A Brief Survey of Baseball in China, 1881-2010

One of the biggest themes of life in 2010 in the U.S. has been the worry that China is cleaning our clocks: that a government single-mindedly intent on achieving bold goals and untroubled by democracy and the mess of politics is spearheading the emergence of a Chinese century, and meanwhile a distracted, lazy, and ill-educated U.S. citizenry is not doing enough to overcome the obstacles of feckless politicians and selfish, misguided interest groups. These sorts of fears haven’t entered the realm of baseball, though.

Leaving economics, politics, and culture aside, no one knows what the global baseball landscape will be in 2040 or 2050. But, it’s interesting to look at the history of baseball in China, not least because there are some signs that elements of China’s government are intent on developing baseball into a national sport. This is 36 years after a nationwide ban on the game ended in 1974. In March 2003, China Daily reported:

What will be the next popular game in China? Maybe baseball.

Despite a worrying proposal from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that could see the sport axed from the Olympics, the Chinese authorities are making great efforts to develop the sport in China by setting up the Chinese Baseball League, where the nation’s top teams battle it out.

After an experimental inaugural season last year, the league will swing back into action on Saturday with a new US-style package in the hope of winning recognition for the sport which has yet to catch on in China.

Foreign promoters, a doubling of matches, all-star games and former US Major League players are some of the many means that league organizers have used in a bid to win popularity for the game, although they are still reluctant to call it a “professional league.”

Shen Wei, secretary-general of Chinese Baseball Association (CBA), said: “We are making big strides towards turning profession, compared with last year. Our league is still not a real professional one, but we are getting closer.”

The short 2002 season, lasting for only one month, attracted more attention than organizers had expected, encouraging them to do even better this year.

Like last season, four teams, Beijing Tigers, Tianjin Lions, Shanghai Eagles and Guangdong Leopards, are participating under a home-and-away format and will play 48 matches, twice as many as last season, before two teams fight it out in the best-of-five finals.

And 24 of the 48 matches, and the finals, will be broadcast on nationwide TV.

But three years later, in May 2006, China Daily updated the story:

As Wang Wei stepped on the field on the 2006 China Baseball League (CBL) All-Star Game over the weekend, little excitement came from the stands. The spectators remained nonchalant during most of the game although Wang played fairly well – he was the first to run home for the northwest conference team, which tied with southeast conference 9-9 in a seesaw seven-inning match held in Wuxi of East China ‘s Jiangsu Province. Many of them left almost half an hour before the end of the three-hour show that gathered China ‘s best baseball players.

It wouldn’t be fair to blame the spectators, who mostly were watching the first baseball game of their lives. Even for the most loyal Chinese sports fans, Wang is an unfamiliar name, although the 28-year-old catcher from Beijing has an A-plus resume: He is a core member of the three-time national league champions Beijing Tigers with a possible fourth straight league title in sight, and he has been a consistent member of the national team in the past few years.

On March 3, he delivered a two-run homerun, the first of the inaugural World Baseball Classic in an Asian zone round match against eventual winner Japan in Tokyo.

Any equal achievement in other popular sports would easily establish Wang as a household name in China , but like his team-mates, Wang has been playing in obscurity for years.

Wang is a perfect example to identify recent baseball development in China – steady and fast, but mostly unrecognized.

The development has attracted huge attention outside the country, as Team China has played some memorable matches internationally including a World Cup journey to the Netherlands and a historic bronze medal from the Asian Championships in Japan last year.

But the achievements went largely unnoticed in China , a country where table tennis and badminton are revered as national pastimes.

“Baseball is still an unpopular sport in China,” said Wang.

The 2008 Olympics helped give baseball in China more of a foothold. In April 2010, MLB signed a development/promotion agreement with the Chinese Baseball Association. Here’s China Daily reporting on the deal:

If Jim Small is to be believed, China could be crowned world baseball champions in the very near future.

Small, vice president of MLB Asia, said at a strategic partnership signing ceremony between Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Chinese Baseball Association (CBA) on Wednesday that not that long ago nobody believed Chinese swimmers would win at the Olympics or Chinese athletes would excel at the Winter Games.

