This month we take a look at two rather obscure players that crossed paths during the 1934 MLB tour of Japan, Moe Berg and Eiji Sawamura, neither of whom never made much of an in Major League Baseball, but both are great figures of World War II and made their own impacts on the world of baseball.
The baseball season had concluded with the final out on the field after a chilly game in Detroit in October of 1934. Dizzy Dean threw a shutout and the Cardinals had defeated the Tigers in seven games, but it was not this World Series pitching performance that had the most impact of 1934. The most important things to happen in the world of baseball in 1934 happened after the players had stepped off the Tiger Stadium grass, the last American fan had stopped cheering and many of the best players in the world had left the United States.
Some of the best players of the American League traveled to Japan for a barnstorming tour in November and December of that year, forming a team called The All Americans. This wasn’t the first US baseball tour of Japan, there had been barnstorming tours dating back to 1908, but this was the first to take place just after the very first MLB All-Star Game was held just the year before at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago.This tour had greater pageantry to that All-Star game as the Americans were greeted by a half of a million fans cheering them on in the streets of Tokyo.
Although the National League didn’t allow their players to be included in the tour, the American League was able to send Hall of Famers Earl Averill, Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez, Jimmie Foxx, Babe Ruth, and manager Connie Mack. Unfortunately, the team was unable to find a quality catcher to come along on the tour before calling Moe Berg at the last moment. Berg was hardly the ideal player to display his bat after having a dreadful season at the dish in 1934, hitting .254 with zero home runs in 62 games as essentially a third string catcher used for his defensive stability. The guy only had six dingers in his fifteen year career. Although he was considered perhaps the oddest person ever to play in the majors, he was invited at the behest of fellow Ivy Leaguer Lou Gehrig (Columbia) to act as an ambassador for the team. You see, Moe wasn’t just any old baseball player, he was a graduate of Princeton as an undergrad, had a law degree from Columbia, and studied seven languages: French, German, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Latin and Sanskrit. Some resources cited that he could speak twelve languages, but I think we can agree that anything in double digits is ridiculous nonsense not to be believed.
Berg took his last minute invite as an opportunity to see Japan for a second time. He had previously enjoyed an instructional tour in 1931. After that first tour he continued to travel the world before spring training, seeing more of Japan, various areas of China, India, Egypt and Germany. On this second trip to Japan, Berg was contracted by a newsreel company to bring a 16mm camera to document the tour. He he had not studied Japanese in college but this didn’t stop him from surprising his hosts by delivering a welcome address for the tour as well as the legislature in the local tongue.
Berg joined a team that was absolutely loaded with incredible players. Lou Gehrig was coming off a triple crown season. This still wasn't good enough to finish higher than 5th in MVP voting behind the likes of All American teammates Charlie Gehringer and Lefty Gomez. Babe Ruth was coming off of his final season with the Yankees, his last full season in the majors although he still hit 22 home runs with an onbase percentage of .448.
This isn’t just the story of an old Jewish catcher and a group of legends that could beat the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant softball team, it’s also the story of a 17-year old Japanese ace pitcher who threw more than just baseballs. Eiji Sawamura was just a high school student… well, he was a former high school student pitching for the team representing Japan. The Ministry of Education forbade high school and college players from playing on the same field with each other or to make any money for playing baseball. His chance to face major league players would mean expulsion from school.
At the time, Japan didn’t have a professional league and they had to tap the country’s amateur ranks for the tournament. It was in the fourth inning of the game of November 20th, 1934, the tenth game in the tour, that Sawamura entered a scoreless game and pitched five innings against the All Americans. He had already started two games on the tour and was rocked in both appearances despite showing promise by striking out both Ruth and Gehrig. During the tournament Berg had an interaction introducing himself in Japanese and welcoming the young Japanese pitcher into the game. It was just another interaction the odd catcher made during the tour that endeared himself to the Japanese fans who delighted to see him walk the streets in a kimono and show genuine interest in Japanese culture.
