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First team to visit Japan was quite a collection

MLB.com

Major League Baseball is on tour, bringing an All-Star team to Japan. It is hardly the first such excursion by the big league's best. Indeed, the current one is the 36th and comes 80 years after the most celebrated visit. The MLB roster includes the likes of Robinson Cano, Yasiel Puig, Evan Longoria and Jose Altuve. The team that made the trip in 1934 had its star power and charm in abundance.

It was a peculiar bunch that brought the American pastime to Japan then, a diverse collection that included an international demigod, celebrities of a more pedestrian stripe, a few relative unknowns, at least one man involved in honest-to-goodness espionage and an older gentleman who favored straw hats, seldom was seen in informal attire and who answered to the name Mack. What an entourage!

Major League Baseball is on tour, bringing an All-Star team to Japan. It is hardly the first such excursion by the big league's best. Indeed, the current one is the 36th and comes 80 years after the most celebrated visit. The MLB roster includes the likes of Robinson Cano, Yasiel Puig, Evan Longoria and Jose Altuve. The team that made the trip in 1934 had its star power and charm in abundance.

It was a peculiar bunch that brought the American pastime to Japan then, a diverse collection that included an international demigod, celebrities of a more pedestrian stripe, a few relative unknowns, at least one man involved in honest-to-goodness espionage and an older gentleman who favored straw hats, seldom was seen in informal attire and who answered to the name Mack. What an entourage!

Moe Berg -- "The strangest man ever to play baseball" according to Casey Stengel, himself a peculiar sort -- was among them, sneaking photos for the U.S., we later learned. Also among the traveling band was a workaholic first baseman revered in the States whose name would later be attached to a crippling disease, and a man with an odd nickname -- "Double X" -- who, had the Japanese known of Berg's activities, they might have thought he was the operative. And the Americans even brought a genuine Sultan (of Swat).

Together, they made for must-see entertainment in a Far East nation that came to embrace baseball in subsequent years and that seemingly enjoyed every aspect of the barnstorming big leaguers.

Most of all, they enjoyed Babe Ruth. Little was lost in translation when Ruth was involved. The men representing Japan when the terms of the tour were negotiated insisted that the Bambino be part of the entourage Connie Mack assembled, even though Ruth's best days with a bat in his hands were far behind him. The 1935 season would be his last in the big leagues. Still, the Babe represented uncommon power that was lacking in the Japanese game. And Ruth didn't disappoint. Eighteen games were played, and he hit 13 home runs.

He conspicuously wore his Yankees number, 3, and the man on deck was No. 4, Lou Gehrig, just as he was in the Bronx. Philadelphia A's slugger Jimmie Foxx, Tigers second baseman Charlie Gehringer and Indians center fielder Earl Averill, each a Hall of Famer to be, played as well. Another future Cooperstown resident, Yankees great Lefty Gomez, pitched. And Berg spied from behind his catcher's mask and during moments away from the ballpark.

The National League had forbidden its players to participate for fear of injury. The Americans dominated nonetheless even without the likes of Hornsby, Frisch and Dean.

Also absent from the ongoing event were television cameras. It fell to print journalists and, as it turned out, Foxx to record the goings-on. His work was not some forerunner to Fox Sports, but an effort to create personal records of what he and his wife experienced. The result of his 16-millimeter work and recent technical efforts by the Hall of Fame is a video that shows Ruth, Gehrig and the others on the field and also on the ship that carried them to the Far East.

The presence of Ruth "brought the two nations together and forestalled talks of war, before becoming a symbol in Japan of American decadence," Robert K. Fitts wrote in his 2012 book, "Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage and Assassination During the 1934 Tour of Japan."

"After spending several years pouring over old newspaper accounts and still photographs of the 1934 tour of Japan, it was a thrill to see the players come alive in Jimmie Foxx's home movies," Fitts said. "The movies are not only a valuable source on an important event in baseball history and sports diplomacy, but also offer a rare glimpse of the way the Japanese played the game in the pre-war period.

"Within a few years, however, tensions between the countries mounted, culminating in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into World War II as a full-scale belligerent. Soon, Japanese solders evoked the image of Ruth during battle, yelling 'To hell with Babe Ruth' as they attacked American positions."

All these decades later, who can argue the extent to which baseball was part of the American fabric?

Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com.