Taiwan’s national baseball teams have gained a solid reputation around the world competing under the title ‘Chinese Taipei’ after their accomplishments at the world-class level in the 1980s. During that decade teams from Taiwan won fame for the small island as one of the "World's Top Five" baseball powers along with Cuba, the US, Japan and South Korea.
At the same time, these hometown boys’ excellent skills on the diamond also won them attention from scouts around the world, particularly from the United States and Japan.
With little hope for the establishment of a local professional league in Taiwan, plus the fact that both US and Japanese ball clubs were offering big money to lure them, many local talents chose to travel abroad, mostly to Japan, to extend their baseball careers.
In fact, the talent outflow became a serious problem during the ‘80s, one that local officials could no longer ignore. After many futile attempts at setting up a domestic pro league during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, it was not until Tang Pan-pan, who took office in 1986 as the head of Chinese Taipei Baseball Association, that a serious proposition was finally fielded.
Another important factor behind the establishment of a pro league was Hung Teng-sheng, Chairman of the Brother Hotel. A hardcore baseball fan, Hung founded the Brother Hotel Baseball team in 1984 out of his passion for the sport.Tang and Hong eventually joined forces to form the Committee for the Promotion of Professional Baseball. With the committee in place, they successfully persuaded three business entities including Wei-chuan, Uni-President Enterprises and Mercuries & Associates to join with Hong’s Brother Hotel in forming a four-club league in 1989.
The Chinese Professional Baseball League, the third pro baseball league in Asia after Japan and Korea, was finally established.The first CPBL game was played by the Uni-President Lions visiting the Brother Elephants' home at Taipei Municipal Baseball Stadium at 2:30 p.m. on March 17, 1990. The game represented the dawn of a new age in Taiwan baseball.
Putting the establishment of the CPBL into a larger historic context, we see that planning for the Taiwanese professional baseball league began in late 1987, the beginning of an age of liberation in Taiwan as that was the year that martial law was lifted.
Along with the atmosphere of democracy and liberation came the entrepreneurial drive perfected in 1980s as Taiwan witnessed the most rapid growth in the history of the island nation’s economic development.
In other words, the liberation movement in the 1980s, together with the entrepreneurial drive, was another important factor in the founding of the CPBL.
Early success for the CPBL
When the CPBL was formed, many people cast doubts on the prospects of the league’s future. Even the league itself was not sure if there would be enough baseball fans in Taiwan to support the business.
The founders conservatively set a goal saying that if average attendance was over 2,500 per game, they could meet the bottom line.
Far beyond everyone’s expectations, in its debut season the CPBL drew a total of nearly 900,000 spectators, around 5,000 per game, almost double the founders’ original estimates.
As Andrew D. Morris, a professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo who specializes in Taiwan’s baseball history, puts it in his article, “Baseball, History, the Local and the Global in Taiwan,” “the roots of the CPBL's early success lay in this important effort to combine the local and global.”
“International symbols of sporting culture were carefully balanced with aspects of the local, expressed through the involvement of particular individuals identified with past Taiwanese sporting successes or through linguistic or cultural particulars that remained a part of CPBL baseball.”The establishment of CPBL and its early success also triggered a wave of returnees among many Taiwanese baseball players who were then playing in Japan’s pro league.
Huang Ping-yang, a future superstar pitcher for the Wei-chuan Dragons, recalled upon his homecoming from Japan’s amateur league to Taiwan, “though the Japanese environment is better than that of Taiwan and salaries are also higher, I have personal and family reasons to consider.”
In the end, it seems, there is no place like home.
In 1993 the original four teams in the league were joined by two new teams - the Jungo Bears and the China Times Eagles - each loaded with seven young, popular members of Taiwan's 1992 silver medal Olympic baseball team.
With the new teams on board, the CPBL reached its peak popularity in its third through fifth seasons, 1992-1994, with an average of nearly 7,000 fans per game, a huge number considering that the small island nation had a population of only about 21 million.
That same season, the all-sports station TVIS paid NT $90 million for the right to broadcast CPBL games over the next three seasons.Pro baseball had officially become a profitable business in Taiwan.
The Black Eagles and crisis time in the CPBL
Yet somehow, despite all these signs of vigorous growth, the league's popularity began to wane seriously by 1995; and to make matters worse, in 1997 the CPBL suddenly faced a competing league when the Taiwan Major League was founded following a dispute over CPBL broadcast rights.
Taiwan was simply too small a place to support two pro baseball leagues at the same time, and the CPBL immediately experienced a huge decline in attendance. Ironically, the straw that almost broke the league’s back was none other than its own doing – a gambling and game-fixing scandal.
In late January 1997, Taiwan’s law enforcement authorities uncovered a gambling scandal among the ranks of professional baseball players. They found that some of the game's greatest and most popular stars had accepted payoffs for throwing games for local gangs handling the "gambling" for each team.
The China Times Eagles threw games on the most spectacular scale of all: it was revealed that the entire team was bought off regularly for a single team fee of NT $7.5 million per game.Following the outbreak of the scandal called by local fans the infamous “Black Eagles Incident,” it is understandable that fewer fans decided to pay much attention to a league when they feared the outcome of games was still being decided by mobs.
