Americans automatically associate Dec. 7 as "a date which will live in infamy" ...
... but 28 years before the attack on Pearl Harbor, this date represented a smaller turning point in American-Japanese relations. Granted, it was much, much smaller, but it was one for the better.
For the first time, Japan's top baseball team would be able to host a game against American professionals.
Baseball was well entrenched in Japanese culture for decades, but the idea of a truly competitive, world-class team had only been about 10 years old. Much like the early days of football in America, Japan's best teams came out of colleges, since there were no professional leagues. Keio University's ballclub stood above the rest, and they would finally get a chance to see what they could do against a collection of the world's best players.
While political tensions existed between the two countries, the fans and players on hand had zero issues setting them aside. From the moment the RMS Empress of Japan arrived in Yokohama, the Americans were welcomed with warmth and enthusiasm. The Japanese wanted to see what they could do, and today, they would get to see how their players would hold up against the Americans.
Dec. 7 in Tokyo: Americans 16, Keio University 3
The second morning-afternoon doubleheader of the tour shut down the town around the college for the day, but while it was an all-day affair, all eyes were on the first game. Keio University not only had assembled the country's best baseball team, but they also readied the country's best pitcher: the tall, bespectacled Kazuma Sugase. He was their Christy Mathewson; their best hope for an upset.
Instead of choosing one of the traveling teams over another, the White Sox and Giants decided to create a team between themselves. They fielded a formidable lineup against the collegians, with Jim Scott on the mound, Ivey Wingo behind the plate, Fred Merkle, Larry Doyle, Mickey Doolan and Hans Lobert around the infield, and Lee Magee, Tris Speaker and Sam Crawford in the outfield.
Students escorted the ballplayers into park, where 7,000 fans -- 2,000 more than the field fit the day before -- were primed for the contest.
At the onset of the game, it looked like this hybrid American lineup would have its hands full. Keio's leadoff hitter greeted Scott with a triple, and he scored on a single to give the collegians a quick 1-0 lead. The fans erupted with a frenzy the major leagues hadn't seen. From G.W. Axelson's account as presented through the Oregonian the next day.
The players had plenty of assistance from the fans. Don't think that the Japanese is not a rooter. When anything out of the ordinary happens in the game he can give cards and spades to the American. Thus when Morri got his three-bagger right off the reel off Scott the stand and bleacher crowds went stark mad. They howled, jumped and danced and undoubtedly a few remarks went Scott's way. That which beggars description followed right after when Myaka's single scored him. Here were the pick of the two greatest teams in America and Keio was on the road to victory. Togo's hitting against the Russians was nothing like this.
The Sporting Life described the scene after the single, saying "never since the beginning of the world have so many kimonos been destroyed at one sitting [...] The base ball grounds became a sight never to be forgotten by an energetic rag picker."
Keio's lead didn't last long, because when the Americans came to the plate, they answered off Sugase in the same order -- a leadoff triple and an RBI single. Scott, probably rusty from the inaction on the ship, eventually found his groove. Sugase couldn't say the same, as the Americans tagged his array of curveballs for 16 runs on 15 hits. He could be proud about going the distance, striking out three and keeping the ball in the yard (not a small feat, as the college's field was far shorter to left and right than most American fields).
Even if he kept the American more off-balance, though, he would have needed more support. Six Keio errors and three passed balls put Sugase in tough spots, while Scott was at his strongest by the end of the game. He closed it out with an immaculate inning -- three strikeouts on nine pitches -- which put a stamp on the game.
Still, the players and the media came away impressed with the Japanese effort. Axelson suggested nerves may have played a part in the defensive miscues, because they showed flashes of excellence.
Even with [the Sox and Giants] to set the pace the work of the collegians did not look bad. The infield work was smooth. They played for each batter as much as any advance information aided them and for the rest they depended on which side of the plate the batter stood and took their chances with that. [...]
They were on the job every minute, whether at bat or on the bases. Once they caught such a wise head as Tris Speaker off second and completed a double play that was a corker.
(In "The Tour to End All Tours," James E. Elfers writes that the double play was a 5-3-5, which Speaker wasn't expecting.)
John McGraw said only the pitching kept the Japanese from making it a closer game. In Baseball Magazine, he said of the Keio team, "They are all athletes, fast on the bases, good hitters, always alert, and, with a pitching staff of equal excellence to their general playing, would give any major league nine a hard tussle."
In The Sporting Life, McGraw said this exhibition game should inspire the Japanese to advance the sport further, since they weren't that far off. The Japanese players knew the game and had a good idea of what they were supposed to do, but their execution couldn't match the American team's polish. McGraw and White Sox manager Jimmy Callahan spent an hour with Keio's players after the game reviewing some of the gaps, and the players were locked in.
When you only have one shot, it leaves plenty of room for guesswork. The Japanese fans and players seemed to expect the game to be closer, but the Americans had anticipated the possibility of a larger rout. Split the difference, and it probably served as a good measuring stick for Japanese baseball and its future.
Dec. 7 in Tokyo: White Sox 12, Giants 9
The fans remained on hand to watch the Americans resume their head-to-head matchups, and maintained their enthusiasm even with their club out of the running.
They took a particular shining to two players. One was Speaker, who electrified the crowd the day before with two homers. The other was New York's Mike Donlin, who won over some admirers with one of his regularly scheduled arguments with Klem in that game.
That appealed to the Japanese fans, who rode umpires as harshly as any American crowd, and quite possibly more so. Klem had charmed them enough with his dramatic lineup presentation, and Axelson writes that they spent much of the game mimicking his calls, which was lighter treatment than other umpires had received over the years.
Sure enough, a rousing slugfest came to an end on an incredible play featuring both fan favorites, as Speaker made a throw from deep center to cut down Donlin at the plate. Axelson says Speaker was back as far as the center field bleachers in the Polo Grounds, which would be more than 480 feet. That figure seems farfetched, but everybody on hand reacted as though they witnessed the impossible. McGraw called it the greatest play he had ever seen, and the Japanese fans exploded for an ovation lasting several minutes.
The dramatic ending closed out a successful Japan series, and left an indelible impression on the fans and media alike. Elfers relays this passage from the Tokyo Times:
Like a cyclone the big men of America came and went causing a whirlwind of a sensation. What did they do? Well ask the fans: they know it. And also ask the people living down in the Mita Road, and they will give you complete statistics of windows smashed, houses damaged, and dogs in the street hit by flying balls. They worked more wonders and showed more true ball playing than the Japanese fans could see. The cyclonic visit of the American stars has left its memory on the sporting history of Japan -- besides those mementos on some houses in the neighborhood of the Keio grounds.