Taiwan + Baseball: A century-old love affair
The Taiwan people’s ardor for the sport of baseball not only stems from the particular pattern of their historical cum cultural evolution but in the shared “heart” of the Taiwanese. As well-known sports sociologist Norbert Elias has observed, through the understanding of sport one comes to understand human society. By the same token, we can get insights into Taiwan society by understanding how it has come to occupy a central place in its collective heart. Indeed, the history of baseball in Taiwan is a unifying thread running through the contemporary history of its people. This week’s Window on Taiwan invites Hsieh Shih-yuan, graduate reseacher at the Central University Graduate School of History to recount the past century of twists and turns in the saga of baseball in Taiwan since it was first introduced during the Japanese colonial era and the role it has played in the lives of Taiwanese.
2001: A year of baseball renaissance
After a long drought in the Taiwan public’s enthusiasm for the game of baseball, resulting from the heartbreak inflicted by a gambling scandal in the ROC Professional Baseball League several years back, the year 2001 — officially proclaimed “Baseball Year” by President Chen Shui-bian last year — has witnessed a dramatic resurgence of passion in the Taiwan people’s century-long sweet-and-sour love affair with the sport. Earlier this year, Taiwan played host to the Asian Baseball Championship and triple-A Asian Championship tournaments, the home teams winning first place in both. In October of this year, Taiwan sports fans were electrified by the Brothers Elephants baseball team [owned by the Brothers Hotel in Taipei], who, after a string of of dismal seasons, and with a lineup composed mostly of unfamiliar new faces given no hope at the outset of the season, blasted their way to the 12th Professional Baseball League championship title. And now, to climax this chain of events, the 13-day Baseball World Cup tournament kicked off on November 6, for the first time in Taiwan. To assure that the Taiwan team would be a strong contender of which Taiwan can be proud, the cream of professional and amateur Taiwan-born players were recruited from home and abroad. Together, this chain of events has fired a renewed “baseball fever” in Taiwan society unprecedented over the recent several years, making 2001 live up to its designation as Baseball Year.
Birth and spread of baseball in Taiwan
The reason for baseball’s society-wide popularity is explainable only in terms of the intimate relationship which has existed between the Taiwanese and baseball over the past century. Baseball was introduced into Taiwan at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries by newly arrived Japanese administrators and company employees. At first, baseball in Taiwan was a sport played exclusively by the Japanese, for which reason it was referred to in that era by its Japanese name — yakyu, or “fieldball.” Use of name yakyu not only implied Japanification of the sport but, in Taiwan, intimated a sense of ethnic superiority on the part of the colonial rulers, inasmuch as they did not encourage their Taiwanese subjects to join the fun. In addition, cultural differences widened the gap in understanding: The Taiwanese utterly lacked appreciation of a sport where someone brandished a stick and people crowded round to watch a ball, much less did they have any inclination to “play ball” themselves.
During the 1920s, the special appeal and competitive spirit of yakyu, along with the Taiwan people’s sport consciousness, became increasingly widespread, and baseball broke free of its cultural-gap and Japanese-chauvinist symbolism, becoming a sport in which native Taiwanese toa-lang and kin-na [“adults” and “children”] alike were active. Be it in tiang-kang or e-kang , in chiang-soa or au-soa [literally: “upper harbor,” “lower harbor,” “front-of-mountain” and “back-of-mountain” — the then-popular Taiwanese expressions, respectively, for northern, southern, western, and eastern Taiwan, the latter two names reflecting the fact that nearly all Taiwanese of Han-Chinese ancestry were concentrated on the western side of the island’s central north-south mountain chain], the sport of baseball experienced a lively development, and, notably, “baseball exchanges” between native islanders and Japanese newcomers became popular. In1931, the Chiayi School of Agriculture and Forestry, or “Chia Nung,” for short, fought its way to the apex of high school baseball competition in the Japanese Empire — the Pan-Japanese High School Yakyu Tournament held in Koshiyen — in which they won 2nd place, constituting one of the most glorious moments in the history of Taiwan baseball. This accomplishment of Chia Nung was symbolic of the reality that, given an “even playing field,” Taiwanese victory over the Japanese was not merely a possibility but was a way of soaring above the “barbarian fence” erected by the Japanese and garnering glory for the Taiwan people. The moment when, as the curtain fell on the competition, spectators roared their approval for the sweat-drenched Taiwan players shines on even to this day as a classic scene of the oppressed defeating the colonial oppressor.
A marginalized government marginalizes baseball
In the wake of China’s postwar reassertion of sovereignty over Taiwan in 1945, the Kuomintang government’s residual anti-Japanese animus was manifested in the guise of “de-Japanification” measures in the realms of culture, education and daily life — including dumping the Japanese name kakyu in favor of the Mandarin Chinese expression pangchiu, or “batball.” De-Japanification meant in effect not only a reluctance of the governmental to encourage baseball but a redrawing of the island’s “baseball geography” along lines of ethnic-group distribution. For instance, in the Taipei metropolitan area, where a relatively high concentration of newly arrived mainland Chinese emigres took up residence, development of baseball was retarded in comparison with other regions. Hence, baseball in early postwar Taiwan not only became marginalized by the intrusion of politics but showed a tendency toward becoming “ethnicized,” constituting a sort of borderline between peoples.
