Taking in a Game: A History of Baseball in Asia
by Joseph A. Reaves,
University of Nebraska Press, $29.95
Play by Play: Baseball, Radio and Life in the Last Chance League
by Neal Conan, Crown, $21.95
In 1863 a group of homesick American expatriates in Shanghai organized Asia's first baseball club. The continent has not been the same since. For some Asian nations baseball became more than an amusement. It became a new kind of social interaction, which the populations took to with such energy that, Reaves says, they made it their own.
A former Asian correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, Reaves finds as many interpretations of baseball as there are names for it (bangqiu in Chinese, yagoo in Korean, b�sub�ru in Japanese). In China propaganda from the 1970s declared "the baseball movement" an important part of Mao Tse-tung's revolutionary sports program, since it encouraged "diligent study of Marxism, Leninism and Mao Tse-tung Thought." Indeed, historians say Chinese authorities praised the game because it taught soldiers how to throw grenades. The emergence of Japanese baseball was equally rooted in martial tradition. In the 1920s fabled coach Suishu Tobita became known as "the god of Japanese baseball," partly thanks to his military-style practices known as "death training" but also because he introduced an approach to the game that echoed in the Japanese character. "To hit like a shooting star, to catch a ball beyond one's capabilities," he said, is "not the result of technique, but the result of good deeds [and] strong spiritual power." Reaves argues that these values persist in today's Japanese game: It "may appear to be the same as the U.S. version—but it isn't." In Japan umpires are respected and managers revered, while spitting on the dugout steps is a sacrilege. Above all, Reaves writes, the Japanese player strives for "the greater good of the group," while the American does so "only so long as it promotes greater rewards for each individual through team success."
I think Reaves exaggerates, however, in respect to both American players and their Japanese counterparts. Part of baseball's appeal is that it offers team glory and individual success and can't be played well without attention to both. If millions of people from Tampa to Tokyo are attracted to the game, there may be another reason, too simple for scholars to notice: It's just plain fun.
That may have been what inspired Conan. When a midlife crisis smacked him upside the head, the distinguished political reporter for National Public Radio suddenly decided to sign up as play-by-play man for the Aberdeen (Md.) Arsenal of the independent Atlantic League. His book combines his struggles behind the mike—at one point he calls a good curve ball "a beautiful breaking bitch"—with stories about the players, including one sex-obsessed pitcher who refuses to believe that his nightly rounds of tomcat-ting are destroying his career. Before a doubleheader the pitcher remarks that he hopes the first game ends quickly because he needs to get to the team bus and...well, pleasure himself.
Just about everyone loses in this rather dreary book. The team slumps, then goes belly-up, and Conan discovers that absolutely no one is listening to his broadcasts. The impression is that minor league ball is akin to a sausage factory: You're better off not knowing what goes on behind the scenes.