Joseph Reaves's book, Taking in a Game -- a History of Baseball in Asia, which was published in 2002. The book studies the growth of baseball in Asian countries and how it merged into their cultural and social fabric.
Joseph Reaves reads like a newspaper account of some event and this is not some coincidence. Reaves has been involved with sports journalism for almost three decades and has worked with newspapers and magazines of repute including United Press International, the Chicago Tribune, and Reader's Digest. Reaves is a well-known reporter with sound credentials. He was nominated for Pulitzer Prize four times for his realistic coverage of various issues including war and economy. He was also involved in teaching journalism from 1999 to 2001 at Northern Arizona University. The author has written more than one book on his favorite subject i.e. baseball and thus possesses indepth knowledge of the game and its history.
Taking in a Game is a brilliant, thorough and well-researched account of baseball history in Asia, which is actually adapted from a thesis of the author at Hong Kong University. While the book itself presents detailed discussion on the nature and evolution of this game in Asia, it is not exactly fast-paced because of its academic tone. At times, you do get a feeling of reading a University dissertation than an interesting account of sport history in certain part of the world. But if you can go beyond this, and forgive the author for his tone and style, you may actually find the book highly engrossing because of all the details that Joseph Reaves weaves into his research.
The best thing about the book is that it introduces you to those aspects of the game that you couldn't possibly imagine on your own. Taking in the Game is very well researched work which examines the history of baseball in Asian region from political as well as social aspects and shows how one game can be used for so many different purposes. I for one would never think of a game from political perspective. How on earth could one game be associated with politics, philosophy and various ideologies? But that is exactly what Joseph Reaves seeks to unearth, explore and answer.
Baseball's history in Asia goes back to the times when in 1863 some American expatriates in Shanghai decided to introduce the sport in this region. Their main reason was homesickness, which had made them yearn for native things including baseball, which is believed to be the trademark of American society. Their yearnings resulted in the formation of first Asian baseball club and since then this region has been playing and transforming the sport the way they deem fit. While the essence of the game is not spoiled, baseball has been altered slightly in Asia to make it more suitable for eastern societies and culture. The rules were changed somewhat and in short, the game has been given a local flavor even though all ingredient are essentially imported.
The author's primary focus is the country of Japan and baseball's evolution in this part of the world. But for the sake of coherency and more credibility, he has indulged in comparative discussion and analysis by considering the progress of this sport in Korea, China and Taiwan. Reaves explains what this game meant for different Asian nations and how they made it "their own." Baseball can thus be interpreted in many ways as far as Asian region is concerned. There are several different names for this game and as many interpretations. In China, Baseball is known as Bangui, in Korea its called Yagoo and besuboru is its name in Japanese language.
For Japan, baseball was not simply a form of amusement. It wasn't even a sport. It was their way of competing with the United States and of bridging the gap that existed between the east and west. After the Second World War, Japan had become more compromising and agreeable where U.S. was concerned but deep down they have also been the biggest rivals of America. Baseball opened new doors for them by showing them what it feels like to be an American. They knew that this sport could bridge the centuries old rift between the two countries and quite surprisingly, it did bring the two nations closer after the WWII.
In 1970s, Mao Tse-Tung allegedly used baseball as a political strategy. Many believed that baseball had been made a part of sports revolution program simply because it paved way for "diligent study of Marxism, Leninism and Mao Tse-tung Thought." What made them believe such a thing is beyond me; but the author firmly maintains that Chinese authorities fell for this game since it could improve soldier's aim when throwing grenades. They felt that baseball could give soldiers stronger arms and thus it should be regularly practiced and promoted in China.
In Japan too, baseball promotion was grounded in military and political objectives. And where it wasn't political, it was considered a part of Japanese culture where martial arts are revered. In 1920s for example Suishu Tobita was considered the greatest coach of baseball and was literally seen as the "the god of Japanese baseball." The coach was known for his military-based strategies, which were referred to as "death training." However the coach himself denied any military objectives behind his training methods and gave it spiritual and cultural feel by saying, "To hit like a shooting star, to catch a ball beyond one's capabilities, [is] not the result of technique, but the result of good deeds [and] strong spiritual power."
Baseball is a part of Japanese culture where the sport is revered and people view it as a sacred symbol of their cultural values and religious beliefs. This is the reason why baseball doesn't mean the same thing in United States and Japan. While the former takes it as an object of amusement and fun, the latter view it in more spiritual light thus making the game 'their own'. On the surface the rules and everything else appears to be the same as the U.S. version of the game, however deep down it is grounded in strong spiritual beliefs. Unlike United States, baseball in Japan is a scared sport and thus umpires and referees are given utmost respect. Players are not allowed to challenge their authority or even question their decisions. Many important differences lie in the Japanese and U.S. versions of baseball and they spring from internal beliefs and values more than outer rules and practices. For example in Japan, players are taught to play baseball for "the greater good of the group," and thus it is a thoroughly team-oriented game. Whereas in the United States, baseball is loved "only so long as it promotes greater rewards for each individual through team success."
We may or may not agree with what Reaves says but the fact remains that this game is more significant and meaningful to Asians than we thought it was. They are not like Americans in many respects and this difference in character is bound to reflect in their version of baseball too. However critics may accuse of Reaves exaggeration because he totally ignored the entertainment factor. I personally believe that while the game may have meant something sacred and spiritual to the older generation, the younger more westernized generation in Japan does view it as form of entertainment just like their American counterparts. This is because they are essentially different from their parents and do not revere old traditions as much as their ancestors. Even if the umpire and referees are still seen as 'gods', the game itself must attract the Japanese youth because its fun to compete and see your favorite players in action.
Reaves also retells the story of the spy Moe Berg who used baseball for his spying mission in Tokyo. In 1934, during a barnstorming tour of Japan by U.S. baseball team, catcher Berg went up to the rooftop of a hospital and filmed Tokyo. This footage later helped United States in its first raid on the Japanese capital. The book is filled with such interesting stories and they provide a fresh perspective on the game that we have long been taking for granted in the United States. It is enlightening to know that this game was used to heal the wounds of defeated nations after WWII when it provided many with a much-deserved respite from economic as well as political worries. Equally interesting is the piece on Filipinos who refused to adopt this game initially because they thought it would darken their complexion, which was an important issue for them.
The writer has also focused on the Japan-Taiwan rivalry to show how the two nations viewed the sport and where the rivalry stepped in. For example, it was interesting to learn that Saduhara Oh, Japan's best baseball player wasn't accorded much respect in Japan because of his Taiwanese roots. But Japan was responsible for introducing the game in…