You may have heard of Taiwan’s Hongye (Red Leaves) Little League baseball team, a team which claimed an astonishing triumph over a visiting super-strong Japanese rival in 1968. The huge victory helped to pave way for island-wide mania over baseball and eventually led Taiwan’s baseball to reach out to the world, finally reaching its apex in Taiwan’s Little League Hegemony of the 1970s.
Many people do not know, however, that during the Japanese occupation nearly four decades prior to the glory days of Hongye and LLB, one Taiwan baseball team had already excelled at the international level, arousing the first wave of baseball fever and establishing roots for the sport in the island nation ever since.
That baseball team was from southern Taiwan's Chiayi School of Agriculture and Forestry, the Kano baseball team as it was called in Japanese.
The high school baseball team in Chiayi qualified to represent the island at a national high school tournament in Japan in 1931. Performing beyond all expectations, the underdog team miraculously went on to the championship game before finally losing to a powerful Japanese squad. The Kano side claimed second place in Japan's celebrated national high school tournament, Koshien, where a total of 631 high schools teams from throughout Japan’s empire competed.
The amazing success of a team from a 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" in Taiwan.
After taking over the control of Taiwan in the wake of Japan-Sino War, the Japanese decided to promote baseball around the island to improve the physical as well as mental health of the people in Taiwan. The sport also served a significant role in the Japanese empire’s assimilation policy, Japanization or K?minka, which tried to make the Taiwanese into Japanese in every sense of the word.
With the systematic introduction of baseball in schools after 1919, Taiwanese schoolchildren soon began to play the sport in every part of the island. During its infant stage, however, most of the stronger baseball teams were based in Taipei, as it was where the first official baseball game was played and naturally the birthplace of the popular sport on the island.
The unbalanced development of the sports between the north and the south was not broken until the emergence of the Kano baseball team from the southern county of Chiayi. Nonetheless, during its early period the high school baseball team, which was later to gain island-wide renown, performed poorly. After all, the team was originally founded as a student club and coached by an algebra teacher named Shinya Ando in 1928.
In its initial season Kano suffered an embarrassing 13-0 loss to Taichung Commercial School in the all-important Islandwide High School Baseball Tournament, during which the team gathered only three hits while committing seven errors.
Despite its somewhat lame performance in the tourney, the team in Chiayi had already won public attention since, unlike other teams that featured almost all Japanese players, its 1928 starting line-up included four Japanese, three aborigines and two Han Taiwanese, an extremely unique composition at the time.
In fact, prior to Kano’s later triumph in the 1931 tourney, the biggest annual baseball event in the colonized island was, naturally, dominated by ethnic Japanese.
According to records, in eight previous tournaments dating back to 1923, of 46 participating teams, 38 of them had consisted solely of Japanese players. Of the 536 players, only 28 were Taiwanese.
Kano’s multi-ethnic composition has since then become its trademark feature.
Following its embarrassing debut season, the school’s Japanese principal Ko Toiguchi decided to find a more qualified coach to lead the team.
He turned to Hyotaro Kondo, a former baseballer who had toured the United States with his high school team and happened to be working as an accountant at the nearby Chiayi Commercial School. Little did Toiguchi know that this decision was about to change the fate of Kano and even all of Taiwan’s baseball history once and for all.
The hand pushing Kano: Hyotaro Kondo
In order to transform the inexperienced and young team into a powerful army, Kondo adopted an impartial policy in training the team members, regardless of whether they were Japanese, Taiwanese or aboriginal.
His team practiced every day, and each of the team members was required to run two kilometers during practice, except when it rained. On soggy days they would move indoors to review baseball rules and strategy.
These young baseballers were not even allowed to go to theaters, since Kondo believed the entertainment would degrade their strength and eyesight.
Hong Tai-shan, Kano’s former star slugger, once recalled during an interview that Kondo’s “Spartan style training would knock today’s players down in a single day.” Hong even called the coach “oni kantoku” or “ghost-like manager” for his austere approach to training.
Still, almost all of Taiwanese players gave Kondo high credit for his management approach of treating everyone equally, noting that it helped to unite the team more closely. Yet despite his severe attitude toward the young players, Kondo also treated the boys with great kindness. He treated them as if they were his own children, providing extra food when necessary, according to former Kano players.
It did not take long for Kondo’s carrot and stick management to show effect. Only two years after he took over as manager, the mediocre team reached its pinnacle of excellence in 1931. In July of that year, they captured the Ninth Islandwide High School Baseball Tournament championship by winning four consecutive games and beating a bunch of traditional baseball strongholds from the northern part of Taiwan.
It is important to note that, even though the team took pride in its tri-ethnic composition, it was in fact Taiwanese, including ethnic Han and aboriginals, who made up the backbone of the 1931 championship team, while four of the five benchwarmers were Japanese.
Su Cheng-sheng, a star outfielder on the 1931 Kano team, recalled that his team members never cried even when they lost a game. The whole team burst into tears the moment they won the island championship, however, as they knew that they would be heading to the Koshien National Tournament to fulfill their wildest fantasy and every Japanese child’s dream.
Kano’s glory days at Koshien
Koshien, Japan’s long-running nationwide high school baseball tournament, enjoys widespread popularity in the country, arguably equal to or greater than that accorded to professional baseball. The tournament has literally become a national symbol and tradition. It is the ultimate honor of a lifetime for high school baseball players in Japan to be able to compete at Koshien.
To these boys from Kano in southern Taiwan, a land colonized by Japan at the time, it was next to impossible to be able to compete in the national tournament of the empire.
Before leaving for Japan to take part in the tournament, the Kano team held several warm-up games with Taipei No.1 High School as a move to help the Chiayi team prepare for the stiff competition in Koshien.
