Historians have described the relationship between the U.S. and Japan in the 1930s as a “road to war,” since steadily deteriorating foreign relations during that era set the stage for the Pacific theatre of World War II.
Yet, history, like life, is not a simple trajectory, as described in a recent scholarly article written by Dr. John Gripentrog, assistant professor of history at Mars Hill College. The article, “The Transnational Pastime: Baseball and American Perceptions of Japan in the 1930s,” was published in the April issue of Diplomatic History, a publication of The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, and one of the premier scholarly journals in the country.
“Usually the 30’s are depicted as this ‘road to war,’ and it was, but I wanted to see what was going on in those years between these two nations,” Gripentrog said. “There were a lot of things happening during that time that really don’t give you a sense that war was inevitable.”
Gripentrog’s article describes three major encounters between American and Japanese baseball squads during the 1930s which proved to have a tangibly positive effect on popular American perceptions about Japan. At a time when history records that the countries were moving toward war, these encounters revealed a populace that shared a common love for what some would term, “the great American pastime.”
“In the narrowest political terms, the moderate element of Japanese society evoked affinity with American principles,” Gripentrog said. “These positive correlations permeated the cultural sphere, so that ‘moderate’ Japan became associated generally with the ‘American way of life’—including baseball, a game tied inextricably to American conceptions of identity.”
The encounters began in 1931, when the baseball greats of the era, led by the likes of Yankees first-baseman Lou Gehrig, the Boston Braves’ Walter “Rabbit” Maranville and the Philadelphia A’s “Lefty” Grove, embarked on a tour, playing before sold out crowds against college teams all over Japan. Gripentrog excerpts an account from New York Post sportswriter Fred Lieb, who described the American heros’ arrival in Tokyo amid the adulation of thousands of Japanese fans besieging them for autographs.:
“We had to fight through thousands of enthusiastic Japanese rooters to reach our automobiles. Men, women, and children crushed forward, to get a close look or even touch the famous ballplayers of America….,” Lieb wrote.
Three years later, a similar Japanese tour of American professional baseball players, headlined by Babe Ruth, were hailed by a crowd of thousands who swarmed the players, crowding the streets of Tokyo, and shouting, “Banzai, Bambino!”
Then in 1935, Japan formed its first professional baseball team, the Tokyo Giants (or “Dai Nippon Giants”), and embarked on a similar tour of the U.S. Minor league teams from the Pacific Coast League hosted the Giants over the course of four months that spring in games from California to Ohio.
Despite the cordial feelings created by these baseball tours, and other cultural bonds between Japan and the United States in the 1930s, the notion that these kinds of transnational encounters could bridge a geopolitical divide proved to be illusory, Gripentrog said. The warm welcome that the Japanese baseball players received in the American west in 1935 is especially poignant in light of the attack on Pearl Harbor a mere 5 to 6 years later.
The article itself is a revised excerpt from Gripentrog’s dissertation, "Pacific Illusions: American Perceptions of Japan and the Making of United States Policy, 1931-1941." The dissertation examines more fully the dichotomy of a Japanese culture that was surprisingly open to westerners and western culture against a Japanese government that was increasingly aggressive and militaristic. He said he chose the chapter on baseball to develop for the article because the game has always seemed so quintessentially American.
“I found it very intriguing that you have this seeming foe in the 1930s who was embracing baseball as its own,” Gripentrog said. “You have two governments which were seemingly opposed and yet their people shared this cultural bond which was allegedly uniquely American.”
According to Dr. Lucia Carter, chair of the department of history, Gripentrog is a scholar whose accomplishments are admired both by his students and his colleagues. “It is truly an honor for Mars Hill College to have a faculty member whose research was published in the most prestigious journal in the field of diplomatic history. Since his first semester at MHC, Dr. Gripentrog has shared his great knowledge of history with students and colleagues alike. The History Department is proud of Dr. Gripentrog‘s scholarly achievements and acknowledges the important contributions he makes as a member of the faculty here at Mars Hill.”
According to Gripentrog, the achievement is very gratifying because of the level of scrutiny necessary for inclusion in the journal. Articles included in Diplomatic History must be peer-reviewed by at least two anonymous reviewers in addition to assessment by the publication’s editors.
“This achievement is very gratifying because you’re being recognized by your peers, and accepted into the community of scholars,” Gripentrog said. “It feels good.” Gripentrog, who has been a member of the history faculty at MHC since 2006, teaches a number of history courses covering American history, U.S. foreign relations, and the history of modern Japan, as well as general studies courses including “Faith and Reason.” He also serves as the faculty mentor for the Historical Honors Society.
Mars Hill College is a private, four-year liberal arts institution. Founded in 1856 by Baptist families of the region, the campus is located just 20 minutes north of Asheville in the mountains of western North Carolina.www.mhc.edu 1-866-MHC-4-YOU.Read the full article