Sun, Aug 21, 2016 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in time: Legend of the ‘red leaf’ in question

The Hongye Junior Baseball Team’s widely-publicized rags-to-success story sparked Taiwan’s baseball craze, but much debate about the actual events remain

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

The Hongye Junior Baseball Team poses for a photo in connection to a match on an unknown date in Yilan County.

Photo: Yang I-min, Taipei Times

Aug. 21 to Aug. 27

Chiu Sheng-teh (邱聖德) recalls protesting in anger when he heard a sports commentator say that the accomplishments in the 1960s of the Hongye Junior Baseball Team (紅葉少棒), made up of members from the Bunan Aboriginal people, were just an exaggerated legend that was sensationalized by the media and should not be celebrated.

Chiu’s father was a member of the 1968 team, which pretty much ignited Taiwan’s baseball craze, serving as a prelude to the glorious 1970s when Taiwanese teams dominated the international circuit.

But despite the team’s inspirational rags-to-success story, it seemed to always have its skeptics — and its fair share of controversy. In response, Chiu later published the study The Summer of 1968: A Study on Hongye’s Life History (1968年的夏天 - 紅葉少棒隊生命史的研究).

BASEBALL LEGEND

Let’s look at the legend first. It almost didn’t happen for the Hongye little league baseball team. Despite claiming first place at the Chiumao Cup (秋茂杯) in Tainan in March 1968, the team announced that it would not be able to make it to the National Youth Tournament in Taipei the following month because it lacked funding.

Situated in an impoverished Aboriginal village in Taitung County, it is said that the team would often have to practice with “sticks as bats and stones as balls.” According to a news report from May 1968, the school only had 114 students and five staff, including the principal. Luckily, Hongye’s plight was widely reported in the media, and the donations poured in, enabling the team to participate. It eventually captured the championship by defeating a team from Chiayi 2-1.

The story does not stop here, as Hongye’s success earned it a match with a visiting Japanese all-star team. Up to this point, no Taiwanese youth team had defeated a youth team from Japan. On Aug. 25, however, after seven innings, Hongye emerged the winner with a 7-0 finish, and reportedly did not even allow a Japanese player past first base. Victory was sealed when Hongye scored two home runs in a row in the sixth inning. News reports show that bills of NT$10, NT$50 and NT$100 rained down from the crowd of 20,000 despite attempts by officials to stop the behavior.

Two days later, then-defense minister Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) personally congratulated the team and promised that he would visit their village. In addition, the Ministry of Education announced that it would give the school NT$10,000 for sports equipment. The era of Taiwanese dominance of the diamond had just begun, which was a boost for the nation at a time when it was losing its international standing.

Why would such a beautiful story have so many doubters?

THE DOUBTERS

First of all, there was the scandal that the team used older players from outside the school who competed under false names. As early as June 18, 1968, the United Daily News ran an article stating that 23 fans had reported the behavior to the Ministry of Education and the National Baseball Association.

Hongye denied the claims, and the association concluded that there was not enough evidence, and allowed the team to continue competing, adding that it had “strict” screening methods. Hongye principle Hu Hsueh-li (胡學禮) stated in a news conference that the accusations were made by jealous opponents.

Not much news was made of it over the following months, but on April 26,1969, coach Hu and the team’s manager were convicted and sentenced by the Taitung District Court for forgery of public documents. The United Daily News report said that they had falsified the ages of five players and also used players from outside the school who played under the names of several current players.

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