Because of its significance, Kano’s upcoming tour to Japan was not only a big thing for the team, but to all Taiwanese regardless of whether they were northerners or southerners. The whole island was united as one in preparation for the uphill battle against the Japanese.
The Taiwan high school team arrived at the 1931 Koshien tournament as one of the representative teams from 22 districts of the Japanese Empire, competing against 630 other teams from throughout the empire.
Upon arrival in the sacred land of Japanese high school baseball, Su recalled that the packed stadium gave its loudest ovation to his team during the opening ceremony of the tournament because its unique tri-ethnic composition piqued the curiosity of Japanese fans.
Kano answered the fans’ expectations with shocking performances in its first three games of the tournament, sweeping their opponents by large margins with a combined score of 32-9, largely thanks to the team’s ace hurler and No.4 slugger Wu Ming-chieh, who literally single-handedly lifted the team to the championship round to play against the strong Chukyo Business School.
Unfortunately, in his fourth outing in seven days during the 1931 tournament, the exhausted Wu lost his usual ball control and walked eight batters, as Kano finally failed by the score of 4-0.
“If Kano had faced another team, it could very likely have won the championship title in 1931,” says Taiwan baseball historian Hsieh Shih-yuan in a documentary on Taiwan baseball.
“The super-strong Chukyo Business School was the only team in Koshien’s 80-year history to win three consecutive championships,” he adds.
The aftermath of Kano’s performance in Japan
However, Kano’s second-place finish was already an incredible record for the Japanese, who were astonished and fascinated with the Chiayi baseball team’s outstanding performance.
Famous sportswriter Suishu Tobita was one of many commentators in Japan who limned odes to the tragically heroic Kano story, praising the young players for their “spirit and skill that lifted them over a bunch of more experienced counterparts.”
Kan Kikuchi, a famous playwright, noted that he was totally captivated by Kano’s sportsmanship, saying that “seeing the homelanders (Japanese), islanders (Taiwanese) and Taksago (aborigines) working together in harmony despite their racial differences really moved me to tears.”
The team from Taiwan was even dubbed by the Japanese media as “Kano, Champions of all under heaven.”
In fact, the 1931 Kano team is still a very popular nostalgic symbol even today in Japan. As one example of this, when Asahi Shimbun CEO Yoshitaka Nagayama visited Taiwan in 1998, he told local reporters that the sole purpose of his trip was to run just once around the bases of the Kano baseball diamond, an act he carried out to fulfill the longtime wish of his ailing friend, the famous Japanese historical novelist Ryotaro Shiba.
Back in their homes in Taiwan, the islanders were overwhelmed with joy despite the fact that many of them believed the Kano team should have won first place.
At their homecoming at Taiwan’s Keelung Harbor, tens of thousands of Taiwanese waited to welcome the returning heroes.
In their hometown of Chiayi, more than 60,000 citizens greeted the champions at the train station and accompanied them in a victory parade to the Chiayi City center, where the team was warmly received with firecrackers and the joy of triumph.
The legacy of Kano
After its pinnacle year in 1931, Kano baseball teams continued to dominate high school baseball in Taiwan in 1930s, winning three Taiwan championship titles. Even though later generations in Kano could not replicate the most glorious moment of the ‘31 team, they still participated at Koshien in 1933, 35 and 36, reminding the Japanese of the Kano tradition.
The excellent performance of the Kano players in Japan led many of them to be recruited by Japanese teams, and a few even made it to the professional level.
The most famous of these players was none other than Wu Chang-cheng (1916-1987) or Shosei Go, who was nicknamed the “Human Locomotive" due to his amazing speed.
During his 20-year pro baseball career in Japan, the left-handed. 5’6’’ and 140-pound mini-outfielder won two batting titles and a stolen base title. Wu even threw the first postwar no-hitter against the Tokyo Senators in 1946.
Because of his distinguished record, Wu became the first Taiwan-born player to be named to Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame.
Aside from its unprecedented runner-up finish in the Koshien, the true legacy of Kano lies in that it has helped to foster many baseball talents not only in southern Taiwan but in the eastern part of the island as well.
Since many of the Kano graduates were aborigines originally from Taitung and Hualien, after graduation they returned to their hometowns to spread the seeds of baseball along the east coast of Taiwan.
The successes of the high school team established a solid foundation for the future development of the sport in Taiwan.
The legend continues
Today, more than 70 years after the 1931 Koshien second place finish, the Kano legend continues to grow in Taiwan’s soil.
The latest phase started in 1994 when many Kano alumni got together to initiate a “Kano Cup Baseball Tournament,” in hopes of promoting the sport around the island and reminding their countrymen of Kano’s spirit.
For more than a decade the Kano Cup toured around the island, even moving across the Taiwan Strait to spread the seed of baseball all around the rest of Asia.
And three years after the birth of the Kano Cup, the legendary Kano baseball legend has reborn in the school’s modern-day incarnation, National Chiayi University. NCU baseball team was founded in 1997 through the collective efforts of Kano alumnus Tsai Wu-chang and many other ex-Kanos.
As if to look up to their predecessors, the latest generation Chiayi squad is also doing very well. They finished third in the 2002 National Association Cup, and were runners up in the University Baseball League in that year.
The team has also produced some excellent baseball players for Taiwan including Detroit Tigers lefty Ni Fu-te, the first local baseballer to make the jump to the MLB after starting his career in Taiwan’s pro league Chinese Professional Baseball League.
To ensure that the Kano spirit remains alive among Taiwanese and the world, Tsai, who doubled as the head of the Chiayi University’s Alumni Association, disclosed that he would work with local director to make a feature movie centered on the Kano baseball team.
“Many people know very little about the history of Kano and its glory, and by making it a movie, the Kano spirit can be promoted and passed down to a younger generation,” Tsai noted.