. team enjoyed a ticker-tape parade in Tokyo. Ruth’s squad played 17 games in Japan (Some reports say 18.), to sold-out crowds at Tokyo’s Meiji Stadium and Osaka’s Koshien Stadium, plus five more games in Shanghai, China, and elsewhere. The Babe waited until the fifth game to hit a home run but slugged 13 total. The All-Stars won every game and outscored their opponents 250-45.
The Japanese awarded four brass urns when the tour there ended. They were for highest batting average, longest hit, most runs driven in and best pitching. Ruth took home three urns. Lefty Gomez got the one for pitching.
Ruth, 39 years old and coming off a season in which he hit just 22 home runs for the Yankees, felt invigorated by his trip to the Far East. He announced at one point that he would play baseball “until I’m 100 years old.” Mack commented that Ruth looked better at the plate than he had in at least two years.
Thanks to Foxx’s camerawork, we have some footage of Ruth and the other players. Foxx recorded scenes on the ship, pre-game festivities and a little bit of game action. Robert Fitts, author of a 2012 book Bonsai Babe: Baseball, Espionage and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan, sat down with Tom Shieber from the Baseball Hall of Fame to talk about the film and the expedition. Fitts said the trip had been in the making for a few years. There was only one problem. Ruth couldn’t make it.
“Ruth was paramount to this tour,” Fitts says. “They tried for three years to get him. He finally agreed in ’34.”
The All-Stars were expected to not just play baseball, Fitts says. They also were expected to be great ambassadors. There, they also succeeded. “They took the ambassador role seriously,” Fitts says. “The Japanese newspapers reported how well they behaved.”
Japan was definitely the highlight of the trip for Ruth. The team went from China and then to Java and Bali. Ruth didn’t like the women in either of those two countries. He complained that they walked down the street chewing red tobacco.
Ruth also didn’t care for Paris. No one knew who he was, and the people didn’t know baseball. The kids at the American School couldn’t even throw a baseball the right way. Get back to the U.S., Ruth advised them. Learn the important stuff. High culture can wait.
America’s baseball legend could at least go bob sledding and skiing at St. Moritz, the French mountain resort. The Babe, ever the showman, skied while smoking a cigar.
Finally, the players left for London. Ruth put on some cricket gear, couldn’t get the hang of the game, switched to a baseball stance and began pounding the ball. The Babe liked London.
Ruth and the all-stars cruised into New York harbor on Feb. 20. A band played “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” as the players stepped off the ship.
And Connie Mack managed the A’s for another 16 seasons. Ruth flunked the audition even as he pounded baseballs out of stadiums halfway around the world. The problem was all the other stuff. Mack didn’t like how Ruth and Gehrig barely spoke to one another throughout the ship, their long-time feud still hot. He also didn’t like how the Babe’s wife, Claire, bossed around the A’s would-be manager.
Mack supposedly said, “If I gave the job to him (Ruth), she (Claire) would be managing the team in a month.”
That was that. Ruth, who played just one more season in the majors after his trip to Japan, never managed in the big leagues.
- Fitt’s book focuses on the Babe’s trip. You also can read more about Ruth’s trip to Japan, and his many other adventures, in The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth, by Leigh Montville, and Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, by Robert Creamer. They’re both great reads.
- Ruth wore a Navy blue hat during his tour of Japan, with US emblazoned on the front. The cap recently fetched $303,277 at auction
- You can read my post about the Babe and how he learned that mighty swing that produced 714 career home runs.