To many foreigners, Taiwan has never been famous for its baseball at the adult level. The nation’s awesome dominance in Little League baseball during the 1970s is really what has allowed the country to enjoy international fame.
It has been much the same in Taiwan itself. In the 1960s and ‘70s, very few Taiwanese paid attention to the adult national squads. Their eyes were all on the Little Leaguers, who won the small island world renown by capturing championships at all three levels in the LLB.
Honestly speaking, though, Taiwan’s adult baseball teams of that time were simply not as strong as their counterparts in LLB levels. In the 1971 Asian Baseball Championship, for example, Taiwan lost embarrassingly to newcomer Australia and finished last in the five-team tourney.
Even more embarrassing, no local media even bothered to send reporters to the event held in Seoul, Korea, since they were all busy covering the story of the homecoming of the LLB world champion Tainan Giants.
Making things worse for Taiwan’s adult baseball team was the fact that, with the People Republic of China’s inclusion in the United Nations in October 1971 while Taiwan was ousted from the international organization, Taiwan’s international space was constantly being squeezed tighter by the PRC.
The nation’s isolation on the world stage could be seen even on the baseball field. PRC interference meant that Taiwan’s baseball team was excluded from international competition at adult levels following the 1973 Intercontinental Cup.
In spite of the PRC’s malicious political meddling, adult baseball continued to flourish in Taiwan thanks to funding of dozens of adult baseball teams by local enterprises as well as by government-run companies.
As many former teenage Little Leaguers grew older and graduated from high school to enter adult-level play, Taiwan’s grown-up baseball teams also began to thrive in the ‘80s, waiting only for a chance to return to the world stage.
The return of Taiwan’s adult baseball team
It was not until 1982 during the Baseball World Cup, again held in Seoul, that adult baseballers from Taiwan returned to global competition, largely due to the efforts of the then-chairman of the Baseball Association, Yen Hsiao-chang.
After assuming office as head of the association, Yen constantly made use of every possible means and connection available to him, going through a series of diplomatic maneuvers with key figures in the International Baseball Association as well as the organizers of many major worldwide baseball events, in the hope of bringing Taiwan back to the world stage.
Wu Hsiang-mu, former manager of the national squad, recalled that when meeting with IBA officials, Yen often carried a James Bond style suitcase filled with cash – presumably another kind of money diplomacy.
Under Yen’s maneuvering Taiwan began participating in international competitions under the name Chinese Taipei, a compromise name accepted by both Taiwan and Chinese officials, to compete in international games. Because of his contributions to Taiwan’s adult baseball, Yen was dubbed the “Father of Adult Baseball” in Taiwan.
Olympic medals and "World's Top Five"
One of the first and most impressive performances of Taiwan’s adult national squad at the international level was at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where for the first time in Olympic history baseball was listed as a demonstration sport.
The 1984 Chinese Taipei Olympic Baseball Team, arguably one of the best in Taiwan’s baseball history, featured one of the all-time greatest Taiwanese pitchers, Kuo Tai-yuan. The ace hurler, together with dozens of legendary players in Taiwan’s baseball, bonded to win bronze in the historic event.
Fireballer Kuo, who played a leading role in Taiwan’s bronze medal finish, was undoubtedly the man of the hour at the Los Angeles Olympics. During the opening game versus a Team USA featuring later MLB stars Will Clark and Mark McGwire, Kuo gave away only two runs during his nine innings of dominant pitching, while striking out 12.
Though Chinese Taipei ultimately lost by a score of 1-2, Kuo won himself the nickname of the "Oriental Express" because of a jaw-dropping top-speed fireball that blazed up to 158 kmh in the game.
Kuo's excellent performance in LA also won himself attention from scouts for over a dozen major league teams and the NPB. He later chose to sign with Japan’s Seibu Lions after the Olympics. During his 13 seasons with the Lions, Kuo set the record for most wins by an international player in NPB history.
The 1984 medal-winning finish provided a boost in confidence for Taiwanese baseball, furnishing solid evidence to show that Taiwan’s adult level baseball was slowly but steadily getting better and becoming almost as strong as their LLB counterparts.
The Olympic bronze medal also served as a reassurance to Rob Smith, president of the IBA, who later decided to include Taiwan as one of the "World's Top Five" baseball powers along with Cuba, the US, Japan and South Korea in 1986, one month after the death of Taiwan’s “Father of Adult Baseball” Yen Hsiao-chang.
Eight years after their third place finish in the Los Angeles Olympics, Taiwan’s squad returned to the baseball diamond at Barcelona, Spain. This time the national heroes did even better, again under the lead of another dominating ace hurler - Kuo Lee Chien-Fu.
Kuo Lee was the winning pitcher in two crucial games versus Japan during the 1992 Olympics, largely thanks to his trademark fork balls and dazzling fastballs. His strong arm helped lift the team to qualify for the championship game versus Cuba, which they ultimately lost by 11-1.
But no one seemed to care about the loss to the world’s strongest amateur baseball team, as Taiwan had just won a long-awaited Olympics silver medal more than three decades after the first Olympic medal won by “Iron Man” C.K. Yang, who grabbed silver for the island in the decathlon at Rome in 1960.
After the 1992 Olympics Kuo Lee, like Kuo following the ’84 Games, also joined a team in Japan, the Hanshin Tigers.
An outflow of talent
These hometown baseball heroes’ great performances on the world stage helped to raise Taiwan’s international visibility. Yet after participating in international games, a great number of talented Taiwanese players later chose to join Japan’s pro league.In fact, these games served as a springboard that led to careers in NPB for many other Taiwanese players.
The close relationship between Taiwan and Japan meant that outstanding local players had been flocking to the neighboring East Asian country ever since the Japan colonial period. The human outflow was caused by the fact that local star players found it difficult to continue playing baseball after they finished school.
According to Taiwan baseball historian Junwei Yu, who wrote an English-language Taiwan baseball history book titled “Playing in Isolation: A History of Baseball in Taiwan,” baseball players of that time had only two options if they wished to stay in baseball after graduation. They could either join the public-corporation teams, which were relatively low paid and offered very few vacancies each year, or they could go abroad and sign with foreign pro or amateur clubs that often paid much higher salaries.
And in fact the Japanese clubs, including amateur ones, were also luring Taiwanese ballplayers with rich rewards. For instance, Liu Chiu-nung, who was signed by the Yamaha amateur club in 1981, received USD$1030 a month plus a guaranteed bonus; while Kang Ming-shan, who was named best right-hander in the 1986 World Championship, joined a Japanese amateur club that paid him a USD$4195 monthly salary and even promised him that it would release him immediately if any pro team became interested in him.
Since at that time there was little hope of founding a local professional baseball league in Taiwan, many star players had no choice but to leave Taiwan to extend their baseball careers.
The talent outflow later became a serious problem, one that local officials could no longer ignore. And it was precisely at this time that someone proposed the establishment of a domestic professional baseball league in Taiwan. But that was to be another long, long story.