The icon of Hong Kong softball: Johnny Lau’s journey from pitching in his hallway to the Hall of Fame

Johnny Lau Kwok-yip reflects on his 28-year career as he looks to give back to the game after receiving the ultimate honour

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 November, 2017, 9:14am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 November, 2017, 9:14am

When Johnny Lau Kwok-yip fractured his foot more than 35 years ago, his dream of becoming a top-tier footballer came to a standstill. Little did anyone know the same boy living in a To Kwa Wan government housing estate would go on to be the greatest softball player to grace the Hong Kong fields.

“Football players were a bit wild back then, especially in the small districts,” recalled Lau, watching on as the new generation of Hong Kong softballers took their places at the Asian Junior Men’s Softball Championship last weekend.

“I couldn’t kick a ball, so one of my neighbours brought me to watch some softball. They were more civilised so my family was more accepting.

“Every time school finished, I dropped by the field and trained by myself,” added Lau, pointing out the short distance between his home and what is now known as the Hong Kong Softball Association (HKSA) stadium.

“I didn’t come from a rich family. I pitched 200 balls every day, and in my spare time I’d practise on the basketball courts or even the corridors of my building.”

On October 14, 2017, Lau became the first Hong Kong player to be inducted into the World Baseball Softball Confederation’s Hall of Fame. He was only the third Asian player to have his name officially etched into the softball history books since its inception in 1981.

“It’s an honour,” said Lau. “When people told me I qualified to apply [for nomination] for the Hall of Fame, I thought it would be good for softball’s promotion in Hong Kong. So I said go ahead, but I didn’t expect to get in.

“I just liked to play ball and do my job on the field.”

His resume – locally and overseas – speaks volumes to Lau’s influence on the game.

A national career spanning 30 years, 28 of which Lau participated in major International Softball Federation (ISF) tournaments for Hong Kong, included 10 major championships.

He featured in three world championships, his first at the age of 19 – the youngest Hong Kong pitcher to play in the tournament.

Lau’s reputation grew exponentially to the point where foreign coaches were taking notice. In 1984, Australian team Syndal were in town to face Lau’s Hong Kong team in an exhibition match.

Lau struck out 10 of Syndal’s 12 batters, leading his team to a double over the Melbourne-based outfit. The very same team invited him to play for them over the winter months.

In 1986, Canadian team Molsons came calling for the Hong Kong sensation, during which he faced the legendary Pay ‘N Pak team of the United States.

Lau returned to Australia in 1989 to feature for Victoria State, furthering his status as the trailblazer of Hong Kong softball.

“I stayed in a basement by myself in a village in Australia,” Lau recalled. “It was Mid-Autumn Festival, a beautiful and quiet night, but I was alone and felt a bit homesick. It made me think a lot.

“Softball taught me how to get past the tough times – it changed my life.”

Lau felt indebted to the sport, particularly when preceding softball legend Yeung Ka-sing passed away in 2007.

“He said, ‘Johnny, I pass it to you; please take care of softball’. That’s why I continue to return as much as I can to softball,” said Lau, now vice-president of the HKSA.

Hong Kong softballers will have heard tales of Lau’s perfect game at the 1982 Hong Kong Festival of Sport. He struck out all 21 Japanese batters, earning his Tigers team a landslide victory, despite only Lau and one other catcher touching the ball.

“I’m always giving young players advice,” said Lau. “We have a plan to do more grass roots training, like T-ball in primary school.

“It’s very difficult in Hong Kong; everybody works very hard and cares a lot about education and finding a good job. I understand.”

The ISF Hall of Fame compulsory numbers demand a minimum of two world championships or regional qualifiers, six years of play and 20 international games.

Lau featured in 10 championships, played for 28 years with 62 international caps. His portfolio blows the requirements out of the water – or more suitably, hits them out of the ballpark.

Johnny Lau is – and always will be – the icon of Hong Kong softball.