Sawamura had nine strikeouts over five innings of work including a stretch where he K’d Ruth, Foxx Gehringer and Gehrig in order. Striking out all but one of the American batters in the lineup that day, Sawamura only gave up one run on a Gehrig solo homer in the seventh. The Japanese team lost the game 1-0 that day, the closest the Japanese team came to winning any of the games on the tour. After the game Philadelphia A’s manager Connie Mack approached the teenager and tried to sign him to an MLB contract on the spot. Sawamura declined. He didn’t want to go so far from home and was unable to speak English.
The true main attraction for the tour was Babe Ruth despite being very much past his prime. The Babe was 39 years old, finishing his final season with the Yankees, having just announced that he was no longer going to be an everyday player in the majors. 1934 was the first season in nine years where he had failed to hit 30 home runs and to hit over .300. The next season would be his last gasp, playing just 28 games with the Boston Braves and hitting only six home runs before retiring. Despite being on his last legs, the Big Fella had one last great run in him for this tour of Japan. The Major Leaguers won all 18 of their games behind Ruth's display of 13 home runs, to leave the Japanese fans awestruck.
Nine days after the Sawamura game, Moe Berg made some history of his during a game that he did not attend. Berg skipped the game to visit an ambassador’s daughter at a hospital in Tokyo. He came to the hospital with flowers and his camera, although he did not visit the girl. He went to the roof and filmed a 360 degree view of Tokyo including the harbor. There are varying accounts of why he did this, some stories claim he was asked to do this by the defense department and most others say that he did it on his own accord due to a sense that someday the US would be at war with Japan. It certainly wasn’t at the behest of manager Connie Mack who declared after the tour “that there would be no war between the United States and Japan,” due to the goodwill gained from the tour. Berg’s film was later used for reference in planning the Doolittle Raid. The US fire bombings of Tokyo in the Doolittle Raid in 1942 and later in ‘44 and ‘45 had more Japanese deaths than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
After the tour, Sawamura was a national hero for Japan headlining a tour of North America for the newly assembled Tokyo Giants. The team barnstormed against Pacific Coast League minor leaguers and semi-pro teams. The teenager's rising fastball was considered to be a major league ready clocking in at least in the mid-90’s, with fairly good secondary pitches. While in Milwaukee, Sawamura, who did not speak English, was given a piece of paper to sign that he had assumed was for an autograph. It wasn't. It was a contract from a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The contract was ultimately torn up and he was free to go back to Japan after the tour. Sawamura did not enjoy this sour interaction with a Major League team or his time on tour in the US. He felt he couldn’t get adequate rice at meals (it was during the Great Depression), which he blamed for some sub-par pitching performances, he hated the arrogance of Americans and found culture differences from his home too vast to handle. He returned to his homeland to become one of the first members of the Japanese professional baseball league (NPB) where he went on to throw the first no hitter in league history and the Japanese equivalent to the Cy Young Award is named after him in 1947.
It was just a couple of years into his professional career that war broke out in Japan and Sawamura was enlisted into the Japanese military. Having the most famous arm in the country led him to become a proficient grenade thrower in the infantry, later giving displays and training soldiers in technique. He battled across China in the infantry during the Second Sino-Japanese War, a war that started in 1937 and morphed into the Pacific theater of World War II after the Pearl Harbor attack.
Sawamura was considered a war hero in 1937 with his exploits throwing grenades. He was shot in the hand in the fall of ‘38 but recovered quickly to return to his unit. The strain from grenade throwing demonstrations had worn down his arm and when he returned to the Japanese League in 1940 he was forced to change his throwing delivery to become a sidearm thrower. He didn’t quite have the same speed on his fastball anymore although he was still able to throw the third no-hitter of his NPB career.
In late 1941 Sawamura was back in the military. Instead of tossing baseballs at Americans on the baseball field, he was throwing grenades at GI’s in the Philipines. THAT'S PRETTY DAMN DARK. His sore feelings of culture clash from his tour of North America in 1935 were lingering inside him and his view that surrendering Americans were acting cowardly because they did not to fight to the death created a dark resentment. He would make public remarks repeating false rumors of American war atrocities and would one of the most prominent figures of anti-American propaganda in Japan.
