When the Empire of Japan defeated the Chinese Qing Dynasty in 1895 and won its first colony, Taiwan, it worked to establish it as a model colony. The Japanese brought Taiwan not only education and economic reform but also a new pastime made popular in Japan by American influence: baseball. The following is an excerpt from Empire of Infields: Baseball in Taiwan and Cultural Identity, 1895-1968 by John J. Harney (July 2019).
Games capture the imagination and, when expanded to wider communities, take on grand ambition. A Boston Red Sox fan participates in a narrative recently characterized by a return to greatness, easily taken on by commercial interests, and channeled into a commercially palatable depiction of the “Red Sox Nation.” The Bostonian looks back to Ted Williams, Carlton Fisk, even Bill Buckner or Sam Malone, as part of a national story. The fortunes and more welcome misfortunes of the New York Yankees are no small part of that. To be a Red Sox fan is to express one’s identity as part of a larger tale, a larger shared experience.
The Red Sox are not the only sports team to embrace a “nation” moniker, but the effectiveness of the concept is elevated further only when attached to an existing example of the more traditional usage of the term. A national game can be, as baseball is in the United States, a reflection of a collective self-image within a community aspiring to a specific communal view. The American Pastime reflects a commitment to history, a now obscured commitment to a pastoral idyll as a metaphorical national value. The concept truly takes flight when differing national ideas rub up against each other and international sports teams compete for supremacy. In some cases, as for the English national soccer team, such competition becomes an opportunity and obligation to uphold some sense of national ownership. Association football is an English national game in the domestic sense and one of the better examples of national and nationalist sporting competitions on the international stage. English sports teams can claim to be representatives of the home of many modern popular sports and equally become “the Yankees” to more than a few opposing nations.
The international stage plays host to many dramas, not least of which include great moments for national communities unlikely to command attention in more traditional political arenas. As Allen Guttmann puts it, “In sports, more often probably than in any other domain, the initially dominated have turned the tables on their erstwhile dominators.”1 Modern popular sport emerged in large part thanks to the urbanization of countries experiencing the Industrial Revolution, particularly Britain, and soon set off across oceans on the ships produced by the same factories that let their workers out on Saturday just in time to attend soccer matches. Soccer, cricket, and rugby traveled across the world and soon provided arenas for the various jewels in Britain’s empire to strike back. Famous victories and rivalries on playing fields have outlived most of the more dangerous animosities, just as they continue to provide the echoes of old grievances. Liberation from the imperial grip often does little to dilute popular interest in the sports of the colonizer. When Janaki Dass, secretary of the Indian Cycling Federation, lamented in 1946 on cricket’s popularity in India as a “black-spot stamped by British Imperialism on the face of India,” his hopes that his own beloved import, cycling, and the indigenous sport hu-tu-tu (kabaddi) would become dominant in Indian sport were dashed as, to quote Ramachandra Guha, “the black spot grew blacker, and spread alarmingly.” Indian cricket fans greeted their national side’s first test victory over England in 1971 with a reaction so hysterically gleeful that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had the players’ flight home redirected to New Delhi so that she could welcome them personally and share a photograph.2 Scottish football fans famously took to the field at the spiritual and national home of English football, Wembley Stadium, in 1977 to congratulate their players on winning the Home Championship, only to lose the run of themselves and take various souvenirs for the trip home, such as the goalposts, much to the chagrin of their hosts.3
The phenomenon is not restricted to the echoes of British empire. A 2001 exhibition football match between France and its former colony Algeria had to be canceled due to pitch invasions and rioting. French international and French-Algerian global superstar Zinedine Zidane had received death threats.4 The United States, hardly an international minnow, nevertheless found its great underdog moment in 1980, when a team of amateur ice hockey players defeated a powerhouse Soviet Union side in the “Miracle on Ice,” a medal round game in that year’s Winter Olympics. Language of imperialism of course saturated propaganda on both sides during the Cold War, as evidenced famously by Ronald Reagan’s casting of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” in 1983. Baseball’s home, the land of the free, in theory stands in opposition to such imperial ambition.
Nevertheless, imperialism has played an important role in baseball’s development as an international sport. Baseball arrived in Taiwan not directly from the sport’s practical and spiritual home in the United States but on ships bearing Japanese engineers, teachers, and bureaucrats traveling to expand the borders of Japan’s empire. Yet animosity toward the Japanese struggled to find its way on to baseball fields, even after the rapid increase of local Taiwanese involvement in the sport from the 1920s onward. Kanō, a multiethnic team of the 1920s and 1930s that enjoys pride of place as perhaps the most famous youth team in a country replete with adolescent baseball legends, stands as a great victory for Japanese players alongside their local counterparts. The greatest victory for Taiwanese baseball against the Japanese remains the victory in 1968 of the Hongye team, whose excellence paved the way for the small island’s domination of the Little League World Series in the 1970s. It was this latter victory that signaled a shift for the sport’s role in Taiwan, finally, into a national game.
- Guttmann, Games and Empires, 179–80.
- Guha, A Corner of a Foreign Field, 323–25, 343–46
- Norman Fox, “8 ft Fence for Hooligans at Wembley,” Times (London), June 6, 1977, 3.