In one of the great sporting runs of all time, from 1971 to 1981 Taiwan’s Little Leaguers went unbeaten at the annual Little League Baseball championship in the American town of Williamsport, scoring an incredible thirty-one straight victories. A whole generation of Taiwanese grew up rooting for these twelve-year-old schoolboys. One of the diehard fans was Junwei Yu, now a professor of National Taiwan University of Physical Education and Sport, and author of the outstanding Playing in Isolation.
Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and even into the early 1990s, one of the most cherished collective Taiwanese experiences was staying up into the predawn hours to watch live broadcasts of Taiwanese youths “crusading” at the three levels of the LLB. These broadcasts were thanks to the three KMT-controlled television stations, which willingly televised the games despite the costs. Staying up late to catch these broadcasts thus became an annual custom, of which many Taiwanese were and still are proud and which they remember fondly.
A pity then that the victories were tainted by rampant cheating (but more on that later). Let’s go back in time to the arrival of the KMT in 1945 as the island’s new masters. In spite of baseball’s unfortunate associations with the Japanese era, it suffered only government neglect rather than persecution. Mainlanders much preferred soccer and basketball to baseball, and ROC teams had enjoyed regional success in those sports, so that’s where the limited funding went. Yu cites the telling statistic that “from 1955 through 1975 the national baseball team had only one mainlander.” Baseball lacked prestige in KMT eyes – it was, for example, not an official Olympic sport until 1992 – and as such was less suitable for promotional purposes. Yu explains, “It was not until Taiwan was ostracized from every international body in the 1970s that baseball became the most important means of promoting Taiwan’s international visibility.”
The official indifference to baseball was arguably a blessing. Yu makes an impassioned case that baseball’s golden era was the first two decades of KMT rule.
During this period baseball was a genuine pastime among the public, who enjoyed it with deep passion and affection. The unlinking of baseball, state, and market ironically helped Taiwanese baseball grow in a more robust and normal way, as people organized teams freely and voluntarily.
Baseball provided a venue for the Taiwanese to freely use their language. At the time, the KMT prohibited its use at school and Taiwanese-language radio and television broadcasting was extremely limited. The Taiwanese language was, however, allowed in baseball, a rare public area where it could be spoken without repercussion. Interestingly, baseball jargon even today is an interesting hybrid of Taiwanese, Mandarin, Japanese, and English.
Owing to Japanese influence, Taiwanese baseball jargon includes such Japanese terms as picchah (pitcher), kyacchah (catcher), homuran (home run), fasutoh (first base), sekandoh (second base), sahdoh (third base), and so on. These terms, of course, are variations of the original English terms, but it was the Japanese monikers that first took root in Taiwanese baseball.
Nineteen sixty-eight was a landmark year. An elementary school team, named after Hongye (Maple Leafs), a little village of Bunun Aboriginals in southeastern Taiwan, scored a 3–0 series victory over visiting champion Japanese side Wakayama. The victories were an absolute sensation, in part because they coincided with the arrival of live television coverage. Citizens gathered around their wealthier neighbor’s television sets and enjoyed moment of national celebration.
Alas, the glory was based on deception. Nine of the eleven Maple Leaf team were overage and playing with false names (and forged documents) provided by their coach, school principal, and head administrator. To avoid national shame, the authorities handled the case as discreetly as they could; court proceedings were held at night, and the three defendants were given two-year suspended sentences.
In a way, the sins of the fathers seem to have been visited upon the sons. The Honghe players weren’t able to translate fame into educational or work opportunities. Many of the boys ended up poor, overly fond of the bottle, and in an early grave. When Junwei Yu wrote Playing in Isolation (published in 2007) seven out of the thirteen Hongye team members were already dead, a shocking mortality rate for a cohort then in their early fifties.
A year after the Maple Leaf victories, Taiwan took part in the Little League World Series held in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The Taichung Golden Dragons won the championship, the first of many much-needed boosts to national morale during a time when the country was feeling increasingly politically isolated (the PRC was admitted to the United Nations and allies were switching diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing).
The KMT hijacked baseball, transforming it into a nation-building tool to offset these debacles on the political and diplomatic fronts. The outcome was extreme. On the one hand, the state put massive resources into a sport that had been neglected for twenty years. On the other, it sowed the seed for the eventual disastrous decline of amateur baseball.
And the cheating I mentioned earlier? The LLB championship was supposed to be a fun competition based on community teams drawing players from a population of no more than fifteen thousand people. What Taiwan did was bring the best players together to form what were in effect national all-star teams, (drawing on a population of fifteen million that translates to cheating by a factor of one thousand times). Another rule violation related to practice hours. The Taiwanese kids were practicing baseball full-time, as much as nine hours a day.
After its Little League success, Taiwan soon starting attending the next age-group LLB championships: the Senior League (ages 13–16) in Gary, Indiana, and the Big League (ages 16–18) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Once again, these were virtually national teams and they dominated year after year.
Yu brings up an interesting point about the LLB competitions. Though they were billed back in Taiwan as world tournaments, the truth was that for the older leagues, the real action was happening in another competition, the IBA, where Taiwan only ever won one championship. The IBA was dominated by Cuba and the United States. Taiwan sent their top teams to the weaker LLB and the national runner-up to the real world series, the IBA, which received less publicity and was “never broadcast on the island.” Yu explains that the government and media upsold the LLB by adding a “world” and calling it the shijie shaobang lianmeng (World Little League Baseball).
Taiwan’s professional league, established in 1990, has also brought its share of shame upon the game, chiefly in the form of match-fixing scandals. Yu blames the lack of genuine interest in baseball (and other sports) on old Confucian ideas prizing academics over athletics. He’s not optimistic about baseball returning to a purer amateur ethos.
This may all seem rather depressing, but actually makes for gripping reading. The author adds engaging personal elements and information from his own involvement in baseball and draws on an enormous number of sources. Playing in Isolation is both comprehensive and fascinating. It’s not as thorough on the Japanese era as Andrew D. Morris’ excellent Colonial Project, National Game by (2010), but its less academic approach makes it an easier read.
Playing in Isolation: A History of Baseball in Taiwan is published by the University of Nebraska Press and is also available from Amazon.com and other retailers. Kudos to the publisher for a reasonably priced hardback (just $30) but it would be great to see it as a paperback and in digital form.