Attendance fell by 55 percent in 1997. By the end of the 1999 season, average attendance at most games was less than a thousand. During the winter following the 1999 season, another major blow came when the league lost two more teams as the Mercuries Tigers and three-time defending champions Wei-chuan Dragons withdrew, both citing financial pressures.
This sad series of events of the young baseball league in Taiwan came at the exact moment when Taiwan’s national baseball squad, featuring only amateur players, had become unable to compete with other baseball powers around the world as most of the island’s talented players had joined the pros.It seemed that the future of Taiwan baseball had dimmed and any hopes for revival were slim – that is, until the Baseball World Cup in 2001, a series which represented another turning point for Taiwan baseball.
The revival of Taiwanese baseball
Taiwan baseball remained down for a long time as fans tired of the game-fixing scandals as well as the national squad’s poor performance on the world stage. But then the Baseball World Cup in 2001 held in Taiwan provided just the right opportunity for a turnaround.The 2001 national squad featured slugger Chen Chin-feng, who was then a Los Angeles Dodger, the first Taiwanese player to play in the MLB, as well as Chang Chih-chia, who was to gain fame later as a starter for the Seibu Lions.
Taiwan beat Japan in a shutout 3-0 victory to claim third place in front of ten thousand fans in a packed Tienmu Stadium in Taipei on November 18, 2001. The win came on the strength of hurler Chang’s near-perfect outing as well as slugger Chen’s two homers in the game. With its achievement the closely-united team claimed third place in the 16-team tournament, Taiwan’s best record in the World Cup since 1988.
As Taiwanese baseball historian Junwei Yu succinctly put it, the 2001 World Cup “rekindled the fervor and passion of fans who had lost faith in a sport plagued with gambling, match-fixing, and vicious competition between the two pro leagues.” Taiwan’s successful staging of the 2001 Baseball World Cup was a major boost to local baseball. Immediately after the conclusion of the tournament, the 2002 CPBL saw a 70 % rise in attendance rates.
The tourney also indirectly led to a merger between the two leagues in early 2003, when the rival CPBL and TML announced an end to their six-year rivalry as they merged into a single six-team league.Unfortunately, despite undergoing a rebirth, the CPBL continued to be haunted by game-fixing scandals again in 2005 and once more in 2008. The troubles eventually cost the league another two of its younger teams, dmedia T-REX and the Chinatrust Whales.
Despite having gone through various ups and downs during its 20-year history, the CPBL continues to operate today with four teams in spite of sporadic outbreaks of game-fixing scandals.Thanks to the return of several Taiwanese players who previously played in the MLB or NPB, among whom the biggest name is former Major League pitcher Tsao Chin-hui, the first Taiwanese pitcher to make it to the Big Leagues, many others have decided to return to Taiwan’s CPBL to extend their baseball careers.
The homecoming of Tsao together with other local baseballers returning from foreign lands is a major boost to the box office and popularity of the CPBL at its 20th season in 2009. According to the latest statistics from the league, average attendance stands at nearly 5,000 fans per game, an increase of 125% over the rate for the same period last year.
Taiwanese players shine in foreign lands
Even as Taiwan’s pro league was going through various ups and downs, Taiwanese players continued to rack up impressive performances in nearby Japan’s pro leagues, and they also enjoyed a great reputation in the US minor and major leagues.
The close relations between Taiwan and Japan meant that local players had been flocking to the neighboring East Asian country ever since the Japanese colonial period. But very few had tried their hands in the birthplace of baseball in America.
It was not until Chen Chin-feng made his MLB debut in 2002 that a Taiwanese player had a chance to play in the big leagues.
Chen’s debut has helped to pave the road for the "wave" of Taiwanese players entering major and minor league baseball.
Currently there are three Taiwanese baseball players playing in the MLB, including New York Yankees' starter Wang Chien-ming, dubbed as “the Glory of Taiwan”; the Dodgers’ left-handed pitcher Kuo Hong-chih; and the most recent, Detroit Tigers lefty Ni Fu-te.
Ni, formerly with the Chinatrust Whales of the CPBL, is the first local baseballer to have made the jump to the MLB after starting his career in Taiwan's pro league, one indication that the average skills level in the domestic league is rising.
In addition to the major leaguers, more than 20 Taiwanese players are now competing in the minor leagues, awaiting their chances to shine in the big league. These players can show that Taiwan has become a baseball stronghold and a main export source for baseball talent for foreign nations.
Looking forward to the future
It has now been more than 100 years since the first official baseball game was played in Taipei in 1906. Baseball has become entrenched in Taiwan’s soul and has undeniably become the national sport of the island country and a part of its culture and everyday life.
Having risen and fallen with the ebb and flow of time for over a century, and having weathered the various crises that have come and gone, Taiwan’s national baseball squads and the great performances of players from Taiwan both locally and abroad still stand tall. The vitality of baseball in Taiwan is there for all to see, and the popular sport is destined to grow even stronger in years to come.