To many people around the world baseball is, like many other sports, also considered a form of entertainment. That’s not the case in Taiwan, however. In this small island nation in East Asia, baseball has never been ‘just’ entertainment to the people.
Take, for example, the two recent losses by Taiwan’s national squad to their Beijing counterparts in the 2008 Olympics and the just-concluded 2009 World Baseball Congress. Many Taiwanese reacted strongly to these setbacks, even calling the defeats “Days of National Shame.” Responding to the embarrassment caused by the teams’ poor performance, the Taiwan government has launched a billion dollar rescue plan to save the game that is largely regarded as the country’s national sport.
Another famous example of the immense impact baseball has on Taiwanese society is the “Wang Chien-ming Effect.” The Taiwan-native New York Yankees ace hurler is far more popular in Taiwan than any entertainer or politician could ever be.
When Wang takes the mound, the country literarily stops to watch. Newspaper advertising rates soar on days when he pitches, and a study revealed that even the Taiwanese Stock market performs better when Wang pitches well.
The above evidence shows that baseball plays an extremely important role in their lives of the Taiwanese people, and the success of local teams or players in overseas leagues is of deep significance to them.
As Andrew D. Morris, a professor at California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo, who specializes in Taiwan’s baseball history, puts it in his “Savages, Traitors, Budweiser, and a History of Glocalization and Baseball in Taiwan,” an article in Taiwan Historical Materials Studies, “the success of local teams on foreign fields takes on a cosmic significance as Taiwan shows itself internationally a force to be reckoned with.”
Indeed, for a country that has precious little international space and been deprived of membership in most major world organizations due to suppression by China, this simple game has become a wellspring of national pride.
Thus the Taiwan Culture Portal presents a series of feature articles to introduce major events in Taiwan’s baseball history which helped to shape the national sport as it is today.
The baseball series will introduce many nationally and internationally famous baseball players to the world, as well as some of the most important and memorable baseball games for Taiwan’s national team in international events, in order to help English-speaking people to learn more about the sport and the national mania surrounding it.
To begin with, let us take a look at the history of this competitive sport on the island.
A Brief History of Taiwan Baseball
Baseball, the national sport of Taiwan, has a history of more than a hundred years in the nation. It was first introduced to Taiwan after China ceded the island to Japan following the end of Sino Japanese War in 1895.
The popular game in Japan was initially played only by Japanese colonial administrators on the island for recreation. It was later promoted by the occupiers around the island to improve the physical as well as mental health of people in Taiwan.
On March 1906, the first official baseball game in Taiwan history was played in Taipei City. That particular game was a competition between teams from two schools in Taipei, the precursor of today’s Jianguo High School and the Taipei Municipal University of Education.
The game ended in a draw at 5-5, opening the first page in Taiwan’s baseball record.
During this budding period most of the stronger baseball teams were based in Taipei, as it was the birthplace of the popular sport on the island.
This unbalanced development of the sport between the north and the south was not broken until the emergence of a team composed of students from southern Taiwan's Chiayi School of Agriculture and Forestry in Chiayi County, called the Kano baseball team by the Japanese.
The Kano baseball team was made up of a variety of players including Japanese students and Han Taiwanese as well as their indigenous counterparts.
The Kano side beat a rival group formed from teams around Taiwan and took the island-wide championship in the summer of 1931, thereby bridging the north-south imbalance in development for the first time.
Following their championship title, the Chiayi team qualified to represent the island at a national tournament in Japan. Wildly exceeding all expectations, the underdog team went on miraculously to win second place in Japan's celebrated national high school tournament at Koshien Stadium in Tokyo, where more than 600 high schools competed.
Kano participated in the Koshien tourney three more times, in 1933, 1935 and 1936, proving that the 1931 second place finish was not pure luck.
The huge success of a team from the colonized land making to the finals was totally unexpected, and it ultimately earned the Taiwanese baseball players greater respect from their Japanese counterparts.
The Kano experience also encouraged more people in Taiwan to play baseball, eventually making it the "national sport" of Taiwan.
The seeds of interest in baseball have put down deep roots in Taiwan since then.
