by Mitch Lehman
Looking back almost forty years into the past, it’s difficult to recall that political barriers existed when San Marino resident Merle Banta organized a goodwill baseball trip to first, Japan, and later, Germany, Italy and Holland.
The year was 1974 when Banta got the idea of an ambassadorial effort to use baseball as a bridge of understanding between differing cultures. Japanese baseball legend Sadaharu Oh had just become only the fourth baseball player on the planet to hit 600 home runs (he would go on to smash a world record total of 868) when fourteen local boys walked off a plane in the Land of the Rising Sun.
It is believed to be the first travel trip of its kind for the city. While in Japan, Banta led the team through a diverse itinerary that included seven games, a parade in the team’s honor in the town of Susaka and even a nationally-televised game.
Two years later, Banta assembled a second squad which toured Europe. This time, the team played eight games in Italy, Germany and Holland. The boys learned first-hand about Dutch culture by living in homestays and the team enjoyed a visit to the (Most Serene) Republic of San Marino – our fair city’s namesake.
Both trips were focused on international sportsmanship and prior to being accepted as a member of the team, players had to submit applications, complete with references from their school teachers.
Players were also required to study the countries they would be visiting and Banta was careful to require exemplary behavior from start to finish. A quick glance into The Tribune archives reveals no incidents of international embarrassment – or at least none that made it into the local newspaper.
“I remember it as an incredible experience,” said Jim Gott, who took part in the European sojourn. “I remember almost killing an Italian player when I had to be the catcher, which I didn’t do very often. I drilled him in the head when he wandered too far off third base. Then we sat down together after the game and ate the best lasagna I’ve ever had in my life.”
Gott also said he remains “forever thankful to Mr. Banta for sharing his love of baseball with all of us.”
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