“There is no reason to doubt that in the near future some of the world’s best baseball players will be Chinese,” Small said. “It will take some time but it’s definitely going to happen.”

MLB and CBA extended their cooperation for another four years to help grow baseball in China despite the fact the game has been kicked out of the Summer Olympics, for now.

During this coming four-year period, MLB will help the CBA in training players, coaches and umpires, with an aim to further spreading the US pastime in the world’s most populous nation.

The cooperation between the two organizations started in 2002 and both sides are happy with the results and they should be.

The Chinese national team, coached by Jim Lefebvre, who recently became the San Diego Padres’ hitting coach, shocked the baseball world by beating Chinese Taipei at the Beijing Olympics and repeated that feat at the World Classics. The team also took a South Korean team that beat the US to 12 innings in a 1-0 loss at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“MLB is prepared to do whatever it takes to help develop baseball in China. We plan to bring the team to the United States in July in preparation for the Guangzhou Asian Games,” Small said. “But as to who manages the team next, it’s up to the CBA.”

Baseball is still a medal sport at the Asian Games and the Chinese pro league is set to swing away later this year.

“The partnership with MLB since 2002 has borne a strategic significance with Chinese players going to play in the US and national team coaches getting training from MLB experts,” Lei Jun, chairman of the CBA, said.

“We did achieve some progress (the two wins over Chinese Taipei) but that’s not much compared with the real strength of other Asian countries as well as the world’s power teams.

“The road of baseball development has been and will still be bumpy. That’s why we need the help of MLB,” Lei said.

“Our goal (of the partnership with CBA) is to have baseball reach a significant level in the world’s largest country,” Small said.

For that, Small said there were two areas of focus.

That is to make the game more visible and more popular through road shows, the setting up of clubs at college campuses, the continuation of the Play Ball! Program in 120 schools and increased TV coverage in China. The other focus is to increase the level of play in China through MLB providing coaches and inviting the national squad to the US for training each year.

Small said a MLB Development Center was set up in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, last September to target potential national team talent.

“The result of the long and important partnership between MLB and CBA for the past 10 years is nothing short of astonishing,” Small said. “Several players went to play in the pro leagues in the US, the national team grew and most surprising is that more people play baseball today than before.

“The passion in kids we have seen shows that, no doubt, China will reach the goal of becoming a strong baseball nation,” Small said, adding MLB’s ultimate goal was to make the game a Chinese sport.

“Our goal is to not to have a foreign coach; it is to be played by the Chinese, coached by the Chinese and umpired by the Chinese.”

The Yankees, who, one has to guess, see China as a huge potential market of both consumers and possible future Yankees, have made quite a few steps over the past five years or so to promote youth baseball in China, and the New York Times has regularly reported on those efforts.

Amid these various signs of growth, it’s interesting to look back at the primeval period of U.S.-China baseball relations. In September 1986, the Associated Press reported:

With coaching from Los Angeles Dodgers president Peter O’Malley, China’s sports minister tossed out the first ball last week to inaugurate a baseball field donated to China by the Dodgers.

The pitch by Li Menghua, minister of the State Physical Culture and Sports Commission, was pronounced too low, and he tried again to exclamations of approval from O’Malley and Chinese officials wearing Dodgers caps.

The playing field at the Tianjin Physical Education College was decorated with striped canopies, banners and balloons for the opening ceremony, during which O’Malley cut a red ribbon and a children’s band played.

The field was built over a five-month period with about $162,000 donated by the Dodgers.

It is a result of a visit last year by O’Malley to China to discuss possible projects to promote baseball in China , where it still is a fledgling sport held back partially by a lack of playing facilities….

Although baseball had a long history in China, dating to pre-Communist days, it never had been as popular as soccer and some other sports.

Baseball exhibitions were held in the late 1950s, but the sport was officially abandoned in 1965 and did not return to China for almost 10 years.

China joined the International Baseball Association in 1981, and its national teams have since played in international competitions.

The official sports news media have cited a severe shortage of qualified coaches and a lack of playing fields as reasons the game is not more popular.

