Although baseball is considered Taiwan’s national sport, finding physical evidence of its popularity on the ground is surprisingly hard. Go to a park on the weekend and basketball is what you see kids playing. Baseball is, however, Taiwan’s most popular spectator sport, and the only one with a professional league (though a league of only four teams it has to be said).

Despite being more watched (and bet upon) than played, baseball has a special place in Taiwanese history and the national psyche. The most comprehensive book on the sport is Andrew D. Morris’s Colonial Project, National Game: A History of Baseball in Taiwan, published in 2010 by the University of California Press.

Morris examines Taiwan’s baseball story in great depth from its origins to the present day. Baseball was brought to Taiwan via Japan, where it had been first introduced into schools in the 1870s by an American professor teaching English in Tokyo. During the Japanese period of colonial rule (1895–1945), the sport evolved from a Japanese preserve to a deeply embedded part of Taiwanese life.

For the colonial authorities, baseball was a useful means of “Japanizing” the locals, in particular the troublesome aborigines. The first great Taiwanese baseball arose in the 1920s, the Savage Team Noko from remote East Coast town of Karenko (Hualien). Comprised of Ami Aborigines, the team achieved national success which led to a celebrated tour of Japan, where four of the team’s star players remained, accepting offers to play for a Kyoto high school. In 1927 and 1928 the Ami players helped take the Kyoto team to the most prestigious tournament in Japan, the Kōshien High School Baseball Tournament. If winning a high school contest sounds underwhelming, author Morris provides some useful context, describing the Koshien tournament “as a cross between the Super Bowl, NCAA ‘March Madness,’ and American Idol in its centrality to Japanese popular culture.”

A highlight of Colonial Project, National Game is the Kano team episode, the story of how a ragtag band of players from a two-bit school on Japan’s colonial fringes defied the odds to reach the 1931 Koshien final (where they lost 4–0). The Kano story had – and still has – the perfect ingredients to capture both the Japanese and Taiwanese public imagination. The team’s unusual triethnic composition – Japanese, Aborigines, and Han Taiwanese – made it a symbol of harmonious assimilation and thus validation of the civilizing colonial project. Moreover, the team came from the backwater of Chiayi City and a low-status vocational school without a baseball pedigree. They didn’t even have their own baseball field; daily practice involved a bicycle ride across town to a municipal field. And then there was the tough Japanese coach Kondo Hyotaro, straight out of central casting, who took a losing side and whipped them into champions. He’s fondly remembered as exemplifying the Japanese qualities of strictness, self-sacrifice, and integrity. It was the bushido spirit applied to baseball, the kind of boot-camp machismo best enjoyed at the safe distance of nostalgia.

Colonial Project, National Game is an academic book, and if you’re as allergic to academic jargon as I am, you may find your facial muscles twitching at phrases such as “colonial discourses,” “mode of assimilation,” “hegemonic colonial implications,” and “postcolonial hierarchies.” Morris is more interested in tangential subjects than the actual baseball, so don’t expect player profiles or blow-by-blow game commentary on the epic clashes. For example, a thread running Morris’ baseball narrative, from the first decades of baseball until the present is the perception of Taiwan’s aborigines being naturally suited to baseball (and athletics in general) – an “ethnic mythology” which he says is “very much like white fantasies of African Americans’ ‘natural’ abilities in basketball and track and field—as, in both cases, racial essentialism has proved a more comforting analytical tool than socioeconomic investigation and understandings of class, sport, and violence.”

If that sentence made your eyes glaze over, you’re not alone. Of course, it’s a bit unfair to criticize an academic book for being academic, and the good news is that the book is immensely informative and for every eye-glazing paragraph there are others with engrossing material. In fact, the book is packed with amazing stories and anecdotes.

Morris relates some amusing cross-cultural interactions from the 1950s, when Taiwanese playing against teams from the American Seventh Fleet stationed in Taiwan, “would purposely lose so that the Americans would be in such a good mood that they would give their superior equipment to their valiant but lesser Taiwanese rivals.” Lin Huawei, a youth player who went on to coach the national team in the 1990s, told the author that “one of his fondest and most transformative childhood baseball memories was drinking his first Coca-Cola at a game sponsored by American troops at the field across the street from his Tainan home.”

The prospect of acquiring a few cans of Coke to enjoy with teammates or family members brought out many Taiwanese players’ best acting instincts; the Americans were generous with their sugar water only after victories, so these games too saw many purposeful losses on the part of Taiwanese Coke lovers. (The games were also popular among the general public for the opportunities they presented to buy cigarettes and alcohol from enterprising GIs.)

Colonial Project, National Game describes in fascinating detail the success of (and corruption behind) Taiwan’s Little League teams in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1971, the Tainan Giants…

“won the world championship in Williamsport—an event viewed on early morning (2:00 to 5:00 a.m.) television by some ten million people in Taiwan, a staggering two-thirds of the island’s population. (This audience did not include Chiang Kai-shek, who, according to the team’s coach, went to bed in anger after a first-inning home run put the opponents up by three runs. Song Meiling, accompanied by other officials, did watch the entire game, rousing the President-for-Life only after victory was sealed in the ninth inning.) But even with the benefit of all this rest, Chiang could only phrase his enthusiasm by pointing out, “I trust that all the compatriots of the nation will be moved and excited by the Giants Little League team, in each person’s own way, to work to quickly retake the mainland and restore glory to the motherland.”

A new chapter in Taiwanese baseball began in 1989 with the formation of the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL). To raise standards and add some international flavor, foreign players were hired. They were mostly American and Dominican players, and initially there was a limit of four imports per team.

Morris describes how the foreigner players were given “Chinese” names which were often blatant products placement. Two were named after noodle dishes, luckier ones after beer. These names were not even half-clever transliterations based on similar sounds between the player and product names. Some examples include: Ravelo Manzanillo (Baiwei – Chinese for Budweiser), Steve Stoole (Meile – Miller), and Jose Gonzalez (Meilehei – Miller Dark). Pitcher Jose Cano became known as “Ah Q.” Readers familiar with twentieth-century Chinese literature will recognize Ah Q as the protagonist in Lu Xun’s 1921 landmark novella The True Story of Ah Q. Don’t think too much, as the Taiwanese say; the nickname was just a fun food reference, a Taiwanese word play reference (khiukhiu, “QQ”) to the chewiness associated with some Uni-President food products.

Colonial Project, National Game: A History of Baseball in Taiwan is a tremendous resource for anyone interested in baseball or the modern history of Taiwan. Looking at the country through the lens of baseball gives fresh perspectives. I’ve been reading about Taiwan for decades, but I still learned a great deal. Drawing on an enormous number of sources and many years of research, the book is a remarkable achievement.

Colonial Project, National Game is available from the University of California Press, and various other retailers.