Dunscomb on Harney, 'Empire of Infields: Baseball in Taiwan and Cultural Identity, 1895-1968'

John J. Harney
Paul Dunscomb

John J. Harney. Empire of Infields: Baseball in Taiwan and Cultural Identity, 1895-1968. Lincoln: Univeristy of Nebraska Press, 2019. 240 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8032-8682-5.

Reviewed by Paul Dunscomb (University of Alaska Anchorage) Published on H-Asia (February, 2020) Commissioned by Bradley C. Davis (Eastern Connecticut State University)

Printable Version:

What makes sports better than fiction is the quality of the stories. On the field, the court, the track, powerful narratives are constructed and played out, and even if the result is a loss or a tie the test of character can produce a satisfying result. Part of the appeal of sports stories is that on fields with established ground rules under universally applied regulations, they offer the opportunity to turn the tables. Asymmetries of power can be transcended and the oppressed can assert themselves against their oppressors.

Sport also involves more than just the players, of course. Local teams enlist their fans in tribal fellowship, while in international competition athletes can become national avatars. So, India can defeat Britain on the cricket pitch, and Czechoslovakia’s Martina Navratilova can crush her Soviet opponent on the tennis court while the Soviets crush the “Prague spring” in 1968 (“you’d need a tank to beat me!” she said as they met at the net). And even if the contest may seem to pit unequal parties, the possibility of the upset always remains, and even in defeat, striving for a seemingly impossible goal brings its own dignity (“Why go to the moon?” John F. Kennedy asked, “Why does Rice play Texas?”).

We love sports movies for much the same reason. Yet as John J. Harney, professor of history at Centre College, Kentucky, notes in the introduction of Empire of Infields: Baseball and National Identity in Taiwan, 1895-1968, the popular 2014 Taiwanese film Kanō, which describes the 1931 appearance of the team from the Jiayi Agricultural and Forestry Institute (Kanō in Japanese pronunciation), was beloved not because the plucky team portrayed won the 1931 Japanese high school baseball tournament (they lost the championship game) but because the team, a collection of indigenous, Chinese, and Japanese students, is recalled as a Taiwanese team, therefore positing a Taiwanese identity that is increasingly sought after by present-day residents of that island.

This is the key to Harney’s project, to unpack the significance of baseball as the “national sport” of a land that is denied national identity. Baseball came to Taiwan with the colonizing Japanese after it was incorporated into the empire in 1895. It remained after the Japanese were expelled and replaced by new “outside” overlords in the form of the defeated mainland remnants of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party (KMT). It survived more in spite of than because of the KMT’s pretense to be the government of the Chinese mainland. It gained acceptance as an assertion of nationhood at a time when that proposition was coming increasingly under siege. So, Taiwan’s relation to baseball, past and present, is a far more fraught one than the usual subaltern study of appropriation and mastery. While many on Taiwan love the game, what the game gives them, both at the time and retrospectively, is subject to constant renegotiation.

Harney notes that baseball entered Taiwan not on the heels of Japan’s imperial army but through the enthusiasm of white-collar office workers and educators in schools for the Japanese. This is what the Japanese today call shakai yakyū or “social baseball.” This takes the form not of extended league play resulting in a post-season championship but of periodic tournaments between amateur (or at most semiprofessional) players. This initial injection of baseball into the island was strictly for Japanese consumption. It did not have the opportunity to spread beyond this enclave until the 1922 decision to integrate the education system around a Japanese mandated curriculum.

Even as this was happening Taiwan was made a solid portion of Japan’s infield empire when it became part of the regular circuit for barnstorming teams from the metropole (notably, Waseda University’s famous team) and occasionally from beyond as well. Strengthening of ties between metropole and colony boosted the quality of local play and provided high school students with an aspirational goal, Koshien Stadium, home of the national high school baseball tournament every August.

Even before Kanō’s famous foray, the first indicators of baseball as a marker of the success of Japan’s “civilizing” colonial mission and the success of the new assimilationist policy came in the form of the indigenous students of the Hualian Agricultural School (Nokō). Their “savage” play impressed the Chinese and Japanese in the larger cities of the south with their mastery of the game. Indeed, the presence of indigenous players would become one of the hallmarks of Taiwanese baseball.

The withdrawal of the Japanese from Taiwan in 1945 left behind any number of colonial legacies, not least baseball. The new KMT government, proponents of an ideology of new Chinese culture (including sport), from which the Taiwanese had been excluded, looked askance at these colonial bequests and were equally hostile to any expressions of Taiwanese identity. They much preferred basketball or tennis as the appropriate sports of the new Chinese, but they quickly realized baseball’s utility as the preferred sport of its chief patron, the United States, as well as its allies, such as the Philippines, but also South Korea and Japan. So, while baseball was not necessarily encouraged by the new regime, it was not actively discouraged by it either.

Even so, baseball maintained its Japanese orientation during the 1960s, driven largely by the success of Taiwanese players in Japanese professional ranks. Oh Sadaharu, Japan’s “Babe Ruth,” was born on Taiwan and his exploits with the Yomiuri Giants were followed with intense interest and pride. His visits “home” allowed him to revel in his celebrity, and his ambiguous citizenship (not Japanese but not Chinese either) mirrored the curious position of the Republic of China (ROC).

Harney concludes his coverage in 1968, when the Hongye Primary School baseball team defeated a visiting team from Wakayama, home of the then Little League World Series champions. While the Wakayama team was not the same championship team, Hongye’s victory allowed Taiwanese baseball to transcend its Japanese origins and convinced the KMT government that youth baseball provided a means to promote international visibility for a nation increasingly driven from the global stage.

Taiwanese domination of the Little League World Series, starting in 1971 and running through that decade, marks a shift in the aspirational goal of the national sport from Koshien Stadium in Japan to Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Yet Harney notes that while this gave the KMT the exposure it craved, it also provided opportunities for cheering fans of the winning teams to assert a Taiwanese, rather than an ROC, identity. The orientation of Taiwanese baseball may have changed, but its character remained just as fraught and multivalent as it ever had been.  

Overall, Harney does a fine job explicating the various phases of baseball’s evolution on Taiwan primarily by a thorough scouring of local newspaper coverage of the sport over the decades. His chapter on the rise of intra-imperial barnstorming teams seems overdone, however, and steals our attention from Taiwan at a critical stage. And while his decision to end the story of Taiwanese baseball in 1968 makes sense, there is room to wonder precisely how much it managed to leave behind its Japanese origins.

Like its Japanese antecedent, baseball in Taiwan was born amateur, embedded in schools and the shakai yakyū world of youth and corporate baseball tournaments. It did not become a professional sport until after the period covered by Harney. Yet it would be interesting to know whether Taiwanese pro ball developed its own distinct model or borrowed the vertical model of parent company and franchise, which is the mainstay of pro ball in Japan (and South Korea).

Harney’s Empire of Infields joins Sayuri Guthrie-Shimizu’s Trans-Pacific Field of Dreams: How Baseball Linked the United States and Japan in Peace and War (2012) as an important work describing the evolution of baseball as an international sport. And while soccer, golf, basketball, or tennis may have a more truly global reach, he demonstrates well how baseball came to establish its secure niche in the world.

Citation: Paul Dunscomb. Review of Harney, John J., Empire of Infields: Baseball in Taiwan and Cultural Identity, 1895-1968. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.