The Taiwan people’s ardor for baseball was never waned, however. Over the politically and economically more stable period of the 1950s and 1960s, from banking personnel’s organization of amateur baseball teams to the Taitung City’s Hung Yeh (Red Leaf) Little League team’s virtuoso defeat of the world champion Wakayama team from Japan, their zeal for the sport took flight along with the economy.
Donning the warrior dress of nationalistic pride
Come the 1970s, the Republic of China withdrew from the United Nations and broke off diplomatic relations with the United States [in reaction to U.S. recognition of the People’s Republic of China and the latter’s imminent admission into the U.N.]. As a consequence, the KMT government of the time launched a series of activities aimed at bolstering the people’s confidence, baseball becoming one focus of this spiritual mobilization. Between 1969 and 1982, Taiwan won 13 World Little League Championships. Every year when the championship tournament rolled around, the thrilling contests made it impossible for Taiwan’s people to go to sleep, staying up late intent on cheering the home team. The midnight gathering of family members in every household across the nation to witness the live-broadcast television spectacle became the amazing phenomenon of Taiwan society in the 70s. The attention given by the government to champion teams and the roars of “ROC Go! Go!” by everyone from the youngest to the oldest brought to Taiwan’s “baseball fever” a smack of fervent nationalistic pride. In this way, the little league whirlwind of the 70s helped Taiwan’s people get through their crisis of confidence and transcend internal ethnic divisions, and the massive injection of nationalism, which was raised to the highest plane, conferred upon baseball the effective status of “nationalball.”
During the 1980s, the whirlwind of attention created in countries the world over by Taiwan’s remarkable performances in all four classes of amateur baseball — elementary-level, junior-level, senior-level, and adult leagues — transformed the world’s impression of the tiny island nation of Taiwan. In the climactic event of that decade, the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics bronze medal victory won by the adult team forced the world to acknowledge Taiwan’s solid clout in baseball. In particular, their virtuosity attracted the attention of Japanese professional baseball, as the result of which several of them took their talents to Japan to win further acclaim for their homeland. Although Taiwan’s demise in the 1988 Seoul Olympics led some to wonder whether Taiwan’s baseball power had been irrecoverably eclipsed, its silver metal victory in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics redeemed the Taiwan baseball kingdom’s vaunted reputation. Baseball thus served not only to crystallize the Taiwan people’s collective remembrance of their common road but to trumpet the name of Taiwan on the world stage.
Establishment of the ROC Professional Baseball League
In 1990, the ROC Professional Baseball League was born, extending Taiwan baseball from the amateur into the professional realm, transforming it into a “cultural industry” branch in a capitalist society, a new venue for its members’ to spend their leisure time and money, too. The excitement of professional competition succeeded in attracting baseball fans to the diamonds and fanning their passion for the sport. In particular, the electrifying battles between the Brothers Elephants, the Wei Chuan Dragons and the President Lions [the latter two owned, respectively by Wei Chuan Foods Co. and President Foods Co.] succeeded in drawing standing-room-only capacity crowds. Attention-riveting action within the stadiums and cries of boxed-meal and barbecued sausage hawkers outside combined to form a baseball culture with a unique Taiwan flavor.
Professional baseball desecrated by gangland gambling
Professional baseball engagements had the likeness of epic battles between evenly-matched armies charged with a grim fight-to-the-death determination. Like spectators viewing a heart-gripping drama, baseball fans were emotionally transfixed, swinging between extremes of rapture to rage, even to the point of tears. What really tore the hearts out of baseball players and fans alike, however, was the high drama’s degeneration into farcical sham, when in 1997 a gambling scandal ripped the masks off a number of two-faced baseball players. Lured by the temptation of personal profit and turning their backs on Taiwan’s shining, high-principled baseball tradition, these rotten apples plunged Taiwan baseball into a multi-year dark age from which it has only this year had the chance to recover.
Incurable baseball fever
Perhaps some will ask: In what does baseball’s charm lie? It lies, quite simply, in its power to make an otherwise quiet, timid little girl yell herself hoarse in support of her own admired players, or to make a forlorn, downcast middle-aged man rave in wild zeal as he explains the right play strategy. Only baseball, evocative of so many feelings, possesses that power to release the deep emotions of “real McCoy” Taiwanese. Although baseball has broken their hearts, their love for the game has never died. Today’s failure only serves as an offset for the ecstasy of future success. So has it been for baseball; so too will it prove for the future of Taiwan.
Edited by Tina Lee/ translated by James Decker