Few aspects of American sporting life have been rapped more often than Little League baseball. It has been attacked for the pressures it puts on kids, for the inflexibility of league brass for forcing Johnny to play right field when he wants to pitch. But complaints were at a minimum last week in Williamsport, Pa. The 31st Little League World Series proved that Chinese kids still play the American game best—although American kids are catching up—and that when they meet, boys will still be boys.
For those who follow Little League, it will come as no surprise to learn that Taiwan, the Far East representative, beat El Cajon, Calif. 7-2, for its sixth world title. Taiwan had won the Williamsport showdown five times before 1975, the year foreign entries were banned by xenophobic Little League officials dismayed by U.S. losses.
But if the outcome this year was familiar, the play of the Taiwanese was not quite so overpowering as in the past. During its awesome dominance of the early '70s, Taiwan left its shell-shocked opposition humiliated and hit-less. Indeed, the string of football-score victories and no-hit games generated the ban as much as, if not more than, the unfounded charges that the Taiwanese fielded players over 12 years of age from outsized districts. When these allegations were proved false the ban was lifted.
El Cajon came into the title game with a 16—0 record and an air of delight at the prospect of improving it against the best. To their credit, the Californians were never intimidated, never quit and might have won the championship with better fielding. As it was, El Cajon came away with a moral victory after paying dearly for seven walks, four passed balls, four wild pitches and four errors—which accounted for four unearned Taiwan runs. The Chinese were no less nervous than their American counterparts. Even with a 3-0 lead in the first inning, the usually flawless visitors were rattled enough to commit two Little League-type errors.
September 4, 1977
Before the final, El Cajon had eked out a 3-1 victory over Hattiesburg, Miss., an all-black team that was the loosest, friendliest and most relaxed of the bunch. The Mississippi kids milled about International Grove—which other bored U.S. clubs christened "Stalag 17"—in happy confinement, soul-slapping everybody in sight and setting up a souvenir money exchange with the Taiwanese, as well as playing well enough on the field to win the consolation-round championship.
Taiwan's first-game victory avenged the treatment received by the Republic of China at the Montreal Olympics, if one cared to view it that way. Playing with pre-1975 perfection, Taiwan annihilated Canada 19-0 as Tsai Tsunghien, a side-arming fastballer reminiscent of Ewell Blackwell, tossed a no-hitter and struck out nine. "We went out and watched Taiwan practice this morning," Canadian Coach Stuart Dow said after the Chinese had battered his pitching for 18 hits, "and that's the worst thing we could have done."
Against Canada, and every other Series foe, Taiwan's big gun was Chaing Chen-jung, a 5'5", 145-pound version of Greg Luzinski who had 10 hits and 20 total bases in 12 at bats. Chaing's .833 batting average was a Series record and his three home runs accounted for five of his 10 RBIs. In the semifinal game against Venezuela, Chaing blasted a two-run homer in both the first and second innings as Taiwan won 9-2.
El Cajon won its semifinal—and the U.S. championship—by beating Rotterdam, N.Y., which had been considered the strongest U.S. team. El Cajon's Brett Ward struck out 12 New Yorkers before Andy Hall relieved him in the sixth and ended a Rotterdam rally. Brett's brother Blair pulled in a 209-foot fly ball to center for the final out of the inning. Luckily for El Cajon, the fences at Howard J. Lamade Field had been moved back to 210 feet for the Series. The Californians outscored Rotterdam 6-3, largely because the New Yorkers made five infield errors.
The championship game presented an interesting contrast in managers as well as in teams. Taiwan, described as "letter-perfect, machine-trained and superbly disciplined," was managed by Hsu Chun-chuan, 47, a wizened man who was surprisingly gracious for a reputed martinet. Hsu said his team's biggest problem had been adjusting to the strange U.S. custom of drinking milk cold. El Cajon's Scotty Embleton had no problems with the milk but was considerably more nervous. Still, he was confident his team could win. "We don't want Taiwan to do anything different in the way they play," he said. "Their form is perfect on every play and that's what we'd like to see, something predictable. It's our best chance because that way we can prepare for it."
No one from El Cajon, however, was prepared for John Osborne's shaky pitching in the first inning. He gave up four walks, the first of Chaing's three hits and three runs. Chaing pitched for Taiwan, but while he struck out nine, his fastball was not as stunning as it promised to be in practice, when Manager Hsu was knocked out of his crouch—and onto his backside—catching Chaing in warmups. A bases-loaded walk, the kind of human mistake Taiwan teams never used to make, accounted for El Cajon's first run, while an error and a wild pitch scored the other.
"At least we destroyed the myth that these guys are invincible," an El Cajon booster said later. "They can be had if you don't make the mistakes we made." Devin Lundsford, who got two hits off Chaing, apparently agreed. "They proved they were kids," he said.
No one was complaining about that.