Most of the village's inhabitants are Taiwanese aborigines, people of Malay stock who sailed to the island hundreds of years before the Chinese, Japanese or Europeans—all of whom began taking an interest in Taiwan at roughly the same time—ever settled there. Like most conquered native peoples, the aborigines have been left with the worst land—the most vertical mountain acres—and little money. Many of them still live by a barter economy, and rare is the aboriginal son who manages to escape his lather's life of subsistence farming.
One who did get away was C.K. Yang, who came out of a village not far from Red Leaf to attend UCLA and finish a close second to Rafer Johnson in the 1960 Olympic decathlon. Yang was Taiwan's most admired athletic hero until 1968, when Red Leaf's team set off the baseball boom that has yielded Taiwan's only international sports championships.
Baseball has been played in Taiwan for about 50 years, arriving there courtesy of the Japanese who controlled the island from 1895 to 1945. Many of the diamonds built early in that period were plowed up to grow crops during World War II; this was fine with the Chiang government which reacquired Taiwan for China in 1945 and moved there in 1949. Baseball was certainly not the mainlanders' game, and if they did nothing to discourage it, they did less than nothing to encourage it.
It is more than a little ironic that the Chiang government, which still includes almost no Taiwan-born citizens in the upper echelons of its armed forces or administration, has had to rely on the people who inhabited the island before 1949 for its most conspicuous moments of international glory. The pre-'49 citizens and their children, who constitute 85% of Taiwan's population of 15.5 million, have never held any particular affection for the post-'49 group. There had been peace, relative prosperity and corruption-free government under the Japanese in the years immediately preceding World War II. When the mainland Chinese returned in 1945, they brought with them a tradition of government by squeeze and a decidedly colonial attitude toward the Taiwanese. In 1947 the island's people rioted against the new administration, and Chiang's soldiers put down the disturbances by killing between 10,000 and 20,000 Taiwanese in a two-week period.
That incident has never been forgotten—or forgiven. It has been difficult to bridge the gap between the two groups because Taiwan was not involved in the political jousts that marked the first half of this century on the mainland. Certainly there have been no grass-roots movements to bring back the Japanese, but there also has been little sincere enthusiasm below the highest levels for returning to the mainland. According to most observers, what the Taiwanese would like is independence. Free Taiwan groups are active in Japan, Europe and the U.S.
Oddly, the baseball-playing sons of just those independence-minded pre-'49 people were among the few sources of ready solace when the change in America's China policy left the Chiang government in shocked disbelief.
There is some consolation for the R.O.C. in seeing Taiwanese teams knock America's block off at its own game. Which helps to explain the long parades through downtown Taipei that have become an August tradition, with the players standing like war heroes in jeeps. Prime Minister Chiang Ching-kuo has received the boys in the Executive Yuan (Cabinet). There have been scholarships for Series winners and Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang have congratulated the winning teams in person.
There would have been no such affairs had it not been for small boys like those in Red Leaf who learned baseball using sticks for bats and stones for balls, and a few Taiwan-born, Japanese-educated adults. Between them they kept the game alive on the island in the postwar years.
One of the men was Hsieh Kuo-cheng, who played right field for his Taiwanese primary school in the '30s and later attended Waseda University, the Notre Dame of Japan's favorite college sport, baseball. In 1948 Hsieh and 14 other fans contributed $200 apiece to start the Taiwan baseball association. There were about half a dozen men's teams and an equal number for boys using the island's four remaining diamonds.
The game grew slowly for the next 20 seasons and Hsieh, who has been head of the association since its inception, remembers times when the national tournament was staged simply by laying down the bases in a city park. And little boys did not play the real game at all. Baseballs were too expensive. Until less than a year before their first win at Williamsport, Taiwanese kids played exclusively with rubber balls.