It's America's pastime, Latin America's obsession and ... Croatia's hobby? Indeed, when you think of baseball, there are only a few countries that immediately spring to mind as avid participants in the game.
But it turns out that baseball is actually quite the thriving enterprise around the world. In the next few pages, we'll tell you about some baseball leagues (or at least organized baseball associations) that have popped up across the globe.
Some leagues aren't so unexpected (Japan), but they have rabid followers and an approach to the game that takes into account their own culture. Other leagues are pretty shocking -- not just for existing, but for being real contenders on an international stage. We'll also check out how baseball came to some unlikely places.
So tighten your batting glove and knock the dirt off your cleats as we travel the world to find some of the most interesting -- and surprising -- global baseball leagues.
It's pretty well-known that Japan loves its baseball. But how the heck did Japan become a baseball mecca?
A professor at what is now the University of Tokyo, Horace Wallace (a good baseball name, in itself) is generally believed to have taught his students the rules of the game sometime between 1867 and 1912. The Japanese called it "yakyu," or field ball. By 1936, the initial Japanese Baseball League was established, but it disbanded during World War II. In the '50s, large corporations decided to support teams as a show of enthusiasm after the war. Soon after, two leagues were formed. Each league had six teams (and still does). The Central League follows pretty traditional rules. And just like the U.S., the Pacific League has that designated hitter position that's so hotly debated in Major League Baseball and employed in the American League.
The game is different in a couple ways. Umps might call a bigger or smaller strike zone. The games end after 12 innings, so ties are allowed. Umpires may huddle to discuss a call and reverse it -- even if it takes a half hour -- as the idea of one individual having the final say doesn't sit right with a Japanese audience. And unlike the U.S., umps have to endure jawing and harassment from the players without an automatic "yer outta here."
Perhaps it's not a powerhouse or even a professional league, but India's cricket-crazy culture hasn't dampened some sincere enthusiasm for America's pastime. The Amateur Baseball Federation of India may not be highly visible or extremely lucrative, but its members do take their baseball seriously.
The Federation was formed in 1983 by some baseball lovers around the nation. They held their first National Championship in 1985 and even had the idea (more progressive than the MLB) to include women's teams. The ABFI is also a member of the Baseball Federation of Asia and the International Baseball Federation. That means they can play in each federation's men's and women's World Cups and Championships.
The Indian league follows the National League and American League rules of the MLB quite strictly, and at least 27 regions have a team playing in the Federation. Baseball has even been introduced in the National School Games of India, popularizing it among young Indians.
This one may not be as surprising; several well-known MLB players have come out of Australia, including the Oakland Athletics' pitchers Travis Blackley and Grant Balfour. Baseball was -- surprise, surprise -- introduced to Australia by Americans. The founding myth claims it was American miners hungry for gold in Victoria in the 1850s who played the game on breaks with their Aussie colleagues. (Although that story is oft-repeated, scholars aren't so sure about its validity). In any case, the first baseball game in Australian recorded history took place between teams from Collingwood and Richmond. The scores recorded seem a tiny bit on the high side -- 350-230 -- which implies this "baseball" game was probably borrowing more from cricket than the American pastime.
The league flourishes now. They've played in the World Baseball Classic and even won the bronze medal at the Olympics in 2004. They're making quite a name for themselves in the U.S., as well. Over 80 Australian baseball players are in the minor leagues of Major League Baseball, and 28 Aussies have played in the MLB. The league itself is owned by both Major League Baseball and the Australian Baseball Federation, the governing body. The team is placed 11th in the International Baseball Federation rankings.
Croatia's Baseball League isn't messing around. They've played several times in the Baseball World Cup, and the city of Zagreb was a hosting venue for the Cup in 2009. By all accounts, U.S. military men introduced the game to Croatia. (Some say around 1918 during the first World War, while others claim it came during World War II.)
In 1975, a group of teachers decided to organize a real club. In 1978, the first game was played in the town of Split, between the Split players and a team from the nearby town of Ljubljana in Slovenia. Split won, 20-1. And Split embraced baseball; there's even a book, "Nima Baluna do Baseball Baluna" that details the history of the sport in the city. (The title translates to "There's No Ball Like Baseball.") Now, the Croatian league has a regular season, and the National Team is ranked an impressive 25th in international rankings.
