In 1968, an obscure Little League ballclub from eastern Taiwan shocked the world. The Red Leaves were comprised entirely of indigenous children, whose natural-born athleticism triggered Taiwan’s decades-long love affair with this new National Pastime.
This is the incredible story of the Taitung Red Leaves and the Little League origins of Taiwan’s baseball fever!
Red Leaves’ Humble Beginnings
The Red Leaves take their name from the village of Hóngyè—which means Red Leaf—in remote eastern Taiwan. The Bunun people, an indigenous Austronesian ethnic group, dominated this mountainous part of Taiwan.
Athleticism in this harsh environment isn’t just prized, it’s a necessity of life. The boys of Hóngyè Elementary School who made up the Red Leaves ballclub came from this extraordinary First Nation. Their natural talent and rustic lifestyle underpinned the team’s future success.
The small, remote village school faced persistent absenteeism before they introduced baseball. Pupils regularly skipped out to hunt and roam in the forests. In 1963, the school turned to organized sports to combat truancy and to harness the boys’ athletic abilities. The Red Leaves Little League Baseball Team was born.
Sticks and Stones
Red Leaves baseball was unique. The unparalleled hardships faced by these Bunun children helped to shape them into some of the most remarkable sportsmen Taiwan had ever known.
The team’s coaches struggled to secure funding. The players honed their skills without baseball mitts. They threw stones in place of actual baseballs and swung sticks and branches in place of proper baseball bats. This moulded their character and built their astounding resilience.
Out of Left Field
The Red Leaves competed in a nationwide championship for the first time in 1965. The outcome was a remarkable fourth-place finish for these young first-timers. Taitung county hosted the same national championships the following year and the Red Leaves stunned everyone by winning the tournament at home.
This team that emerged “out of left field” was demolishing their opponents. They continued to see success inside the country through 1968 when they stood upon the world stage for the first time.
In August of that year, the Red Leaves, representing Taiwan, came face to face with Japan’s champion All-Star team from Kansai. The outcome shocked everyone.
Taiwan and Japan held a goodwill match on August 25, 1968. Each side selected a team to represent their country. The Japanese were invited to faceoff against the Taiwanese at the Taipei Municipal Baseball Stadium.
Japan was riding high, having won the Little League World Series for the first time the prior year. The fact that Taiwan used to be a Japanese colony was lost on no one. A historic game was underway and spectators packed the Taipei stadium. What unfolded was a laugher, indeed.
Taiwanese pitching completely silenced Japanese hitting—recording 21 strikeouts. Japan managed only two hits and no baserunner advanced past first base. With no runs recorded for Japan, it was a complete shutout. Taiwanese batters struck out only six times and mustered five hits, including two home runs. Taiwan blew the game open in the sixth inning, stringing together five runs and routing the Japanese. The final tally was 7-0 for Taiwan. The crowd—the country—was ecstatic.
Just like that, the Red Leaves—from the humblest of origins—became Taiwanese legends; and baseball became Taiwan’s new National Pastime.
Paving the Way for LLWS Dominance
The Taiwanese baseball fever unleashed by the Red Leaves culminated in Taiwan’s first Little League World Series title a year later in 1969. It was another lopsided affair in the finals as Taiwan faced off against an American team from California. The final tally was 5-0 for Taiwan.
Today, Taiwan owns 17 Little League World Series titles—the most of any country or state. Japan’s 11 titles put it in distant second. When a 31-game Taiwanese winning streak ended in the 1982 LLWS finals, the American announcer Jim McKay declared it the biggest upset in Little League history. Such was the dominance enjoyed by Taiwan’s Little League teams from the late 1960s through the 1990s.
Before the rise of Taiwan’s tech hubs, it was the first (but not the last) time Taiwan really shined on the world stage. Taiwan’s baseball players became national heroes.
The era following the Red Leaves’ game against the Japanese All-Stars was a golden age in Taiwanese youth baseball. The country’s baseball fever was in full swing, and it all began with those amazing young Bunun athletes. Their accomplishments paved the way for the likes of Chien-Ming Wang, Wei-Yin Chen and other Taiwanese big leaguers in the MLB.