Even after the end of the Japanese era in 1945, baseball fever continued to spread during the post-second world war period.
The sport gained in popularity after the Kuomintang government arrived to govern the island, and support for baseball continued to grow stronger on the island nation. The game gradually became a national symbol of pride to Taiwanese when the country was diplomatically isolated after being forced out of the United Nations in 1971.
The outstanding performance of teams from Taiwan in baseball turned into a source of national pride. Hard-won victories by local teams in foreign lands helped the people and the government of Taiwan to regain their self-esteem, symbolically achieving for Taiwan on the international stage what diplomacy could not.
Little League Dominators
Yet the first major incidence of baseball fever that successfully brought Taiwan international fame in baseball was not the achievement of adult men, but rather Little Leaguers between the ages of 11 and 13.
As a matter of fact, these boys not only did well in the Little League games; they were, in a word, dominating for nearly two decades.
In the years from 1969 to 1996, hometown boys won a total of 17 Little League World Series titles. They were so good that after Taiwan's fourth consecutive championship in 1974, the Little League excluded foreign teams for one year, claiming that Taiwan’s teams were training out of season.
The fountainhead for all this Little League success can be traced back to August 1968 and two huge victories by the Hongye (Red leaf) Elementary school team, triumphing over a visiting team form Japan.
To the Taiwanese people, key victories over a foreign rival, especially Japan - the country that occupied Taiwan and the ones who originally imported the sport to the island - was a significant one.
It was the Hongye victory that convinced Taiwan’s Chinese Baseball Association to dispatch teams to take part in the Little League baseball tournament in 1969, paving the way for the subsequent Taiwan Dynasty at Williamsport.
The amazing performance of local national baseball squads during this period served as a solid foundation for Taiwan emergence as a new world power in baseball ever since.
With a steady base already established, local adult national baseball teams also began to shine in international games, including the Summer Olympic Games after the sport was introduced as a competition in the international sports event.
Taiwan’s national baseball team enjoyed its greatest glory by winning the bronze medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and the silver medal in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
As the sport grew even more popular among local people, especially with the winning of medals in Olympic competition, local baseballers decided to form a professional baseball league which would cater to the needs of the island’s baseball fans.
The Chinese Professional Baseball League was first suggested by Hung Teng-sheng, chairman of the Brother Hotel. Thanks to his efforts the professional league, the third of its kind in Asia, was finally established in 1989.
The first CPBL game was played by the Uni-President Lions visiting the Brother Elephants at Taipei Municipal Baseball Stadium on March 17, 1990.
The CPBL briefly faced a competing league in 1997 when the Taiwan Major League was founded following a dispute over broadcasting rights.
After operating at a loss, the two leagues merged with each other, adding two teams to form a total of six ball clubs.
The league continues to operate now with four teams despite the outbreak of several game-fixing scandals over the 20 years of its history.
Hometown boys shine in NPB & MLB
Meanwhile, great performances by Taiwanese players have drawn the attention of the nearby Japan’s pro leagues and also won them a solid reputation in the U.S. minor and major baseball leagues.
The close relationship between Taiwan and Japan meant that local players had been flocking to the neighboring East Asian country ever since the Japan colonial period. Yet very few had tried their hand in the birthplace of baseball - the USA.
In was not until 2002, when Chen Chin-feng made his MLB debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers, that a Taiwanese player had a chance to play in the Big League. Chen’s debut helped to pave the road for a "wave" of Taiwanese players entering major and minor league baseball.
Currently there are two Taiwanese baseball players playing in the MLB, including the Dodgers’ left-handed pitcher Kuo Hong-chih and of course, the New York Yankees' starter Wang, who has been dubbed the “Glory of Taiwan.”
In addition to the major leaguers, more than 20 Taiwanese players are now competing in the minor league, hoping for a chance to shine in the big league.
These players serve as the best evidence that Taiwan is indeed a baseball power in the world. Given the admirable records of Taiwan’s national baseball squads and individual players both locally and overseas, Taiwan’s vitality is clear for all to see, and the popularity of the sport is destined to grow even stronger in days to come after being nurtured deep in the soul of Taiwan for more than a hundred years.