All the big cities have teams that play against one another; there are 13 teams altogether. There are also youth and cadet leagues (boys and girls ages 8 to 16), while only boys 16 and over can play in Junior and Senior leagues. Unfortunately, there are only two baseball stadiums in Croatia (in Zagreb and Karlovac), according to the Croatian Baseball Association's Web site. In other cities, a stadium is outfitted with bases and a pitcher's mound to give the players a makeshift field.
You might be surprised to learn that China has a thriving baseball league. Well, it certainly wasn't always that way.
A baseball club was first formed in Shanghai in 1863, and baseball began booming in China. They even placed second in the Greater Asia Baseball Tournament in 1915. All that changed under Mao; Western culture and influences were forbidden, and baseball was no different. After Mao's death, there was another wave of interest in Chinese baseball. A stadium was constructed in Tianjin in 1986. In 2002, an official league, the China Baseball League, was created. Four teams played a month-long season. The league now has six clubs and a growing schedule.
Their national team is also ranked 16th in the world -- pretty good for a team drawing from a league that's only existed for ten years.
Foul balls rocket into the stands, hitting fans on the way. Are MLB teams liable for injuries they might cause to fans? HowStuffWorks investigates.
Author's Note: 5 Baseball Leagues From Around the World
My only regret is that we couldn't discuss 20 more global baseball leagues. Countries like Nepal, Cambodia, Georgia and many more all have national teams that are surprising, and a history of baseball that can sometimes be traced back to one lone individual trying to start a game. For more information, visit the International Baseball Federation's Web site to learn more about global leagues and teams.
- Amateur Baseball Federation of India. "History and Activities of the Amateur Baseball Federation of India." 2009. (July 26, 2012) http://baseballindia.com/history.asp
- Baseball Australia. "Baseball Backgrounder." 2012. (July 26, 2012) http://www.baseball.com.au/default.asp?Page=53367&MenuID=Your_ABF/20049/0
- Bergman, Justin. "Will Chinese Baseball Make It to the Big Leagues?" Time Magazine. Dec. 29, 2011. (July 26, 2012) http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2101609,00.html
- Clark, Joe. "The History of Australian Baseball: Time and Game." University of Nebraska Press. 2003. (July 26, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?id=rIXGQra02mAC&dq=gaggin+and+goldsmith+baseball&source=gbs_navlinks_s
- Croatian Baseball Association. "Baseball in Croatia." Jan. 25, 2006. (July 26, 2012) http://www.baseballcro.hr/modules.php?name=Content&pa=showpage&pid=2
- Department of Asian Studies, Pacific University. "Japanese Baseball History." (July 26, 2012) http://mcel.pacificu.edu/as/students/baseballjapan/sum.html
- International Baseball Federation. "World Rankings." (July 26, 2012) http://www.ibaf.org/en/world-ranking.aspx?type=1
- Japanese-American Cultural Exchange, University of Michigan. "Differences between American and Japanese Baseball." (July 26, 2012) http://www.umich.edu/~wewantas/index2.html
- Latham, Dan. "Teams/Leagues." JapanBall.com. 2012. (July 26, 2012) http://www.japanball.com/teams.htm
- Official Site of the Australian Baseball League. "Australia's Baseball Beginnings." 2012. (July 26, 2012) http://web.theabl.com.au/history/page.jsp?ymd=20101023&content_id=12758540&vkey=history_l595&fext=.jsp&sid=l595
- Oliver, Anthony. "Japanese Baseball vs. American Major League Baseball." SportsWealthOnline.com. July 19, 2011. (July 26, 2012) http://www.sportswealthonline.com/sports-investing-advice/japanese-baseball-vs-american-major-league-baseball/
- Siwryn, Jeff. "The Emergence of Baseball in China." BleacherReport.com. Feb. 28, 2008. (July 26, 2012) http://bleacherreport.com/articles/11388-the-emergence-of-baseball-in-china-part-i
- Sullivan, Kevin. "American Ump Shakes Japan's Major Leagues." The Washington Post. April 10, 1997. (July 26, 2012) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/longterm/mia/sports041097.htm
- View From The Riva-Split Croatia Blog. "Split celebrates 90 years of baseball." Nov. 27, 2010. (July 26, 2012) http://viewfromtheriva.wordpress.com/2010/11/27/split-celebrates-90-years-of-baseball/