With two excellent books on the history of baseball in Taiwan, is there need for another work on the subject? Not really, but Empire of Infields: Baseball in Taiwan and Cultural Identity, 1895-1968 is a welcome addition. Like its predecessors, it’s an academic publication where questions of national identity take precedence over actual baseball details of demon pitchers and home-run streaks. The author is John Harney, an assistant professor of history at Centre College in Danville Kentucky, and the book was published by the University of Nebraska Press.   

It seems – it’s not clearly explained in the introduction – that the book grew out of a dissertation entitled: “Retrocession, partition and sporting communities in fractured societies: baseball in Taiwan and Gaelic games in Ireland, 1884-1968.” Taiwan and Ireland provide an interesting contrast; the growth of baseball in Taiwan was an assimilating force rather than a means to confront Japanese colonial rule. The Irish experience with Gaelic games was quite different, their resurgence tied up with marking a separate identity to the British. 

Empire of Infields follows the evolution of Taiwanese baseball, from the very early days when only Japanese colonists played it until 1968. The book focuses on three teams: the aboriginal Nōkō team from Hualien, which toured Taiwan in 1924 and visited Japan in 1925. Then there’s the Kanō team from Chiayi City. The name Kanō is the shortened Japanese name for the Chiayi Agriculture and Forestry Institute (Kagi rin gakkō yakyūbu). Formed in 1928, the Kanō team were just three years later competing in the prestigious Kōshien tournament in Japan. They suffered a 4–1 defeat in the 1931 final but returned home as superstars, and their exploits remain Taiwan’s greatest baseball story.

The third team featured is the Bunan Aboriginal Hongye team from Taitung. Their victories over a visiting Japanese team in the summer of 1968 provide a cut-off time for the book. From then on the Kuomintang government – previously lukewarm on the sport – began harnessing the popularity and success of baseball as way to promote the Republic of China on the international stage. 

In the words of the author:

The sport finally assumed the mantle of a device through which the targets of a nationalizing project both received and resisted cultural ideology, but that device operated as a conduit between an undemocratic state bent on reinforcing the norm of eventual Chinese reunification and those who sought an identity peculiar to Taiwan, independent from its Chinese past. 

I quote that long sentence as an example of the sometimes heavy writing style. While not overly academic and jargon-filled, neither is the book popular narrative fiction. What is a strength of the writing is the moderate tone; Harney admirably avoids overplaying the story of baseball as either assimilation or resistance to Japanese colonisation. Baseball in Taiwan evolved its own identity as a hybrid of multiple influences. 

Harley is generous in referencing other baseball books written on the history of the game in Taiwan (many other writers would have ignored them), namely Andrew Morris’s Colonial Project, National Game and Yu Junwei’s Playing in Isolation. The latter, also a Nebraska University Press publication, focuses on the successes and scandals of the Little League World Series from the 1970s and the rise of professional Taiwanese baseball in the 1990s. In comparison to Yu’s book, Empire of Infields can seem a little bloodless at times; the author hasn’t had any direct involvement in Taiwanese baseball, nor interviewed many participants. As the story is an older one than covered in Playing in Isolation, telling it in a personal fashion is obviously much harder. However, Harney utilizes his language expertise to draw upon Japanese and Mandarin newspapers to give some contemporary flavoring to the baseball games. 

Empire of Infields takes a chronological approach, starting with the first years of Japanese rule. Baseball was spread informally by Japanese enthusiasts playing for the fun of the game, and “it was not until 1906 that the first organized game of baseball was played in Taiwan.” Interestingly, the early growth didn’t follow the Japanese example of coming from schools. Educational authorities on the island were not initially keen on Taiwanese playing it. 

The baseball community in the 1910s was thus an exclusively colonial Japanese affair. Young men established clubs based around public-and private-sector workplaces. In the years 1910–11 teams of financiers, railroad company workers, law professionals, restaurateurs, and others sprung up throughout the island. Teams formed to represent branches of Japanese banks or factories.

Part of the early development of the game involved barnstorming teams, and a chapter of the book is devoted to the various teams from Japan and the United States which visited Taiwan. Though gimmicky and commercial, these tours attracted large crowds and considerable media coverage, and here Harney’s sifting through newspaper archives has produced some nuggets.

The author devotes the greatest amount of space to the Kanō story. It’s a good choice; the tale in itself is fascinating, it’s an episode that has become an important part of Taiwan’s historical memory (especially after the major local 2014 film Kano), and it works well as a meta-narrative of the story of Taiwan. 

In Taiwanese popular memory, and in Taiwanese historiography, Kanō represents the complexity of the colonial period and provides evidence that Taiwan enjoyed some sense of cohesive identity independent of a province shorn from the mainland, awaiting recovery. Thus the victory of the Kanō team is a victory for a united vision of Taiwan far more than it is a victory against colonial overlords. Indeed in the film and in much Taiwanese writing it is not presented as a victory against colonial overlords at all.

The team comprised teenagers of various ethnic groups – Japanese, Taiwanese, and Aboriginal – forged by a Japanese coach whose training was, while intense and harsh, also egalitarian; those who could take the strict regime could win a place on the team regardless of their ethnicity. The author writes: “Kanō offers an opportunity to celebrate unity, the existence of a Taiwanese experience that is neither Chinese nor Japanese.”

At the start of the review – and when I began reading the book – I questioned the need for another Taiwan baseball title. I’ll end this review with the thoughts I had when finishing Empire of Infields: my interest was sustained right to the end, and I was left feeling that the subject of baseball in Taiwan still has rich veins to mine. In fact, I’d like to see more baseball books; not as the sport relates to Taiwan identity (an overused academy frame for almost every subject) but the sport itself: the standout players, teams, and games. I’d also love to see a book on gambling and crime as it relates to baseball. And the Aboriginal angle has never been properly explored; authors seem squeamish to tackle this aspect other than to note and criticize stereotyping. 

Empire of Infields: Baseball in Taiwan and Cultural Identity, 1895–1968 is available from the University of Nebraska Press and various book retailers such as Amazon.com.