For most Americans, their most lasting image of Taiwanese baseball comes from watching teams from the island dominate play in the Little League World Series in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Teams from the island nation would seemingly dominate the best America could offer. But until recently, few Taiwanese players had made it to the majors. What happened to all those players? Why were those kids so good? And so big?
In his book, Playing in Isolation : A History of Baseball in Taiwan, Junwei Yu, a professor in Recreation and Sport Management at Shu Te University in Taiwan, we are presented a fascinating look at the development of the sport of baseball in a nation that few Americans have visited or even understand its internal conflicts. Yu has written a tremendous work about the history of baseball in a country that is frequently mentioned in international circles, yet few people understand anything about it.
(Note: I use the author’s preferred method of transliterating Chinese, Pinyin, although I also give the names that the players are known by in the U.S.)
The history of baseball in Taiwan is very much interwoven with the island’s own history. While China picked up baseball from Americans around the same time as the Japanese (and then gave it up for many years), Taiwan was introduced to baseball by the Japanese, who took possession of the island in 1894. So Taiwan saw baseball develop in its country mostly independent of American influence.
The Japanese discovered that the people of Taiwan were not one to play games. Confucianism is highly entrenched in Taiwan and there is a phrase that is very important “Laoxinzhe zhiren laolizhe zhiyuren”, which means “Those who labor with their minds govern others, and those who labor with their strength are governed by others.” So the people of Taiwan were not inclined to want to get off their seats and play the “wooden-ball” game that the Japanese were trying to teach them. To some extent, this attitude persists to this day.
But eventually the people of Taiwan would take to the game, especially its aboriginal inhabitants (Taiwan has a much more diverse racial and linguistic mix than I thought.) Before World War II, kids started to play the game for fun. Some Japanese living in Taiwan were good enough to go to Japan to start pro careers.
Everything changed after World War II when Taiwan first reverted back to Chinese control and nearly everything that reminded the Taiwanese of the Japanese occupation was eradicated. But baseball managed to hold on, although at much lower levels of intensity. When the Communists took over China and the Nationalists (the Kuomintang or KMT) fled to Taiwan to take control of the island as the Republic of China (ROC) in 1949, baseball’s position was threatened more because the KMT didn’t care for the sport and preferred people to play soccer. However, the KMT really wanted people to care more about removing Mao from power than anything else, so Cold War tensions colored baseball’s development.
As it turned out, the Taiwanese liked baseball more than soccer. And they kept playing it, although only at the school level. Eventually, boys were expected to study hard and also serve in the army.
One of the seminal events in baseball’s development in Taiwan came in 1966 when a school team called Hongye, whose students were mostly aborigines and not defintely not KMT-approved, defeated a team from the same area as the reigning Little League World Series champions (although not the same team) in a series of games. The island rejoiced as their young champions bested what they considered to be the best international youth team.
There was one problem: the players on Hongye were almost all ringers. Seven of the nine starters used pseudonyms and were older than they said they were. Most of the players on the team ended up dying at a young age, beset by drinking problems, as their educations would be ignored as the young men were just told to practice baseball. The KMT discovered that since the people liked having their school kids win international baseball tournaments, that's what they would get.
This process would be repeated over the years as Taiwanese teams went on to romp through Williamsport (16 victories in 19 trips to Williamsport). Taiwan never adhered to Little League rules on the size of leagues and the population they can draw from. Essentially, every team was a national all-star team. In 1997, Taiwan withdrew from Little League play because they finally could not keep up the charade any more. Although they rejoined Little League in 2003, the teams have not been as good.
And what happened to these Little League champs? Just like the Hongye teams, the players were given automatic passing grades in school and just concentrated on baseball. They were often burnt out or injured at an early age and they never progressed beyond high school ball. Few had employable skills once they reached adulthood.
Taiwan would start up a professional league in 1990 and it was moderately successful, with the Brother Elephants (named after its owner, the Brother Hotel) being the first dynasty. But in 1997, the pro league was badly damaged by a gambling scandal that made anything in 1919 in Chicago seem like child’s play. Players were kidnapped by gangsters before games and threatened at gunpoint. Dozens of players were implicated and either went to jail or were banned from the sport.
Eventually, the Major Leagues saw Taiwan as a new source of talent. Chen Jinfeng (Chin-Feng Chen) was signed by the Dodgers in 1999 and then the rush was on. The Dodgers added Guo Hongzhi (Hong-chi Kuo) a few months later under questionable circumstances and the Rockies quickly signed Cao Jinhui (Chin-hui Tsao). Yu, who is not a fan of globalization, decries these signings as an attempt by the U.S. to expropriate the top talent of Taiwan without any regard for the development of the game in Taiwan.
Yu concludes his book with what he considers to be Taiwan’s most recent triumph in the international stage, a third place finish in the 2001 Baseball World Cup. It came at a time when the Taiwanese pro league was bordering on a precipice of folding. Taiwan lost to a U.S. squad (that featured Orlando Hudson, Carl Crawford, and Joe Borchard) in the semis, but beat Japan for third place.
Although the book has a 2007 imprint, it does not cover Taiwan’s (or as you would see in international play, Chinese Taipei’s) poor showing in the World Baseball Classic, where the Taiwanese lost to Korea and Japan, before rebounding to beat China in a meaningless game. Nor does the book go in to much detail about MLB’s desire to move into China (PRC), but Yu is not overly optimistic about China's future as a baseball power, although many Taiwanese coaches are moving there for economic purposes.
But Yu is also not optimistic about the future of baseball in Taiwan. The Taiwanese still value education over exercise. He believes that if the people of Taiwan played for fun, instead of just training to win an international tournament, the sport would have wider appeal. But Taiwan appears to be set in its ways. And whether or not baseball will survive in Taiwan is still to be seen.
Yu’s book is an excellent piece of scholarship and the first of its kind written in English (Yu studied in Britain, so his English is very good). I had no idea what to expect when I started reading the book. I did not realize that the way the baseball authorities of Taiwan treated its players makes the worst excesses of American college sports pale by comparison. Will the success of players like Wang Jianmin (Chien-Ming Wang) in MLB improve the image of the sport back home? Or will the sport wither away and die? I suppose that’s something that only the people of Taiwan can decide.