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Every July and August, Little Leaguers from all across the world gather in Williamsport, Pennsylvania to compete in the annual Little League World Series. It is not uncommon to see a group of twelve year olds from Taiwan mesmerize fans as they play their way to the championship game. Their discipline, talent, and passion for the game often earns the respect of fans, TV viewers, and competitors.
Which begs the question, how did baseball become so popular in Taiwan? There are several complex answers to this question, but what it boils down to is the fact that the sport of baseball allows a country that was under rule by the Japanese to express its individualism while also honoring and remembering its roots.
In order to understand the pride the Taiwanese take in the game of baseball, it is important to understand the country’s history.
The Taiwanese lived under a Japanese regime until 1945 when the Japanese military surrendered. Baseball became a popular pastime in Japan in the 19th century. Being under rule by the Japanese meant that Japanese customs became Taiwanese customs; baseball was no exception.
After gaining independence from Japan, baseball became a way for the country to both respect its past but show its uniqueness and ability to thrive on its own.
Professional Baseball in Taiwan
In 1990 the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) was formed. In its inaugural season, the league consisted of four teams: Brother Elephants, Mercuries Tigers, Uni-President Lions, and Wei-Chuan Dragons. Today the league still has only four teams: CTBC Brothers, Rakuten Monkeys, Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions, Wei Chuan Dragons and the Fubon Guardians.
An interesting note about professional teams in Taiwan (and some other Eastern countries) is that the teams are not named after the city in which they reside like in professional leagues in Western culture. They are named after their sponsors. For example, the Rakuten Monkeys’ main sponsor is Rakuten.
In 1997 a rival league named the Taiwan Major League was developed. The popularity of the CPBL took a bit of a hit because of it, so the league absorbed the TML in 2003 in hopes of seeing its popularity rise again.
The game’s popularity isn’t solely rooted in honoring tradition and relishing in recently acquired freedom. Baseball in Taiwan has a bit of an ugly past related to gambling.
In 1997, when the TML was formed, the CPBL saw a rise in gambling not just among fans. Several incidences of players getting involved in gambling scandals hurt the sport’s popularity.
That year players from the China Times Eagles were found to have accepted bribes to fix the outcome of games. While other teams and players were also found to have been involved in other scandals, this one in particular, known as the Black Eagles scandal, gained the most attention and eventually caused the team to be disbanded and booted from the league.
A year earlier, manager Hsu-Sheng Ming of the Wei-Chuan Dragons was stabbed after dropping daughter off at school. That same year four players from the Brothers Elephants were abducted in connection to a $125,000 bet placed on the outcome of one of their games.
This dark age of Taiwanese baseball even seeped into high school baseball as young men reported being threatened by gamblers and mobsters around this time who had placed large bets on their games.
(Most of this information was obtained from A Short History of Taiwanese Baseball by Andrew Wong)
The popularity of baseball in Taiwan is never more apparent than when the best twelve year olds the country has to offer compete in the Little League World Series. International teams have won the LLWS 37 times in the history of the tournament. Of those 37 championships, the Chinese Taipei have won the most with 17.
While there have been some successful Little League teams from Taiwan in recent years who have been afforded the opportunity to compete in the LLWS and even achieve runner-up status in the 2000’s, the last winner from Taiwan was in 1996.
One must wonder if all of the gambling scandals scared young Taiwanese baseball players away from the sport since they have not seen anywhere near the success they saw up until the ‘96 season.
CPBL Covid Season
Some of the world-wide popularity of Taiwanese baseball was regained in 2020 when the CPBL was the only professional baseball league playing and broadcasting games during the COVID-19 pandemic. The league began its season in early April despite the Coronavirus outbreak. It played its games in empty stadiums that contained some cardboard cutouts of fans — a model that was adopted by several other professional leagues later on in the summer.
The CPBL also became the first professional league to allow fans into games in May when they welcomed 1,000 masked and socially distanced fans into the stadium for games. Their temperatures were checked before entering the gates, and concession stands were closed according to the Washington Post. It was not the normal gameday experience, but it was better than nothing, and it paved the way for many other leagues to allow fans to safely attend games.
While the CPBL will likely never reach the popularity of the MLB or even the KBO (Korean Baseball Organization), it got its 15 minutes of fame to the appreciation of baseball fans experiencing withdrawals.
Frequently Asked Questions
How many Taiwanese players have played in the MLB?
There have been 16 players from Taiwan who have played in the MLB with starting pitcher Chien-Ming Wang being the most notable. Wang pitched for the Yankees, Nationals, Blue Jays, and Royals in his nine year career. His most successful season came in 2006 with the Yankees where he won a league leading 19 games and finished second in the Cy Young award voting.
How does the talent in the CPBL stack up against the MLB?
According to cpblstats.com, the competition level in the CPBL is equivalent to Double A on the average day. This is not a knock against the league as many of Minor League Baseball’s best prospects compete at the Double A level before being called up to the Major Leagues.
Which CPBL team has had the most success?
The Lions have the most CPBL championships with ten. Not only do they have the most championships in the league, they have the richest history of any organization in the CPBL as well. The Lions are also the only CPBL organization still owned by the same ownership group (Uni-President Corporation) as they were when the league started in 1990. Their most recent championship was actually this past season in 2020. How fitting that the league’s most successful and historic franchise won the title in its most challenging season to date.