Moe Berg's hospital roof film of Tokyo from 1934 was so well received with US intelligence that Berg was utilized for other covert missions during the war thanks to his eclectic resume. It wasn’t just that he could speak seven languages even if he couldn’t hit in any of them. He didn’t just use language skills on the field, calling out plays on the field with his double play mate at Columbia who could also understand Latin. He would use an innate ability to read human behavior and body language to know when a runner was about to attempt to steal a base giving him a little advantage to throw the runner out. The OSS trusted his odd toolbox of skills to have him parachute into Yugoslavia in 1943 to determine who the US Government would be best suited to lead the country to assist the Allies. Fortunately for the war effort he decided Tito would be the stronger leader in war. Unfortunately, this was not applied to Tito’s ability to lead after the war, as he was a bit of an authoritarian monster.
Slugger Jimmie Foxx and his wife also brought a camera on the tour of Japan, although his videos serve more of a documentary history of the people of the city and the game action. During World War II Foxx was just a bit too old to fight in the war so he managed in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League depicted in A League of Their Own. He was somewhat depicted in that movie, although the character based on him was one of the few fictional characters. He and former Cub hitter Hack Wilson were merged together into the Jim Dugan character played by Tom Hanks, although the drunken side of the character was taken much more from Wilson's managerial career.
With an encyclopedic understanding of the liberal arts and his secretive personality traits, Berg made a perfect spy. He only had two things against him, he was recognizable and famous although that was only with fellow Americans, and he didn’t have as firm of a grasp on hard sciences. This lack of knowledge in science could have been a problem for Berg for a mission in 1944 where he was tasked to determine whether Germany had the capability to build and use an atomic bomb. Lucky for him, he had a crack teacher for crash course by consulting with Albert Einstein (the first one, not Albert Brooks), on the science of atomic technology.
Newfound knowledge in hand, the Jewish Berg traveled to Nazi Germany to attend lectures and to covertly question Werner Heisenberg (the first one, not Walter White), about his progress with atomic capabilities. If he was not able to come to a conclusion, or if he was to find that the Germans had the bomb, Berg was to assassinate Heisenberg onsite. Berg wasn’t able to definitively ascertain the scientific capabilities that the Nazis possessed, although he was confident in his profile of Dr. Heisenberg. The Nobel Prize winner Heizenberg had a despondent demeanor as he did not have the capabilities to build an atomic weapon and he could sense the inevitability of defeat for the Axis Powers. Berg left Germany without killing Heisenberg, a move justified by history.
That same year, Sawamura was called to active duty yet again. Just under ten years after his incredible game in the MLB tour he was killed as the ship transporting him to battle was sunk by an American submarine. He was one of the 1,843 Japanese soldiers killed as the ship was destroyed. The tragic loss of both a war hero who was also the greatest sports hero from Japan contributed to growing feelings against militarism in Japanese society after the War.
After the War, Moe Berg was cagey over the speculation that he might have been an assassin for some of his missions. His life as a spy was a secret and his private life was just as secretive. He never tipped his hand on his sexuality, he never married or spoke of any relationships after the war. The movie The Catcher was a Spy portrayed him as bisexual based only on speculation. To their credit, the filmmakers explained that they made that artistic choice in order not to “straight-wash” Berg’s secretive personal life.
Although he kept secrets close to his chest, it’s clear that the war had a devastating affect on Berg. When awarded the Medal of Freedom, he declined to accept it and never explained his reasoning. He was sent on a few post-war intelligence assignments but failed to get even minimal results. When another agent came to supervise him, Berg was found to be acting “flaky” and sent home. He never worked again either on the field or in the field, living the next two decades with siblings. He was evicted by his brother and he moved in with his sister for the last ten years of his life.
It wasn’t until the 1960’s that he attempted to write any memoirs of his experiences, but the project was abandoned when he learned the writer assigned to him took the job after mistaking him for Moe Howard of the Three Stooges. True story. After his death, Berg was inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and his baseball card is the only trading card on display at CIA Headquarters. He once said that he would rather have been a mediocre baseball player than a Justice on the Supreme Court. He passed away in 1972 with the last words, “how did the Mets do today?”
Video of Chuck Brodsky's song "Moe Berg."
The League of Outsider Baseball by Gary Cieradkowski