China has hopes, however, of getting good enough at it to challenge Taiwan and Japan, where baseball is highly popular.

New York’s C.W. Post, the first U.S. collegiate team to play in China, lost, 6-4, to Peking’s municipal team in Peking last year.

And in May 1991, the Chicago Tribune’s Uli Schmetzer issued this report on the history of baseball in China, with some very intriguing items about the People’s Liberation Army and the persecution of baseball itself by Mao’s Red Guards:

In the United States, football often is considered analogous to war. In China, the American sport of baseball once was considered beneficial for war.

Du Kehe knows. He was the star player of the Fighting Sports Brigade, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) team in the 1940s and ’50s that dominated a baseball fad. In those days, tens of thousands of soldiers played baseball, and every company had to field a squad or face the wrath of He Long, their venerable field marshal.

Marshal He, a legend in Red China’s army pantheon, saw baseball not so much as a crowd thriller but an effective way to improve the grenade-throwing ability of soldiers. He considered the sliding and sprinting between bases perfect speed training for assault troops, and batting the best method to develop aim.

“If my marshal was alive today, baseball and sports in general would have much greater support from the state,” grumbled former staff sergeant Du, now 61 and the assistant coach of China’s national baseball team.

Du still believes the marshal was right when he used baseball to train his troops. ”It made better soldiers, and our pitchers could toss a grenade faster and farther than anyone else… and with a curve on it,” he said.

Baseball in China barely has survived its much-mourned founding father.

Today, the estimated 2,000 players competing at the provincial level and the 20,000 to 30,000 novices swinging bats all over the country are a modest reminder of the golden days when a man took up bat, glove and ball to save the nation from the Japanese invaders and Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Nationalists.

The first baseball gear came to China in 1881 with the country’s future railway builder, Zhen Tian You, a graduate of Yale. Western schools and missionary churches fostered the game through the first three decades of this century.

The late Marshal He had no such problems. An illiterate peasant, he rocketed to fame after he formed the first platoon of the PLA armed with vegetable knives. His dictum was: Every man must use his knife to kill a nationalist and steal his rifle. It worked.

Du remembers the marshal (“who was not much of a player himself”) was so keen on baseball he promised better treatment to captured Japanese prisoners of war willing to coach his men in the game.

“My first coach was a Japanese POW, and my marshal used to say, ‘Baseball and sports are the pillars of national defense and development.’ He built a special factory just to produce baseball equipment for the army,” Du said.

Of course, Du admits, it was not the most advanced equipment. The bats tended to break, the balls to split and the gloves were stuffed with jute and were so clumsy ”you had to catch the ball with both hands.”

With the Communists victorious, He’s baseball mania expanded to the civilian population. So did his career. He became the popular Commissar for National Sport and naturally made sure his beloved baseball had a good slice of the budget action.

But the marshal, never one to guard his tongue, criticized the dictator Mao Tse-Tung for his economic errors, and when the Cultural Revolution began, He became one of its first victims. Mao’s fanatic Red Guards imprisoned the Hero of Liberation and the Father of Baseball in a remote country camp, where he miserably starved to death in 1968 after having gnawed his way through the cotton padding of his marshal’s overcoat, the only item he had been allowed to keep.

He’s downfall took baseball with him. The Red Guards denounced the sport as an example of western decadence. Baseball coaches and officials were persecuted ruthlessly as capitalists.

“My own Chinese coach was ‘struggled’ to death by the Guards,” said Du, referring to the barbaric method of ”struggling” against political enemies by beating, spitting and tormenting them in public, often until they died. Baseball players were forced to humiliate their coaches in public to save their own lives.

For 14 years, from 1960 to 1974, baseball was banned in China.

“But some of us still played in secret in the countryside. We posted guards to whistle if someone came. Then we hid the bats and gloves and pretended to be doing exercises,” recalled Du.

Published in: on December 27, 2010 at 6:02 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] our pitchers could toss a grenade faster and farther than anyone else… and with a curve on it,” remarked Du Kehe, a sergeant in the People’s Liberation Army and star of the Fighting Sports Brigade, a […]

  2. When did China make the first baseball with the logo made in China?

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