Author Robert Fitts appeared at Japan Society on Wednesday, October 24 to discuss his new book, Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination During the 1934 Tour of Japan, and the roles that nationalism and baseball play in American and Japanese society. I met Fitts two years ago when I interviewed him for a story about Japanese baseball books. At the time he had written two books about baseball in Japan and was in the process of finishing Banzai Babe Ruth, which won the silver medal in the 2012 Independent Publisher Book Award’s Sports/Fitness/Recreation category. Here’s a look back at the story, which focuses on the genesis of Fitts’s first two books.
It takes dedication to make a career out of writing about a niche topic such as Japanese baseball.
One of those writers is Robert Fitts, an award-winning author who wrote Remembering Japanese Baseball: An Oral History of the Game and Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball. He’s currently finishing up his third book, Banzai Babe Ruth! Baseball Diplomacy and Fanaticism in Imperial Japan [the working title in August, 2010].
His love affair with Japanese baseball began with his first game at Meiji Jingu Stadium in Tokyo, home of the Yakult Swallows. Fitts had always been a baseball fan, but that first game “was unlike anything I’d ever seen,” he says. “I was hooked instantly.”
He found himself in Japan because his wife, Sarah, an attorney, was offered a six-month internship. An archaeologist by trade, Fitts continued to write his Ph.D. while he was there. The couple lived in Japan for almost two years, and Fitts eventually left archaeology and began selling Japanese baseball cards. He had a customer who bought the cards of Wally Yonamine, the first American to play professional baseball in Japan after World War II. When Fitts realized the customer was Yonamine’s son, he arranged a meeting with the groundbreaking athlete with the intentions of writing an article.
“His stories were just so great,” Fitts recalls. “I got out of [the Yonamine interview], and I said, ‘You know, I’ve got to write a book.’”
Fascinated by Yonamine’s experiences as a Japanese American playing baseball in post-World War II Japan, Fitts began to wonder, “If he has this to tell, what about other people?” What was intended to be an article evolved into Fitts’s first book, Remembering Japanese Baseball: An Oral History of the Game.
The book is the story of Japanese baseball as told by men who played the game. “I asked them what they saw, the cultural differences. Everyone was very receptive.”
In addition to Yonamine, Fitts interviewed left-handed pitcher Clyde Wright; former Kansas City manager and Japan Series champion Eric Hillman; Masaaki Mori, the former Yomiuri Giants catcher who won the Japan Series twenty times as a player and a manager; and Tsuneo “Cappy” Harada, a Japanese American who helped rebuild Japanese sports after World War II.
After Remembering Japanese Baseball, Fitts wrote the biography of Wally Yonamine. He traveled to Yonamine’s native Hawaii and searched through newspapers featuring Yonamine’s prowess as an athlete, first in football, later in baseball. Through extensive interviews with Yonamine and his family and friends, Fitts chronicles Yonamine’s rise from the sugar cane fields of Hawaii to a brief stint with the San Francisco 49ers to a hall of fame baseball career in Japan.
“Professionally I’m an archaeologist, so I’ve always been interested in the past,” says Fitts. “I love doing the research. I absolutely love it.”
But why Japanese baseball?
“There are interesting stories there that most Americans don’t appreciate,” says Fitts, who writes from an American perspective for a primarily American audience. “I feel it’s important to let Americans know just what an incredible history Japanese baseball has.”