A detailed history of Taiwanese baseball may sound like a dry topic to readers uninterested in the sport. But in many ways, baseball is only one aspect of Junwei Yu's (盂峻瑋) book Playing in Isolation: A History of Baseball in Taiwan. While the book is certainly aimed at baseball fans, it is also a good read for anyone wanting a unique look at 20th century Taiwanese history from an angle not usually covered in textbooks.
Yu does an admirable job of looking at Taiwanese baseball from a neutral, academic perspective. In fact, the book is an adaptation of his PhD dissertation. It is not just a catalogue of baseball's growth, but an in-depth analysis complete with references, citations and theses.
In his effort to make the work academically viable, Yu has had to step outside the narrow scope of baseball and explore its historical and political context. This close connection between baseball history and Taiwanese history is what makes it such an interesting read. Yu begins with the sport's introduction during Japanese colonial rule, traces its development through the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) era and finishes with the issues facing Taiwan's professional and amateur players today.
These eras have been well studied. But by analyzing their impact on baseball, Yu adds new twists to the common analyses. For example, he describes how grassroots baseball flourished under the Japanese because they encouraged athletics to maintain a physically fit population of potential soldiers for their war effort. Meanwhile the traditional Chinese Confucian thinking that was popularized under the KMT emphasized academics, and looked on physical exercise with distain. Yu also credits baseball for helping to integrate Taiwan's various ethnic groups and pull the country together. When Taiwan started achieving international success in Little League Baseball (LLB), the Mainlander population, which preferred basketball, put more effort into developing baseball, which had previously been the domain of Aboriginals and Hoklos. In fact, Yu says that Taiwanese historians credit youth baseball for introducing Taiwanese to mainland food.
Yet despite the contributions that baseball made, Yu's version of its growth in Taiwan is anything but rosy. He even includes a three-page appendix of the players and punishments dealt out in the various gambling and cheating scandals. Rather than romanticizing its history, Yu enthusiastically seeks to debunk several of Taiwanese people's most cherished "myths" surrounding their country's greatest baseball achievements. His first target is the Hongye elementary school team in Taitung County, which sparked Taiwan's obsession with LLB when they defeated a visiting Japanese team in 1968. Yu points out that the Japanese squad was not a world champion team, as many Taiwanese still believe today. He also examines how many of the players on the Taiwanese team played under assumed names, as many of them were above the age of little league regulations.
While the team's victory was, and remains for many, a source of immense pride, Yu works to expose the ugly consequences. He credits Hongye's victory as the beginning of a winning-is-everything mentality that destroyed the spirit of fun and hastened the decline of Taiwanese grass-roots baseball. Moreover, he says that the KMT government "hijacked baseball, transforming it into a nation-building tool to offset [its] debacles on the political and diplomatic fronts" and that "the Hongye boys became surrogate warriors for a country that could not succeed on political and diplomatic fronts."