[FOUNTAIN]A century of Korean baseballA young missionary boarded a Korea-bound boat at the port of San Francisco in August 1901. Twenty-seven-year-old Philip Gillette had been a vicar of the YMCA at Yale University until he decided to leave for the East to preach the gospel. Mr. Gillette, who was a fan of baseball, had a ball and a glove in his bag.
Upon arrival, Mr. Gillette adopted a Korean name, Gil Ye-tae, and tried to become friends with Koreans. One day, he spotted an interesting scene in the downtown streets of Jongno. He saw Koreans watching Western soldiers playing baseball as a pastime. Mr. Gillette thought he could attract young Korean guys to the YMCA’s activities by introducing America’s favorite sports. He immediately ordered baseballs, bats and gloves from stateside.
In 1905, when the humiliating annexation treaty was signed between Korea and Japan, Mr. Gillette began teaching baseball to young Korean men. Hwangseong YMCA Baseball Team was the first Korean club. Then the sport spread among young Koreans, who created more teams. In February 1906, the first baseball match was held between Hwangseong YMCA and the German School. Mr. Gillette also introduced basketball and skating to Korea.
The YMCA team and Mr. Gillette were faced with persecution as the peninsula was occupied by imperial Japan. Japan had fabricated assassination attempts on the Japanese governor and arrested 105 Koreans. Some YMCA executives and members were included on the list. Mr. Gillette wrote a letter to the International Missionary Council to report the fabrication of the case, but his letter ended up in the hands of the Japanese authorities. He was forced to leave the country in 1913, and the team was broken up. Despite the demise of the first baseball team, private academies such as Hwimun and Baejae continued the legacy of baseball.
To celebrate the centennial of the introduction of the sport, Korean baseball organizations plan a series of events to honor Mr. Gillette. Korean baseball has grown to rival its counterpart in Japan, the country that persecuted Mr. Gillette and the YMCA team during the occupation. Lee Seung-yop, a star slugger who broke the Asian home run record set in Japan, is going to play in the Japanese League. Maybe in another 100 years, the Korean League will become the dream stage where Japanese players hope to play someday.
by Lee Kyu-youn
The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo